For half the years of my marriage, I spent two weeks prior to Passover in my basement, roasting chickens, bubbling brisket in tomato sauce and brown sugar, and simmering chicken legs with carrots, onions, and celery chunks into silky soup, all these lovely foods to freeze for the most stringent, complicated, and headache-inducing holiday in the Jewish tradition.
Passover is almost upon us again and all around me, Orthodox Jews are spinning themselves into a frenzy, cleaning, shopping, chopping, and otherwise preparing for what is perhaps one of the most meaningful – and most exhausting – holidays on the Jewish calendar. In my house, we pull the couch away from the wall and vacuum up all the old pretzels, broken toys and forgotten paper scraps. Nose to carpet, I look under the bed to see what lurks there. I remove heavy stacks of clanging dishes from their cupboard perch and wipe down the insides of the shelves.
The pantry gets a long-awaited cleaning, and the refrigerator too. I put away, seal off, and try to forget all the items that I am forbidden to eat during the eight days of unleavened living – beans, rice, pasta and all manner of foods containing corn syrup.
The prohibition is against leavened foods but it’s expanded over the years. As a Jew of Eastern-European descent, I don’t eat legumes, beans or rice during Passover. Only Israeli Jews eat corn during these eight days.
We go a little crazy, putting a fence around a fence around a fence, some people covering their kitchen counters lest the surface that once touched bread touch the apples they eat this week. Not only can we not eat certain foods, we can’t own them. Got food left? The rabbis have worked out a legal loophole so that we technically “sell” our chametz, our leavened foods, so they do not belong to us during Passover even if they remain on our shelves. Judaism is a legal system first and foremost and with every law, there is a little way around it. But we’re also a people of poetry and metaphor. Some sages have likened the chametz, foods that rise, to pride and ego, which makes getting rid of them for a week symbolic of our personalities becoming humble.
During Passover I cook more simply and wholesomely than I do the rest of the year. No matzah-farfel-kugels for my family, no potato-starch noodles. I roast vegetables with olive oil, salt, pepper, make salads out of hearts of palm and avocados, and romaine hearts and mandarin oranges. Salad dressings are a mixture of citrus and oil, fresh earthly flavors, food in its original form. The sad thing about this holiday is that we all focus on what we can’t have – the kosher pizza shop does its best business immediately before and the night after Passover ends.
But Passover for me is about remembering my grandfather at the head of the table, his smooth hands breaking the middle matzah and sliding it between the pillows on which he sat. I remember sneaking under the table to steal it from him and the games we played, my cousins and I, trying to hide the Afikoman. I remember my cousin Amanda standing in six-year-old seriousness beside the table and singing a repetitious Sunday school song. I remember my grandmother’s strawberry fluff and my father singing Had Gadya faster, faster, faster.
And now, Passover is the time when my children bring home bags of projects and songs and books they’ve made. The seder – the celebratory dinner we conduct on the first two nights – is all about the children. About teaching them how we became a people, how we escaped Egyptian slavery and wandered in the desert, literally and metaphorically, until we landed in my favorite place of the world, the land of milk and honey, Israel.
This holiday isn’t about food, though I cook more wholly than any other time in the year. It’s about becoming connected to community. It’s about becoming who you are meant to be. It’s about having a part in the greater scheme of things, of looking at the meaning behind the beautiful table, the shimmering candles.