Yesterday morning, my husband and I drove a through pouring rain on flooded highways to get to a grocery store that sells Passover supplies. Our local ShopRite’s supply of Passover stocks consists of one baker’s rack tucked in a corner—like a shy and unwanted guest at a party. Over its sparsely stocked shelves there hangs a banner proudly declaring “Passover Foods.”
I do not come from a religious family. When I was in elementary school, my mom would say, “You can stay home today—it’s a Jewish holiday.” True story. That was the entire explanation. On Hanukkah, we would light the candles and get presents. I had no idea why, but I certainly didn’t question getting presents. On Passover, my mom made her wonderful chicken soup with her amazing, feather-light knaidlach (matzah balls). We ate matzah at that meal, but I seriously did not know that during Passover—for the entire week–we are not supposed to eat any products with leavening. As a teen, we sometimes celebrated Passover with our relatives. The food was great—my mom and my aunts were all great cooks. These were my father’s sisters, who despite my parents’ divorce, were still my mom’s friends. But the Seder part with my uncles droning on and on endlessly in Hebrew and English, following the standard Conservative Jewish Haggadah that everyone used in those days, was one big snoozeville. My younger sister and I had no idea what they were talking about, and what’s more, we really didn’t care. Because. It. Was. Boring. Oh yes, then there was that Manischewitz wine—if you’ve never had it, and trust me, you don’t want it, tastes something like very sweet cough syrup.
When my husband and I had children, I thought there must be some middle ground—something between no idea what this holiday means and mindless ritual. My husband is not Jewish, but he is happy to go along with whatever I celebrate—especially if it involves food. And of course, food is the main thing. So I started doing research, and I learned the significance of the major Jewish holidays. I am not religious, but I feel bound to my religion and thousands of years of oppression. I celebrate Passover for those who over centuries have been persecuted and killed for wanting and trying to do so.
The word Seder means order, and there is a sequence to the pre-dinner rituals—the dipping of greens, the eating of charoset, etc. Part of the Seder involves telling the Passover story—the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. When our girls were little, they would put on a puppet show with their friends to tell the story. As they got older, they no longer wanted to do that, so I wrote a play. Everyone at the table read a part. They were humorous little skits—often filled with musical theatre references and in-jokes to current TV shows. I also wrote our own family Haggadah—because really, who doesn’t? At some point, I decided our daughters, brilliant, talented writers, should take over as playwrights. (You can read Younger Daughter’s version of this event in her blog.)
This year our older daughter and her fiancée will not be with us for our Passover Seder—which in our crazy way will not actually take place on the traditional first or second night of Passover, but rather toward the end of Passover on a Saturday night. This is the first year I will not have both my girls here as we celebrate, although we hope to Skype them in. (I’m hopeful, but I’m picturing it like one of those video conferences where inevitably someone’s audio or video doesn’t work.) I will spend the next two weeks cooking because it is an unwritten rule that there must be enough food to feed two or three times the number of invited guests. I’ll be making both vegetable and chicken broth with what I hope are the feather-light knaidlach I learned to make from my mother, along with an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes, along with the matzah, charoset, and gefilte fish. There will be good wine and flourless chocolate cake and cheesecake with a macaroon crust made by my daughter. (There will also be stewed dried fruit because my mother reminds us all every year, “Matzah makes you constipated.”) There will be missing those who are not with us. There will be laughter with those who are here. Why do I do this? Because despite the labor involved, holidays give us a chance to put aside our other work (in my case, to quite literally clear the work from the table) and take stock of what’s important–and any chance to share food and wine with family and friends is a joy and a privilege. To my family and friends, I love you all so much!