My mother called this morning. She was using the voice. You know which one I mean. It’s the one that implies, in a faltering tone, conveyed by whisper, that she’s going to ask me to do something; she’d rather not ask, but there is the underpinning of sure steel knowledge that I will accede to her wishes, or else. Or else what? There’s the possibility of wild prophesies from Macbeth’s Weird Sisters, whom she’s certain to summon from slumber in the gigantic Riverside Shakespeare that gathers dust on my bookshelf. The Sisters and I would prefer to be left in peace, but, that’s generally not how it goes.
This morning’s request wasn’t all that horrific: could I please prepare two vegetable dishes (of differing colors, that was the important part) to bring for Passover? My chest caught, and I stumbled. “Um,” I asked nervously, “when is it again?”
You see, she did tell me the date, ages ago, but I forgot in the busyness of life. And quite truthfully, Passover, with all of its ancient history and storytelling, is not one of the holidays at the top of my list. The combination of history lesson and plagues of locusts is just not all that appetizing. Now Thanksgiving, that’s different. That’s my holiday: friends, family, great food and good intentions. Passover is a blast from the past.
The biggest problem for me with Passover is the restrictions on what I can and cannot cook. I think I’m a fairly creative cook, and limitations from 3,500 years ago seem to be a bit intangible to our 21st century sensibilities. The big one, of course, is no leavening. Which means that you can’t use yeast or baking powder, or anything that could make the food rise. Matzoh, a flat board-like cracker with a taste resembling sawdust, is the star of the show. You’ll find it in creatively composed chocolate tortes, casseroles, pretending to be cereal, and my Dad loves it in soggy chunks in his coffee. Considering that matzoh’s ingredients do not include a smidgen of fat, and has a tendency to, um, stop you up, as the saying goes, I guess the rationale there is that caffeine plus matzoh will cancel out those effects. However, there are many more dietary restrictions, much of which are based on a food’s expansion abilities: rice, beans, corn and corn products, and legumes (another word for peas and beans) all have the tendency towards enlargement, and are therefore off the menu. And flour, of course, which makes pasta, my menu staple, off limits.
Hold on: I hear you! You’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey, wait a second! Matzoh is made with flour.” And, you’re right. The difference is that Matzoh, which is just flour and water, is made from grains which haven’t been allowed to ferment. Any sort of fermented product is off the table.
This springtime holiday lasts for eight days. The ritual dinner, the Seder, is just a showcase to get things off the starting block.
Nevertheless, I’ve never missed a Seder, even as an adult.
This is not to say that I remain observant for the entire eight days. To my way of thinking, this isn’t strictly necessary. Passover, the oldest and longest-running holiday, has attained this status because it exists for a fundamental reason, providing meaning to all people, of any philosophy and from all walks of life. That reason is freedom.
Passover serves to remind us of when, four thousand years ago, the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Jews were an oppressed people, and were led out of Egypt to build a better social structure. In celebrating the Seder, and in eating Matzoh and the rest of the ritual meal, we are reminded of how things were, and what we can do to make them better. The bedrock of the holiday is hope, with the goal of rejuvenation and reinvigoration. Taking place in springtime, celebrating the rebirth of nature from winter’s slumber, the timing is perfect for our tired minds. The message is clear: because we were saved from slavery, we should pay it forward.
Humans are shackled in many ways. Hunger, poverty, illness, homelessness, prejudice, bigotry; all of these unfortunate elements of the human condition are no different than binding chains. Passover reminds us to practice charity and justice, all year round.
There’s another element to Passover, which is humor. Have you ever noticed how many comedians and judges are Jewish? Justice and comedy go hand in hand. They have to; we’d go nuts without either one.
Comedy during Passover is rooted in “The Four Questions“. This is not a Monty Python test, but rather a syllabus for the Passover ritual. With it, comes education, conversation, argument (an essential ingredient for a claim to Jewish-ness), and yes, silliness. There is something about the service that pushes everyone over the edge. It’s most likely related to Question #4: “Why do we recline on this night, when on all others we sit up straight?” This is the question that is the grand leadup to the whole Passover story, the exile from Egypt and the trek to Israel, land of milk and honey. We’re relieved because we made it, so we get to eat dinner in a non-elegant manner, in a style of which I’m sure Emily Post would disapprove.
And yet, it’s so much fun. As we wend our way through the Haggadah, the basic educational handbook for the service, we typically collapse in laughter half way through. For some reason, the whole leaning on pillows and questioning people about a topic that we revisit every year, leads me to cracking jokes. As a kid, the grownups were indulgent of this inclination, and now the habit has stuck. Analyzing the theoretical structure of the Exodus, if not the process, provides us with the groundwork for much discussion, not to mention demonstrations of mathematical prowess. Dr. K excels at this part. You see, embedded in the story is a description of The Ten Plagues. Which, according to Dr. K and at least three learned Rabbi’s (the minimum number if you want a claim to stick), are transmuted into two hundred and fifty plagues. That’s quite a lot. We generally have a bit of deliberation over that part.
And the singing. You see, we as a family love to sing, and the Passover liturgy tends to be somewhat limiting. When we were younger, my cousins and I ended up improvising and adding to the repertoire. What we liked to sing best, after belting out a round of Dayanu, were Christmas carols. That always got my Grandpa Herman’s blood boiling. He was certain this was a personal affront, which it wasn’t. After a few songs, he would cool off, and smile. At least we were all sitting around the table together.
If it means that I have to forego spaghetti for a few days, so be it. There is the possibility that I’ll only be observant of the dietary laws for a few days, at most. The pivotal point is that I’ve thought about it. The annual holiday serves up a good reminder of how we should live our lives, and what carries the greatest weight. Our country was formed with this foundation, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It is our responsibility to make sure those rights are possible.
The biggest question on my mind, however, is how long will last years’ boxes of Matzoh be edible? I mean, they have no taste to begin with, and minimal ingredients, so I can’t imagine they’d have spoiled. If anything, maybe by sitting neglected in my pantry for a year, they’ve developed some sort of flavor. We can only hope.
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