At Peace With Passover

Growing up, it never occurred to me that Passover could be enjoyable.

To be fair, it’s not really supposed to be.  And in my childhood, no one made much effort to change that.

For an awfully long time, Passover meant exactly two things:  Enduring a mind-numbingly boring Seder two nights in a row, and eating nothing but matzo for a week.  (Matzo, of course, is the large rectangular cracker that is often said to taste like cardboard—a claim that, as every Jew knows, gives short shrift to cardboard.)

As with every other Jewish holiday, the observance of Passover is awash in symbolism about an event in the Biblical past in which Jews were treated horribly—in this case, the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt.  The traditional Seder, as spelled out in the Haggadah, contains no detail that isn’t a specific reference to some element of the Exodus narrative and its implications.  For instance, we eat horseradish to remind us of the “bitterness” of slavery, and we remove ten drops of wine from our glasses to mark each of the Ten Plagues that wiped out the Egyptians.

When you’re, say, five years old, going through this routine is every bit as much fun as it sounds.  In my family, it didn’t help that we read from a Haggadah written in a form of English that Shakespeare would’ve found arcane, or that we stage-frightened kids were tasked with reciting the “Four Questions” in front of everybody—in Hebrew!

So that was Passover for quite a while.  Not torture, per se, but certainly one of the more dreaded nights on the calendar.  (Not to mention the eight days of not being able to eat bread, cereal or pasta.  The horror.)

Then something funny happened:  I grew up.

Today, I have managed to get over my selfish adolescent hang-ups and appreciate Passover for what it really is:  An opportunity for Jews to enjoy each other’s company and consume ungodly amounts of food.

Essentially, Passover is Thanksgiving dinner preceded by two hours of saying grace and four glasses of wine.  No wonder grown-ups like it more than kids.

As I have discovered in recent years, you do not need to be an especially observant Jew to get something out of this holiday.  Actually, you don’t need to be Jewish at all.

All you need—if we’re gonna get right down to it—is a good host and a good crowd.  This year—not to the exclusion of other years—our family had both.

At both Seders we attended last weekend, there were very few attendees who would describe themselves as devoutly religious on a day-to-day basis.  In addition, we had a number of non-Jews in attendance—folks either with a Jewish spouse or simply good friends with the other guests and happy to be included.  Not to mention people, like me, who think organized religion is generally a bad idea but have nonetheless retained a small piece of their Jewish identity, if only on special occasions like this one.

But you would not necessarily have assumed any of that from our gatherings, which followed the basic structure of the Haggadah from start to finish, albeit with a fair amount of condensing and modernizing.  We covered every facet of the Exodus story and ruminated on why it’s worth retelling, and in a way that even the gentiles could appreciate.

In effect, we split the difference between Passover’s inherent solemnity and our modern, slightly irreverent sensibilities, crafting ceremonies that were simultaneously traditional and accessible.  What with the lively atmosphere and the regularly-scheduled wine-drinking, it didn’t seem like much of a wait before the food came.

And boy, did it ever.

It’s true that Passover tradition prohibits the consumption of chametz, meaning anything containing wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt (whatever that is).  While this certainly eliminates a significant chunk of the Great American Diet, we so easily forget how much culinary goodness is left.

At our Friday Seder, with a crowd practically spilling out into the hallway, dinner was a cornucopia of roast turkey, beef stew, fried eggplant, marinated beets and an exceptionally fragrant matzo ball soup (according to legend, Marilyn Monroe was fed this dish so often by her Jewish husband, Arthur Miller, that she was compelled to ask, “Isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?”).

On Saturday, we were hosted by a family composed (mostly) of vegetarians, resulting in a meal that included French lentil soup, roasted potatoes, grilled salmon and a tofu stir fry that almost made me forget how much I love meat.

If those all sound like unimaginably delicious entrees that could be served at any old time of the year, it’s because they are.  And they are all perfectly acceptable on Passover.

My point here is that those who complain about the dearth of decent Passover food are either grossly misinformed or simply enjoy complaining about things.  (Not that Jews have ever been known for kvetching.)

There’s a widely-accepted truism that says that non-Jews enjoy matzo much more than Jews, owing to the fact that non-Jews are never forced to eat it.  However, this isn’t quite correct:  Except at the Seder itself, where matzo is introduced as one of the evening’s many symbols, Jews are not compelled to consume the crumbly, unleavened atrocity in order to fulfill the commandment about avoiding chametz.  You can’t eat bread, but you’re perfectly free to avoid matzo as well.  There is more than one aisle in the supermarket.

In fact, the reality is even better than that.  Thanks to the miracle known as matzo meal—a powdery substance that behaves like flour without actually being flour—it is possible to cook and consume various baked goods without technically disobeying God’s dictates.  Admittedly, some of these confections are appalling—bland to the point of offensiveness.  However, others manage to be striking approximations of the real thing.  In our kitchen this week, for instance, we stumbled upon a recipe for Passover apple cake, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t taste almost exactly like real, honest-to-goodness apple cake.  If you like, I’ll send you the recipe.

Is this cheating?  A cheap loophole through which to violate the holiday’s spirit without quite violating its word?

You bet it is.  And if there’s one thing we Jews are good at, it’s finding cheap loopholes.

Except that we aren’t breaking the spirit of Passover when we bake cake substitutes and the like, because doing so requires altering our behavior just enough to reflect on how this week is different from all other weeks (to paraphrase from the Four Questions).  As with Starbucks’ supposedly failed recent campaign to foster conversations about racial inequality, the point is to get our attention—to elevate our consciousness about a subject we might otherwise ignore.

Certainly, for many Jews, the above is hardly a sufficient level of observance in the eyes of God.  Among the more conservative of the tribe, any diversion from the original script is an abomination, and if anybody is enjoying themselves at the Seder table, you’re doing it wrong.

All I can do is point out that I, a resolute nonbeliever, have been compelled to keep one of Judaism’s holiest festivals, without any external pressure, for no reason except that it gives me pleasure.  After a period of divorcing myself from all expressions of religious faith and observance, I have partially reintegrated myself into the Jewish community, finding it to be not nearly as incompatible with my own values as I thought.

I cannot really account for this, and I don’t doubt it’s a function of being able to pick and choose which parts of Judaism to accept while ignoring the rest of it—including the idea of the Torah being literally true.

Then again, that’s how everybody approaches their religion of choice:  They pluck out the bits they like and pretend the others don’t exist.  There’s nothing dishonorable in this.  Considering the many ways most religions contradict themselves, it would be impossible to do it any other way.

As such, I don’t see why a non-religious person shouldn’t go along with the values and rituals that religions get right—much in the way that believers have adopted secular ideas when it has served their purposes.

That I have made peace with Passover may well indicate, as some like to claim, that believers and non-believers have a lot more in common than they think.

Or maybe it just indicates that the Jewish hankering for gefilte fish is impossible to shake.

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Traditions Passed Over

The Passover Seder is among the most sacred, enduring and universal of all Jewish traditions.

It is worth noting, then, that no two Seders are ever exactly alike.

When I was younger, for instance, my family’s service would be led by my grandfather, who had us read very solemnly from an ancient edition of the Passover Haggadah, replete with arcane, sexist language that we kids could not begin to understand.  Our recitation of the Exodus story and its implications left no detail unuttered.  Including the meal, a Seder begun at 6 o’clock could be expected to carry on until well past 9.

In more recent years, my folks, my brother and I have sometimes joined close friends of ours in their more modern, “family-friendly” event, featuring a homemade, illustrated version of the Haggadah that abbreviates and clarifies the text, eliminating the dull, sluggish bits while emphasizing the songs and encouraging audience participation—not least in flinging plastic frogs at each other while recounting the Ten Plagues.

This year, our clan was graciously included in a large-ish gathering that took the “do-it-yourself” approach several additional steps.  The “Four Questions” were asked not only in English and Hebrew, but also in Spanish, Polish, Latin and sign language (even though no one present was deaf or foreign-born).  The singing of “Chad Gadya” became a competition as to who could complete the most verses in a single breath.  (The eventual winner nearly fainted in the process.)  The hidden afikoman, or middle matzo, was found not by the children, but by one of the host’s teddy bears.

This is a mere sampling of the Seders I have personally experienced here in my own tiny corner of Judaism.  How the world’s remaining 14 million or so Jews conduct their annual Passover observances, I can only guess, but I suspect that they, too, are all over the map.

Admittedly—crucially, in fact—all of the disparate spins on Passover described above adhered to the same general rubric, and all contained the same essential elements:  the Exodus narrative, the Seder plate, the cup for Elijah, and so forth.  You might say the differences from year to year were ones of style more than substance.  And as many would argue, you can alter a holiday’s details without destroying its essence.

Except that for many Jews, the details are the essence, whether during festivals like Passover or a typical Shabbat service.  In the minds of folks like my late grandfather, one must never stray from the original script; it would be an insult to our ancestors if we did.

This mindset looks upon alternative approaches to Judaism with a mixture of sadness and contempt, viewing them as acts of cultural and religious effacement.  Owing to the Jewish people’s history of being nearly exterminated over and over again, historical continuity is essential—a means of bridging one generation to the next.

And yet I, for one, have drawn far more meaning from our recent “revisionist” Seders than from the old-school, Rabbinically-sanctioned ones of my upbringing.  They are more enjoyable, yes, but also more adept at communicating Passover’s actual significance, thereby imparting to us why we bother to observe it in the first place.

Is tradition-for-tradition’s-sake really more important than ensuring that the basis of the tradition is widely understood?  Don’t let anyone tell you this is an easy question to answer.  It most assuredly is not.

The tension between old customs and new sensibilities is real, and it assumes many forms.  Further, we can probably abandon any hope that such a clash will ever completely go away.

To wit:  We young people can pooh-pooh the “we’ve always done it this way” argument all we want—as a supporter of gay marriage rights, I do this quite often—but what happens when we’re faced with people for whom the very fact of an act’s infinite and unchanging repetition is what gives the act its meaning?

What happens when it’s our own sacred traditions that fall under scrutiny?  Will we be as susceptible to change as we demand others to be?  What makes us so special?

The Seder I attended this week was as memorable and entertaining as any I can recall, organized and led by people who take their faith seriously but also aren’t afraid to defy certain conventions for the sake of setting a lively table.

Yet as I shot a plastic green frog into my brother’s wine glass, I could faintly hear my grandfather’s harrumph of disapproval in a back corner of my mind, and I had to concede that his view of what constitutes a proper Seder is as valid as anyone else’s.

What is more, he could rest assured that, even at this table, at least it was Manischewitz in the glass.

American Tall Tales

Monday marks the opening night of Passover, the weeklong Jewish festival that commemorates the Jews’ famed Exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt, followed by their 40-year safari through the desert toward Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land.

It is an exciting, inspiring story—and also complete and utter nonsense.

To date, no archaeological excavation of the area alleged to have hosted the Passover saga has uncovered verifying evidence of any sort.  Nor should we expect it to.  After all, what is a profession of “faith” if not a tacit acknowledgment that one’s beliefs are not supported by facts?  If they were, faith would not be necessary.

Of course, in carrying on Passover traditions, Jews are hardly the first or only people to cull a major day of remembrance from a narrative that is less than historically accurate.

While we could go on for days about questions of veracity in Judaism and other religions, the truth is that America’s secular roster of official holidays is a veritable treasure trove of myths, half-truths and outright falsities.

To begin:  We celebrate our nation’s birth every year on July 4th, even though it was actually two days earlier in 1776 when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to ratify the Declaration of Independence.  In correspondence with his wife, John Adams wrote, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

So it should have been.  Very little actually happened at Independence Hall on July 4, 1776 beyond a bit of tidying up, but the fourth somehow wound up as the “official” date stamped atop the sacred document, and that was the one we got stuck with.

Then again, this whole discrepancy regarding the precise moment we declared our independence is essentially a minor accounting error.  The central narrative we annually commemorate with fireworks and barbeque otherwise happened more or less as we say it did.

Compare this, per instance, with something like Columbus Day, observed on the second Monday of October, in which we perpetuate this great myth that a guy called Christopher Columbus “discovered” the “New World.”

We have long known and recognized two giant monkey wrenches in the old orthodoxy—first, that Columbus came upon the American continent mistakenly, thinking he had reached India; and second, that there was nothing particularly virginal about the place, insomuch as it was already inhabited by tens of millions of unassuming natives—but we have yet to fully abandon the legend of Columbus as a pre-Revolutionary founding father.

Returning to Judaism and Passover, it is curious that the world’s oldest monotheism would settle on an easily disproved legend as its central narrative about its amazing survival, when there are so many actual, albeit less romantic, examples of Jewish perseverance from which to choose.

The same is true about the story of America, which boasts no shortage of genuine heroism and goodwill from its earliest days onward.

In the conclusion of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we are famously told, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Certainly, America is nothing if not a land of legends.

Still, as the citizenry of a country that has so much about which to be proud, why do we so strongly feel the need to embellish?  To turn everything into a matter of black and white when the gray matter is so much more interesting?  Why can’t we handle the truth?