English: “Holyland” brand matzah, machine-made in Jerusalem and purchased at Trader Joes in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together. “
We held our big family Passover meal last Saturday night. No, it was not the first or second night of Passover, the time when the Seder is supposed to take place, but it was when my family could be there. Sitting around our dining room table—or more accurately, our dining room and kitchen tables pushed together—were the people I care about most in the world, plus a newcomer who fit right in with our crazy family. He wasn’t fazed by hugs or bathroom humor, and he discovered that he loved matzoh, which was fortunate.
The Passover Seder is about tradition, ritual, symbolic foods, and telling the Passover story. Like the spring holidays of many religions, it celebrates rebirth. Seder means order, and most Seders follow a sequence of steps, including hand washing, dipping greens in salt water, and eating bitter herbs, while commenting on and explaining in endless detail, and often in Hebrew, why these things are done. The Seder gets children involved by having the youngest ask four questions about the night and later having them search for a piece of hidden matzoh called the Afikomen. Drinking four glasses of wine is also part of the Seder. Our table always includes matzoh covers that our daughters made when they were young children. Although we somehow never finish the Seder, our family does go through most of the steps, using a Haggadah we’ve compiled. More importantly, our family tradition of Passover includes enormous amounts of food, much wine, and a play, now written by my daughters. Every year there is a new play, and everyone has a part to read. The plays very loosely tell the story of the Exodus while incorporating current events, pop references, and song parodies. This year, my brother’s Moses, in a sort of Marlon Brando On the Waterfront portrayal, stole the show. I guess you had to be there.
My younger daughter and I are the only people in our family who actually “keep Passover,” that is, we do not eat bread and other products made with leavening during the entire Passover period. I’m not certain of her reasons, but for me, the keeping of Passover is my own personal homage to my ancestors, to Jews throughout the centuries who were not permitted to observe Passover, and to oppressed people everywhere. As a historian, I know that Passover was often the time when the most vicious pogroms occurred. I know that Jews struggled to commemorate the holiday during the Spanish Inquisition, in the Warsaw Ghetto, and in concentration camps, and I honor them, in my own way.
Our Seder is not religious or “traditional,” but it includes the traditions of our family, the in-jokes and the food mostly prepared with unwritten recipes. I know I am fortunate, that not everyone has family members they love so much—or food that is quite so delicious. I am mindful that this was a Passover when everything came together just right—people, good spirits, weather, and food–to form a sort of spectacular perfect storm of Passover. These things might never coalesce in quite such a way again.
This year we laughed and sang, and then we ate, and ate some more. My heart was filled with love and joy. My stomach was filled with food and wine. Some might be offended by our non-religious celebration. But to me, food, love, and laughter cannot be anything but wonderful, especially when it is shared with loved ones. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” On this night, our family gets together to share our traditions, to laugh together, to eat special foods, to drink, talk, and sing—and to eat matzoh. For me, that is Passover, and it is more than enough.