Once again, I’m not ready for Passover. The newly renovated Everfresh Kosher Market (their windowless exterior reconstructed to withstand a terrorist attack) as usual, is way ahead of me in this complex transition. Over three weeks ago, they started phasing out their offerings of unleavened bread. The Everfresh shelves are lined with white doilies and all eagerly anticipated holiday products will soon be available. After returning from a literary conference on the other side of the continent, I’ve only managed to clean the kitchen sink and catch up with laundry. Still frazzled from the experience of A.W.P. (Association of Writing Programs), household sanctification tasks loom large on my agenda. On Thursday, I found myself seated beneath a beauty parlor hair dryer while having gray hair properly concealed. Instead of napping, I made a Passover shopping list, trying to strategically plan for the first seder. While scribbling each item in a spiral notebook, my heart sank. No matter what I do, my house will never be perfectly clean, kosher, or approximate the annual gracious Passover gatherings of my late parents.
When it comes to Passover, I have always been some form of a “Mother”, a role initially granted to me during first grade by my Hebrew School teacher, ex I.D.F. officer, and family friend, Rena Nussbaum. As early language proficiency was recognized, Mrs. Nussbaum assigned me the most challenging Haggadah sections to read aloud during our model seder. Many years later, I overheard her tell my parents that she had done so because I was “smart as a whip.” Nobody ever told me such a thing. Praise, as Depression Era parents knew, could lead to a swelled head and other fatal defects of character. With my head bent into a salon sink for conditioning and rinsing, I rephrased Bruno Bettelheim: I will have to be a “good enough mother” for this upcoming seder and hope these efforts prove sufficient.
The logistical and spiritual challenges of Passover are daunting. It is my responsibility to cook and lead a holy, substantive, politically nuanced, and interactive gathering spanning the generations and embracing a spectrum of Jewish belief and practice. The experience must resonate with everyone from culturally identified atheists and agnostics, to those of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Modern Orthodox persuasions. It must do so while embodying certain essential principles: that is is religious, progressive, Feminist, and Zionist. My closest Jewish friends, who have become family, greatly appreciate the annual tradition. They are aware of promised lands, exiles internal and external, as well as the danger of annihilation, which arises in every generation.
Our journey begins with a request for reflection: “How have you been enslaved during the past year? How are you finding a way towards freedom?” My friends find seder to be joyous and intellectually stimulating, even if some only stay for part of it. My oldest sister joins us with an awareness of what has been lost, especially when a few guests depart midway, an utterly unthinkable act in world of our devout parents. Our shared knowledge of “Seders Past”, while comforting, also reminds us of how we have fallen short in adult life. In our world, there never was a “first half of a seder.” A place at the adult table was earned: Instead of donning pajamas and heading upstairs, I developed delay of gratification skills necessary for embracing a family spiritual experience unfolding into the depths of night. When my guests leave at “half time”, I offer a polite farewell and swiftly return to the Haggadah. After consumption of the Festive Meal is when my heart takes flight…There cannot be a celebration of an Exodus without completing the story of liberation and exulting in song.
In my childhood home, Passover preparations started two months in advance. Cleansing was a team effort requiring full family mobilization. No jokes were made about using child labor as my parents devoted themselves to preparing the house without every taking off from work. The fumigation process addressed every corner of the house. All linens would be washed, bathroom rugs hung upon a backyard clothesline to dry, pantries and closets reorganized and restocked to accommodate every conceivable need. As the youngest and most flexible, I was dispatched to dust the curved legs of our antique dining room set without banging my head. Helping unload the Buick station wagon and conveying an endless parade of overstuffed brown paper bags from Waldbaums into the house was also my job. Every task performed taught me that I was a strong and capable person, that I would eventually master every facet of the holiday. As my knowledge of Hebrew soon exceeded that of my father, I knew the entire seder would be mine to lead someday.
After completing the Passover marketing, my father would remove pieces of last year’s Afikomen from the chandelier. That matzo would be replaced with new ones, in accordance with an old country superstition about preventing house fires. As warm afternoon sunlight poured in through enormous windows, my sister and scoured bathrooms and vacuumed the entire downstairs. Cupboards and breakfronts kept shut the rest of the year were unlocked. Serving platters, gold rimmed wine glasses, and holiday china were positioned for deployment. My mother directed me to polish the silver plated tea service, locate Elijah’s Cup, and extract the two “Humpty Dumpty” shaped ceramic containers with tiny feet that would hold Gold’s red horseradish and homemade charoset. She and I would make charoset together, chopping walnuts and apples by hand and drizzling Manischewitz Sweet Malaga into a wooden bowl. With each passing day, I could feel the house grow cleaner and never doubted that we would be ready in time. Undertaking the final search for chametz gave me a sense of pride. There really were no crumbs to be found…
In these times, Passover preparation is a quasi “Odd Couple” experience. My husband, more “Oscar” than “Felix”, does not see dirt or crumbs, and was never trained to prepare a house for Passover. After many years of having division of labor issues and playing what political scientists refer to as “An Advanced Game of Chicken”, cleaning has finally become his primary holiday responsibility. It’s always last minute and never meets my standards. But I don’t complain. Like that old Saturday Night Live skit, I have “Lowered Expectations.”
When it came to Passover, my parents modeled successful collaboration on every front, despite contrasting communicative and problem-solving styles. My father, a sixth grade teacher, was a strict former U.S. Army Captain who executed vital tasks without delay. My neo-Freudian psychologist mother, a self-described “do it tomorrow” person, opined that I needed to integrate the legacies of two extremely dissimilar parents. Their unbreakable Passover alliance made me feel that marriage and child-rearing might be social practices worth engaging in. Matzo ball soup was their piece de resistance. They always figured out how their soup would have flavor (extra parsnips and dill, lots of Mrs. Dash, instead of salt to ward off high blood pressure) and fluffy balls. Their soup was poured into an enormous ceramic bowl with a matching ladle, and escorted with great fanfare though swinging doors to the festive table. When I recall their soup as an expressing of aligned and solidified marital purpose, I miss trusting that observance of mitzvot and renewed commitment to Jewish family life were seasonal guarantees…I miss being their child so very much…
These days, there’s yet another layer of loss to process. As Passover approaches, I’m saddened by the narrowing of our attendee demographics. When welcoming my guests, I would speak with pride about how our participants spanned almost a full century. With the passing of my mother in law at age ninety-six, we’ve lost all our elders. My husband will be the oldest person seated at what was her mahogany table. Given the additional presence of her heavy, huge breakfront, I’m not sure how everyone will fit in the dining room. When it came to hosting Passover, my mother always believed in “the more, the merrier” but her main floor and hallway were much larger than mine.
Holiday pressure briefly materializes from another front. My newly religious son, studying in yeshiva but returning for Passover, emails from Israel:
“Could you please pick up the circular handmade shumura matzo at Everfresh? They could sellout very soon. They are really expensive…I will reimburse you, if you want.”
What Jewish mother can deny her son’s request for such matzo? My spartan husband, whose box of Frosted Mini-Wheats will discreetly migrate between kitchen and screened porch during part (Chol Hamoed) of the holiday, notes the increased cost but bears it with stoicism. At least these delicious matzos will be whole wheat and full of fiber. O brave new world that has such a young man in it! It will be a Zissen Pesach after all…