Are You Happier?

This morning, I stepped into the Dunkin’ Donuts two miles from my home, the one with kosher certification on the corner in the religious neighborhood, and waited in line to order my daughter a bagel breakfast sandwich.

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The refrigerator is nearly empty. All bread, bagels and other leavened foods are gone from our house, eaten up or thrown away. Tonight begins the holiday of Passover, a week-long journey back into the desert and before that into the ancestral slavery of Egypt, during which we limit and restrict our diet so severely that we have nothing to do but focus on redemption.

I have a love-hate relationship with this holiday. When I was a child, we gathered for two nights in my grandparents’ dining room, eager to sit around the finely laid table and laugh with my cousins over the language of the story, the mumbling of the prayers.

We played the expected games – steal the Afikoman, or middle matzah, from the pillows beneath my grandfather, negotiate its ransom (Harmony House gift certificates and silver dollars), sing the songs we learned in Hebrew school, and try not to laugh as the little cousins stood and performed endless lilting variations on a theme.

My brother mimicked the pompous cantor at our synagogue, and the five of us older cousins crawled underneath the table to strategize our shenanigans.

Everyone was happy.

My grandmother’s brisket fell off the bone. Her gefilte fish balls, with their carrot-slice skullcaps, defined mild deliciousness, epitomized tradition.

We came because it was expected and because we couldn’t wait to absorb the familiar flavors – the strawberry fluff, the smooth chopped liver with tiny bits of hard-boiled egg, the dill-infused matzoh ball soup that only Grandma could make perfectly.

imageAnd after those two nights, at least the way we observed, it was a week of matzah sandwiches but no real discomfort. We didn’t change dishes or duct-tape cupboards, like I would do in my orthodox marriage decades later.

I think it was then that my love for Passover dissolved into antagonism, or at the very least resolve.

When you are strictly religious, Passover is onerous, burdensome, heavy. You pack away all your regular dishes and bring out the once-a-year sets.

You swipe your cupboards clean, wash down the refrigerator shelves. You rid the house of all forbidden foods and the way my ex did it, you read the labels of shampoos and lotions and hide away those that have ingredients on the must-not list.

We locked our cupboards, refrained from even a Starbucks coffee during that long holiday, and the first two nights with my ex’s family went on until the wee hours of the morning.

There were redeemable points, for sure – delicious foods, family gathering around a decorated table, the raucous songs of people who only on this holiday consume four full glasses of wine and finally let out a side they’ve kept hidden the rest of the year.

But with this type of observance came a darker stringency that I closed my eyes and deep-breathed through. The judgment of the too-religious, the tsk-tsk of the watchful eyes who see you when you don’t do quite everything the way someone thinks you should.

imageIn the backyard, this afternoon there will be little contained fires of the remaining bits of chametz, or leavened foods, a final send-off into ashes so that the week begins clean and unencumbered.

Some sages have equated the ridding of leaven as an analogy for arrogance, selfishness, anger and jealousy. Get rid of all the things that puff us up so that we may simplify our souls and focus on what is truly meaningful, they explain.

It’s an analogy I can live with, even appreciate.

But at what cost?

Recently, I explained this holiday to a Gentile friend and, seeing her eyes pop and glaze at respectful intervals, I heard the ridiculousness of the things we do for the first time.

We create hoops to jump through, boundaries to filter past, lines we dare to cross.

“The whole point of Torah is to work on building a happier, better human existence,” a scholar said recently in a lecture on Torah and the angels.

I’m not so sure I agree.

If the week is meaningful because of all the hard work that pre-empts it, then perhaps. But if it is, rather, the way I believe it to be, that we come to the table exhausted and strung out, stressed for a month prior about all of the details we cannot in any way digress, then I think we have wholly missed the mark.

Cheers to us! Close-up people sitting at the dining table and toasting with wineTonight, Dan, Grace, and I will gather at our synagogue around a table someone else set and go through the rituals of the Seder with our community. This year, I do not have to make a Seder. There has been no cooking, only the purchasing of a few boxes of Matzah and the dusting-off of a couple Seder plates to bring to my aunt’s house tomorrow.

And, when the children come home from their father’s celebration tomorrow, we will settle into our comfortable clothes and gather around the table with cousins and relatives and people who don’t expect anything other than our presence and perhaps a cup of wine.

A single cup. A single sip. A pleasure-filled choice of gathering to commemorate where we’ve been, and where we’d like to be.

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