Seeing Double…and Other Ironies of Pesach

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17 Apr 2008

When Shakespeare wrote that April is the cruelest month, he sure knew what he was talking about.

In New York, where I live, April showers have less to do with rain than with showers of bills. To begin with, April is the month the IRS expects us to battle with our tax forms (or at least make sure the accountant struggles through them), and then—even worse—grit our teeth and shell out what’s due. On top of that, around April the children’s yeshivas send out letters demanding a few hundred dollars’ worth of registration fees per kid for the coming year—but until you pay up that back tuition, don’t even think about next year!

The summer camps then send letters asking for fat deposits to hold slots for your precious darlings (the grim alternative being to keep them home with you all summer). Your children’s shoes have been destroyed by the winter’s snow and salt and they’ll be needing warm-weather clothing any moment. And Pesach is just around the corner with matzoh at fifteen dollars a pound, and your husband reminding you that last year twenty-five pounds were not enough and you had to go borrow from the neighbors.

So we all brace our nerves, bargain a little with the schools and camps to have pity and hold those checks a few weeks longer, max out the credit cards hoping against hope to catch up later, and finally sit down to our Sedarim as freshly scrubbed and glowing as our (we hope) immaculate houses. After all, who doesn’t love Pesach—once you’ve gotten there?! Everyone appreciates the family time, the fresh food and new clothing, the stately progression of the Seder. The air is thick with kedushah, the little ones’ eyes are wide with excitement.

And yet there are certain ironies that are never lost on me come Pesach time. For example, how is it that so often the folks with huge gleaming mahogany kitchens and massive carved dining room sets eat on folding tables in the basement, because that’s where the Pesach kitchen is? Or better yet, abandon those palaces to go off to some hotel in Florida or Geneva? And how is it that some of the tiniest kitchens magically manage to feed huge armies of people?

I look at neighbors who have their married children coming to stay with them for the chag, and I think: why are those healthy twenty-something women with only one or two kids coming to Mom like visiting royalty, while the forty- or fifty-something Moms, who have twenty people to feed all week long on top of varicose veins, high blood pressure and rapidly diminishing koach (strength), do all the cooking?! Have you ever peeked inside a Flatbush nail salon erev Pesach? They’re full of young women getting manicures and blithely telling their girlfriends, “No, we didn’t kasher for Pesach this year, we’re going to my shvigger (mother-in-law)!” (I’m just jealous, really. Not having frum family in my area, I myself have never had the luxury of enjoying Pesach on somebody else’s cheshbon (account). But I know quite a few folks in their forties who have never once made Pesach themselves).

There is another contradiction that never fails to strike me at Pesach time, and that has to do with clothing, at least for those of us who live in temperate climates. You spend hours upon hours shopping for new Pesach outfits for the kids; after a winter of dressing in dark-colored wools and sweaters you can hardly wait to buy something bright and springy (for the girls, anyway). If you have teenage girls you can triple the amount of time spent combing the stores, as it is excruciatingly difficult to find something that manages to accommodate not only you and your budget but also your fussy daughter and, even tougher, the imagined jury of her peers that she carries around in her head. So after many hours of pawing through racks and popping people in and out of changing booths you finally find things acceptable to everybody, more or less, and then guess what? The whole week of Pesach turns rainy and cold and all anybody feels like wearing are those dark heavy sweaters!

Now, I must say that one of the things I actually do love about Pesach is the way my kitchen gets pared down to the bare essentials. There are less ingredients to buy, less pots and utensils, less clutter, and somehow we have everything we need and the food tastes delicious anyway. It’s essentially the same message we learn during Sukkoth, when we see we don’t need big sturdy houses to live in; with Hashem’s help we can live in shacks just fine. At Pesach time, we learn we can make do without half the stuff we normally keep on hand and still be happy and well fed. It’s a lesson in simplicity, in the pointlessness of too much gashmiut (material things). Every time I clean out the cupboards for Pesach I vow, “After the chag I’m going to always keep my kitchen like this! No excess baggage, no useless gadgets, no exotic spices I buy once for a recipe and never use again!”

So I finish the chag all geared up to do teshuva and change my evil overstocking ways, and then what happens? Despite all my best intentions to pare everything down, once I start unpacking the boxes of chametz food I stored in the basement, I suddenly realize that instead of paring down, I now have two of everything!! Two bags of sugar, two boxes of cocoa, two containers of salt and pepper and coffee and vanilla sugar! “I’m starting to see double!” I exclaim to my husband. “You must have worked too hard for the chag,” he says sympathetically. “Go put your feet up for awhile.”

But at least things wind down once Pesach is over. The kids go back to school and stop requiring constant snacks, constant entertainment and leaving constant dirty plates on the table (even if they are only plastic). We have another year not to be stressed out worrying about finding half a sandwich forgotten in a piano bench or being surprised by a shower of Cheerios flying out of the air conditioner vents when a sudden heat spell inspires somebody to turn it on. The laundry basket begins to look less like Mount Everest and more like its usual, more humble Mount Sinai; the sun is starting to feel warm on the face. We got through it!! Spring is on the way! Let’s crank up some music with a great beat and celebrate!!

Oops—it’s sefirah! No music. And while it’s a relief not to have to listen to certain of my children’s musical choices nonstop, at top volume, for another month, I sure wouldn’t mind hearing some of my own favorites while I catch up on all that laundry.

Oh well. We’ll have to wait for Mashiach to come to turn our mourning into gladness. When Mashiach comes, they say, we won’t even have to make Pesach any more. We’ll all move to Eretz Yisrael where, as far as I know, income taxes are not due on April 15th, the schools don’t ask for huge registration deposits in April, and the weather is infallibly warm in Nissan. And maybe while Moshiach is at it, he can straighten out the rest as well.

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

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.