Pass on Passover? Not On Your Life!

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07 Apr 2006

For most of the latter half of my brilliant public elementary school career in Levittown, Pa, Alan Schwartz and I were always the only Jewish kids in our class. He always had the most stars on the math quiz chart and I always had the most stars on the spelling quiz chart, and between all of these important distinctions we found ourselves set apart and thrown together quite a bit.

Alan’s family was Conservative; mine, at the time, was unaffiliated except for a Workman’s Circle group, which meant that for a few years I got sent with a small group of girls to learn Yiddish from a little old man in the basement of a bank. The little old man spent as much time in the bathroom “washing his hands” as he did teaching us aleph-bais and simple conversation. But the Workman’s Circle group always got together for holiday celebrations and at least made sure the kids knew the difference between Maoz Tzur and Mah Nishtanah.

I vividly remember sitting next to Alan in the school cafeteria at Pesach time, opening up our brown paper bags to find we had more or less the same lunch: boiled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, matzoh and macaroons from the can. “Gee, does your family keep kosher all the time, or only on Pesach?” Alan asked conversationally. I was nine years old and had no idea what he meant. I figured he must be referring to throwing out all the bread in the house, which we did observe faithfully. But of course I was too embarrassed to ask for clarification. “Only on Pesach,” I said with more certainty than I felt. At least the crunch of my matzoh was emphatic. “Yeah, mine too,” Alan concurred, unwrapping a cellophane-covered leg of boiled chicken.

Today, over thirty years have passed since that conversation. My family moved away from Levittown and Alan Schwartz, and my education continued in other places: high school, college, a stint in Jerusalem at a seminary and a lot of other Jewish learning far beyond what the hand-washing old man ever taught us. The result of all this is that today I am finally in a position to give Alan Schwartz an unqualified answer to his question. Today, friends, I could answer Alan Schwartz in no uncertain terms:

Yes, Alan, yes! We do keep kosher all year long!– and for Pesach too!– Oh boy, do we keep kosher!”

For now that I have become Jewishly Enlightened, I have learned that I need to start getting nervous as soon as we hit Rosh Chodesh Adar. Fear and Trembling set in as I realize that from there it’s only two short weeks to get my act together for Purim, which in my family is always a big rollicking affair involving costumes, homemade mishloach manot and a couscous dinner for a small army (hey, our Hebrew name isn’t Ben-Shushan for nothing). Then, once the last mishloach manot is given out and the stray couscous and crushed lollipops vacuumed off the dining room floor, my ears start to ring with the ticking of the Pesach countdown clock. In Manhattan they count down the minutes on New Year’s Eve, in Times Square, but in Brooklyn we start counting down minutes on Shushan Purim… waiting for the matzoh ball to drop?!

Of course matters are never helped when I run into my neighbor who remarks breezily, “Oh, I started cleaning at Chanukah time, and anyway in my family nobody ever brings food into the bedrooms or the basement…” My heart sinks. I do my best to dismiss her in my mind as just one more deranged obsessive-compulsive. Underneath, of course, I’m really just jealous: jealous that a) she seems to have much less work ahead of her than me, and b) she is clearly a better parent than me if she has successfully managed to discipline her toddlers never to trail cookies beyond the kitchen door and her teenagers never to sneak bags of chips into their rooms.

After all those strenuous hours spent making and unmaking Purim, though, I’m simply too wiped out to start cleaning for Pesach right away. But I’d feel too guilty indulging in a few free hours for myself when the idea YOU SHOULD BE STARTING FOR PESACH looms over my head, a storm cloud just waiting to rain all over my parade. So I do what any self-respecting Jewish Princess does when she’s down and depressed: I go shopping! All the kids need new outfits for Pesach, right? And you have to start early to find just what you need, especially for young ladies who have strong opinions about what’s acceptable or not. So I hit the stores, congratulating myself on having found a great excuse to both spend gobs of money and avoid housework at the same time.

But once having hit my credit limit and run out of excuses and ways to procrastinate, it’s time to face reality. I sigh, roll up my sleeves and attack the house. And then — oh miracle of miracles! I find that I actually get into it! I like reorganizing, throwing out, turning up lost socks and earrings, purging the entire family from the excess consumption of an entire year. I like vacuuming dust from places I didn’t know were dusty. The change is most radical in the kitchen, as I banish the crumbs in the shelves, the half-finished package of noodles, the leftover bottle of beer from Purim, the “mistakes” like that bottle of lemon extract I bought for a recipe and never touched again. The freezer itself is a foray into high adventure as it yields forth a steady stream of UFO’s (Unidentified Frozen Objects).

If cleanliness is next to G-dliness, then G-d is surely very close at Pesach time. (This is ruchniut? I groan as I scrub grease off the oven door.) As we clean and scrub we make our mikdash me’at that much more new and shiny, a more fitting place for Him to dwell. We go through our possessions and hopefully feel gratitude that we have so many of them, unlike in generations past where even a shoestring would have been saved and reused instead of cavalierly tossed into the garbage. We imitate Hashem in our own small ways as we make order out of chaos, as we take the raw stuff of our lives and try to renew it and make it more attractive. Although we work like slaves, we do so with the goal of feeling like kings in our castles once Pesach finally arrives.

Pesach is a lesson in overcoming complacency, in learning that we can always do more than we think we can. How many times have I gone to bed leaving dishes in the sink because I protest I’m simply too bushed to tackle them? But erev Pesach the dishes get done, and much, much more each day, until the muscles groan in protest. In pushing ourselves to the limits, we discover that we’re stronger than we thought we were, more efficient, able to make every minute count. It comes with single-minded dedication to a goal: GET THE HOUSE READY FOR PESACH. Imagine what we could accomplish if we attacked every goal with the same singleness of purpose and eye on the calendar!

And then, finally, the house is done. The kitchen gleams like a laboratory, with freshly lined shelves and a fridge that would lead the ignorant outsider to assume we’d just bought half the stock in the Reynolds aluminum company. I can’t even bear the thought of messing it up by starting to cook. “Can’t we…” I quaver, “Can’t we just… look at it for awhile?”

Not only does it look unnaturally clean, it looks so empty! The spice cabinet, normally bursting with every spice Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chinese and Indian, now barely contains a box of salt and a few lonely containers of pepper, cinnamon and paprika. Gone the five-spice powder I bought and used exactly once for some weird Chinese recipe, gone the za’atar and chili powder and blue food coloring for that birthday cake last November. There are less dishes in the cabinets — no excess weight here either — banished with the chametz are the heart-shaped muffin pan I bought to support some charity and the tart pans in four sizes. I feel so purified, so stripped down of unessentials — why, I feel light as a matzoh ball!

I also have to admit I get a certain perverse satisfaction out of seeing my kids deprived of most of their usual junky snacks. Oh, there are kosher-l’Pesach junk foods available (more and more each year, I’m afraid), but in the first place, they’re expensive, and in the second place my family tries to avoid a lot of processed food during Pesach. So my kids find themselves actually obliged to snack on… fruit! Oh brave new world! During the year the bad tended to drive out the good, but now that those cookies and pretzels have disappeared they discover, to their great surprise, just how good an apple or orange can taste.

And you know what? Despite the limited range of foodstuffs, despite the absence of a lot of spices, all the food tastes wonderful: fresh, spring-like, simple. How refreshing it is to live more simply! To have a narrower range of choices instead of twenty kinds of breakfast cereal and thirty kinds of chips! Not so long ago people struggled hard just to have the minimum they needed to subsist. Today, we are so inundated by products and goods that we have a completely different challenge: to learn to limit ourselves within a sea of material wealth. We need to learn to “just say no,” to take what we need and not in excess: to limit the quantities we eat, the quantities of clothing we buy or accept from friends and family, the size of our simchas.

Learning to live joyfully within material limits is actually a lesson we were supposed to learn earlier in the year, at Succoth time, when we left our comfortable homes and lived in our makeshift “booths” for a week. We sat happily surrounded by a few flimsy walls, eating off folding tables, feasting and singing and having the time of our lives. The lesson here is that when we are well infused with spirituality and inner joy, we can live quite happily with lower standards of material comfort. And the converse holds true as well: it is when we are spiritually empty and unhappy that we run hard to plug the void with an overabundance of possessions and entertainment.

And so we launch ourselves into the celestial realm of Planet Pesach, going on a vacation of sorts without ever leaving home. As a wise person once said, a change is as good as a rest, and our lives change within the very four walls of our homes. The children’s eyes shine as they sit at the Seder table, seeing their home transformed and their parents presiding like royalty. The food is different and special. We don’t go to school or pay bills or go to work; we try to dress more nicely than usual; we enjoy hours of family time together doing fun things we don’t usually make the time to do.

And then, before we know it, it’s all over. The Pesach dishes get whisked into cartons and my husband runs out to buy flour and yeast for mimouna, the Moroccan motza’ei Pesach celebration. All too quickly life becomes busy and cluttered again; as I put my regular pots back on the shelves I marvel at how dirty they look compared to the gleaming, used-once-a-year pots I have for Pesach. We bring up boxes and boxes and more boxes… where did all this stuff come from? I groan as I unpack the blue food coloring.

I think of Alan Schwartz and wonder if he still keeps “kosher” for Pesach still. Did he intermarry like so many others, or did he find his way to higher levels of observance like me?

I think of the people who say, “Can’t wait for Moshiach to come; they say once he comes we won’t have to make Pesach any more!” And then I think of all those people who just throw in the towel and go down to Orlando, shelling out a bundle to spend an entertaining but dubiously meaningful Pesach in Disneyland.

What, stop making Pesach and miss out on all the fun? Why, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She is awaiting the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.