“Passover is a hard holiday,” my mother would always say.
True, Passover involves a lot of food restrictions, no eating out in restaurants, too much work cooking and cleaning and a seemingly endless procession of constipation-inducing matzos. Nevertheless, Passover is my favorite holiday of the year, although I must admit that this has not always been the case.
As a kid, the days preceding Passover always engendered some small measure of excitement, for the food at the Seder if nothing else. Not only was the shulkhan arukh, the festive meal, an excuse to stuff my gut, but it always ended with coconut macaroons, sponge or honey cake and some type of candy. By the second Seder night, we’d be into the coconut covered marshmallows, the Ring-Jells (both the orange and the raspberry ones) and the “fruit slices,” which were pure sugar in hues of yellow, orange and green. Some kids were giddy at the prospect of sipping from the Seder’s four cups of wine and pretending to be drunk, but for me it was all about the sweets.
The ritual of the Seder itself, fairly boring for most kids, was a big deal to me. Most of the guys who I knew from school were called upon to ask “the four questions” if they were the youngest in the family; otherwise, the only really fun part was getting to stay up late. Back then, all the kids I knew lived in two-parent families; Mother cooked and Dad led the Seder in Hebrew, often in his white kittul, offering explanations in Yiddish or English as he went along and doling out stern warnings to fidgety youngsters. In my family, however, neither of my parents knew Hebrew. True, you could read from the English side of the page in the Maxwell House Hagaddah, but it wasn’t the same as the mellifluous sound of the Hebrew and Aramaic. When I was very young and we still lived in New York City, my grandfather, who lived downstairs, climbed up to the fourth floor to lead our Seder. From the age of six, however, as the yeshiva bokher (religious school student), I was the designated Seder leader. This meant a lot to me because, let’s face it, when you’re six years old (and eight and ten and twelve), you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be a big shot and tell the adults what to do.
The problem, of course, is that Passover is an eight day long holiday. The two Seder nights would come and go quickly, leaving me with six more long days of eating matzo and boiled eggs, matzo and tuna, matzo and gefilte fish, matzo and matzo and more matzo. Matzo is a hard, dry cracker that we eat instead of bread during Passover. There is no cereal for breakfast, you have to drag matzo to school with you for lunch (and inevitably answer questions about it, particularly after I began attending a huge high school where maybe two other students were Jewish) and you come home to dinner with (what else?) the box of Streit’s or Horowitz-Margareten matzos prominently placed in the center of the table. All your favorite foods are forbidden. You can’t have Cheerios or toasted bagels or spaghetti or rice or baked beans or Entenmann’s chocolate donuts or even mustard, for heaven’s sake. It would get old fast.
Kids would get a kick out of calling Passover “a crumby holiday,” ostensibly referring to matzo, but, you know (nudge, nudge). By the fourth day, the cry of “I never want to see another matzo again!” would be heard in the land. We’d be dreaming of macaroni and cheese, PB&Js, noodle pudding, mint chocolate chip ice cream and Oreos. Any mention of fresh rye bread would leave us writhing in paroxysms of drool.
Four or five decades later, I actually relish the food challenges associated with Passover. As a vegan, those challenges are many times more restrictive than they are for most of my fellow Jews. The eggs, meat, fish and dairy that are Passover staples are out. Unfortunately, so are the soy products and beans that constitute the primary sources of protein for many vegans.
And yet . . .
The whole idea behind Passover is reminding ourselves from whence we came. “Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt” begins the traditional narrative recited at Seders around the world. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the liturgy asks. Tonight is different because we eat only unleavened bread, because we eat bitter herbs, because we dip into fancy hors d’oeuvres and because we lean in comfort on pillows. The first two differences in that list stand in stark contrast to the last two. The hard matzo cracker and the horribly burny bitter herbs remind us of the forced labor, the chains and the whippings, the treatment as things rather than as people that we endured at the hands of the Egyptians for 400 years (followed by another forty years of wandering in a dry and barren desert). Today, however, we enjoy freedom and live in comparative luxury, symbolized by fancy food and relaxing like kings and queens.
“But you weren’t there!” people tell me. “All that happened centuries ago. You were never a slave, never had to sacrifice a lamb and paint the blood on your doorpost, never had to run out of Egypt at the last minute with half-baked crackers instead of bread. God doesn’t care what you eat. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of Passover?”
And yet . . .
The Book of Exodus teaches us v’higad’tah li’vinkah bayom hahu, “and you shall tell it to your children on that day.” For centuries, people have been aware that those who refuse to remember history are doomed to repeat it. Indeed, the very name of the Passover prayer book, the Hagaddah, means (roughly) “the telling.” L’dor va’dor (from generation to generation), the liturgy recites, you shall regard yourself as having been personally freed from slavery. For if the Lord had not freed us from slavery, we and our children would still be slaves to this day. If we don’t know where we’ve been, how can we possibly know where we’re going?
The food restrictions of Passover are minor inconveniences indeed compared to being worked to death in the hot Egyptian sun. Adhering to the Passover food rules seems a very small act of thanks to God for the miracles performed at the Red Sea and in the burning sands of the desert.
These days, many rabbis point out in their sermons that, although the Jewish people were freed from slavery centuries ago, it behooves us to consider those who continue to suffer in abject poverty right here in our own country as well as under repressive regimes around the world. Just as when Moses beseeched Pharaoh to let his people go worship in the desert, there are still millions who are not free to openly practice their faiths in the lands they call home. The lesson here is one of tolerance. What right have we, as former slaves, to hold grievances against others merely because they have different religious practices than we do, dress differently or speak a different language than we do, have different sexual preferences than we do? What right have we, as former slaves, to turn our faces away at the homeless person holding out a cup on a city sidewalk or to make rude comments about the woman in front of us in the supermarket checkout line who is paying with an EBT card?
There is no “them.” There is only “all of us.”
There is no “back then.” There is only “always.”
And it is with these things in mind that, with a song in his heart, this former slave gladly eats dry matzo for eight days each and every spring.