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Passover Workarounds

April 8, 2009

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Passover. This is a the holiday that commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Jews from slavery.  What this means to the non-Jews is that your Jewish friends (c’mon, you have to have at least one, right?) will spend a week either cooking a giant meal, featuring brisket, matzoh ball soup and some gross looking gefilte fish and/or complaining about eating matzoh and inventing ridiculous sandwiches out of two pieces of flat, white crackers. Because they can’t eat bread. And must suffer.

We eat this giant dinner the first two nights  – or at least my family only does two nights – but we are Bad Jews and it’s called a seder. This means “order” (I learned something in Hebrew school!) I won’t go into the whole explanation of Passover and blahblahblah, because I am hardly qualified. If you are totally unfamiliar, go check it out on Wikipedia or something equally reputable.


I should preface this whole thing, so I don’t get actual, good Jews correcting me or trying to find a rabbi to complain to or anything, by stating that I am an atheist. I almost feel as if I was raised as an atheist or agnostic, and that most of my immediate family is as well. I never really believed in God, and certainly not as an adult. But, I do identify strongly with my family’s history and culture, and I consider myself to be “culturally Jewish.”

Passover is a really strange holiday to me. I can’t decide if it feels like a LARP or a a civil war reenactors, or something.  We have this whole long dinner, with this ritual plate, where everything is supposed to represent something else. And we sit around a table, reclining (in theory) as we tell the story of our ancestors. Then there is singing, and eating food that is supposed to be bricks and mortar, and food that is intentionally gross (no, not gefilte – bitter herbs and salt water).  And we keep washing our hands and drinking glasses of wine. And then, you get to spill wine on your grandma’s tablecloth as you recount plagues! Plagues!!!! The whole thing is so surreal.  Don’t forget the cup of wine you have to leave out for the guy that’s going to come at night and drink it.  Like, a Jewish Santa Claus who doesn’t leave any presents. Luckily, my family has it down to about 3 minutes, where we tell the basic story, sing parts of “Dayenu” and spill wine for the plagues.  Then, we eat. And eat. And take a break, fight about cleaning dishes and if we need to keep the seder plate on the table, and eat again.

Of course, I just can’t leave it alone, and I am frequently annoyed during the week-long festival of Passover. You see, Jews can’t eat leavened bread (and a variety of other things) during Passover.

“There are numerous explanations behind the meaning of matza. One is historical: Passover is a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. The biblical narrative relates that the Israelites left Egypt in such haste, they could not wait for their bread dough to rise. The resulting product was matza. (Exodus 12:39). The other reason for eating matza is symbolic: On the one hand, matza symbolizes redemption and freedom, but it is also (lechem oni), “poor man’s bread.” Thus it serves as a reminder to be humble, and to not forget what life was like in servitude. Also, leaven symbolizes corruption and pride as leaven “puffs up”, as in the “leaven of the Pharisees”. Eating the “bread of affliction” is both a lesson in humility and an act that enhances one’s appreciation of freedom.”  – Wikipedia


So, what irritates me about that? It seems good. Remembering where you came from, a little suffering? All good. What bugs me about observant Jews and Passover is “The Workaround.” You see, people don’t just eat their matzah and suffer. They find ways to make it into something :delicious” (trust me, it never is!) Grocery stores are filled with “Kosher for Passover” cereals and cakes and noodles.  My friends make little matzoh-pizzas and find tons of workarounds to enjoy their little cardboard squares. To me, it’s just a symptom of what’s wrong with religion and observancy. Obviously, people are just following the rules because they are rules. There is no heart in them, and no actual belief in the intended symbolism. So, if you are going to go with the letter and not the spirit of the law, is there really any point in observing? For my family, we do a seder because I think we are all afraid of what it means if Judaism dies out, and it’s a way to connect as a family. But, the older we get and the less children that attend, the shorter and shorter the seder gets. But, after the last glass is dried, we don’t observe. I will eat leftovers until I can no longer take another bite, but I don’t think anyone in my immediate family has any sort of ban on carbs.

There are a few things I like about Passover. I do like the story-telling aspect, and the premium placed on explaining to children why it is we do what we do.  I also dig the search for the afikomen, where you get to rip apart couch cushions and shake down your family for money. Also, some Jews have done this awesome feminist twist involving oranges and cups of Miriam (this is all still a little cloudy to me.)

Are there traditions and rituals that you celebrate that you aren’t sure where they came from? Why do you observe or participate?

(Do you like how I spelled “matzah” at least 3 different, acceptable ways during the course of one post?)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2009 11:20 am

    As a gentile, I had an entire conversation with another gentile about whether or not it is acceptable to say ‘Happy Passover’ or ‘Enjoy your holiday’ because neither of us could decide if it was a happy holiday or not….especially after NPR did a bit about a seder song having something to do with ‘death to the people that hurt us’. I could just imagine saying to a co-worker “Enjoy your Passover” and they walk away thinking “you’re an idiot”.

    I don’t enjoy being an idiot. Please advise.

  2. April 8, 2009 11:22 am

    I am not an authority on such matters, and had the same questions as you. From an inspection of the internet, my observant and Orthodox friends are wishing each other Happy Passovers, so I think its okay.

    Further research has given me this:

    I think because there is singing and celebration of freedom and reclining, it’s a happy holiday. But we have to suffer a little bit, because we are Jews, and its our birthright.

  3. Judah permalink
    April 13, 2009 12:35 pm

    On the note of Happy Passover…

    It is the correct usage. The idea is simple: suppose you were being chased by a villain of sorts (substitute your favorite in here). If this villain were to get captured before they got you, would you not celebrate? At the same time, would you not wish upon them a penalty for the persecution and fear they caused you? (Many people end up in therapy for years…).

    So to is Passover. It’s a tremendously joyous time celebrating the continued existence of your family and friends and the religion as a whole. It is a celebration of life and of dusting yourself off, and living on another day. So yup, it’s happy.

  4. Judah permalink
    April 13, 2009 12:56 pm

    On the note of Work Arounds…

    Erica, I love you dearly, and you always make me laugh with your “Better than Mason” Jewstories.

    Here’s a take-it-or-leave-it response from an observant Jew.

    The concept of suffering on matzah is ill-developed. It is one opinion which may not hold much water.

    Matzoh is about the concept of being unsettled, yes. Of running out of Eygpt? I guess. Yet, it is more focused on what happened over the 7 days which may shed light on the mystery and explain the idea behind Matzo Pizza (I too can use 3 different spellings – go Judah!)

    You got your matzah and your marror (bitter herbs). Your salt water and your veggie (I know Erica is ok with veggies). You even got creative sandwiches during the seder. The seder as you said is an order. From poverty and desperation to peace and deliverance. From Persecuted and Desolate to Providence and Defiance of odds.

    By the end of the seder, you are as you stated — free again. So, as you also said, does the day end there? No. The truth is Passover lasts seven days. Seven is not an arbitrary number and I don’t want to get into it here, but the concept is 2 seders = 2 days. What about the rest?

    At my seder, when it was time for eatin’, we had brisket (yup, G-d said: “Thou shalt eat Brisket as done by Bubbies that came before you”) and we had delicious veggies, cranberry apple kugel (made with matzah), peach kugel (matzah), and some other belly filling treats. For lunch, we had matzah pizza, and matzah and cream cheese.

    Why? It’s not about the suffering, but the humility. Often called the Bread of Affliction, G-d certainly never says anywhere “Hurt thineself and punish thine friends and family” At least I’ve never come across it. Ostensibly, it’s about remembering for the adults just as much as for the kids. These days, ya see a movie about a tragedy or a cause and you promise to get involved in the honor and memory…for three whole seconds. Not going to work here. This is a big deal.

    Therefore, be creative with your matzah. Make a cake if you will (no matzah usually just potato starch).

    Ultimately, I’ve eaten these cakes, and had many a matzah creation. It’s utterly impossible to forget you are eating matzah…and that, my friend, is precisely the point.

    • April 13, 2009 1:07 pm

      Thanks Judah! As usual, there is a lot more to the story than I thought and this is a really great explanation. Now I will have to find something else to whine about.

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