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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Core Culinary Competency

Dunkin’ Donuts is in the midst of an identity crisis.

As reported by NBC News (and noticed by regular customers, I suppose), the Massachusetts-based coffee mega-chain has tweaked the look of its cafés in recent weeks, with the sudden appearance of big, cushy chairs, quasi-casual soft lighting and free Wi-Fi service.

That’s right:  Dunkin’ Donuts is turning itself into Starbucks.

As explained in a press release, “The modernized design incorporates many new features to create a warm environment for guests who seek a longer, more relaxed visit to Dunkin’ Donuts as part of their day.”

The article quotes a retail strategist, Todd Hooper, who reasons, “People are eating and drinking around the clock now and working wherever they have to.”  To better serve a growing demand for public spaces in which to do so, he continues, fast food establishments such as Dunkin’ are “going from just a kitchen to being an out-of-home den or office or conference room.”

Certainly, this phenomenon of coffee shop-as-office is not new.  For most people it has existed, albeit in increasingly ubiquitous forms, for as long as Starbucks has—the Seattle-based java house (and Dunkin’s primary competitor) having more or less introduced the form.

But then there is my point:  If I want a place to buy coffee and sit down to read or bang on my laptop for the better part of an afternoon, I will go to Starbucks.

However, if I am rather in the mood for patronizing a massive coffee behemoth but do not wish to linger—and if I am perhaps also nursing a hankering for Boston Kreme—then I opt for Dunkin’.

This is the dynamic we, the people, have agreed upon for a very long time, and the only one with which I am truly comfortable.

The term that springs to mind is “core competency.”  This is the notion that a successful business tends to excel at one particular thing, and should simply concentrate on perfecting its aptitude for said thing, rather than attempting to mimic said success on something entirely different.

The current proliferation of long-established fast food joints drastically altering their looks and menus in order to compete for the dollars of busy working folk would seem a flagrant violation of this principle.

For all the business sense it might make to embrace a model of evolving one’s identity to cater to America’s evolving needs and tastes, I lament this trend nonetheless, for the intrinsic dishonesty of which it smacks.

In point of fact, Dunkin’ Donuts reupholstering its interior is among the least alarming examples of this.

Within the big name food service industry, the true offenders of the “core competency” rule are the ones undertaking full-scale recalibrations of their actual food, and, in turn, their very selves.

After an increasingly lucrative period of revolutionizing the semi-healthy lunch market, Subway sandwich shops started selling breakfast food in 2010—a move perhaps not quite as odd as four years earlier, when it introduced pizza.

Amidst the worldwide weight loss craze of the last decade, the undisputed king of unholy portion sizes, the Cheesecake Factory, unveiled its “SkinnyLicious” menu in 2011, featuring dishes of more reasonable acreage and nutritional value.  Comparable “family” restaurants such as Applebee’s and Olive Garden have made similar moves to attract those rare Americans who do not wish to exit in a Category 5 food coma.

And of course there are the enduring hamburger staples like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, which have bent over backwards to sell products not completely drenched in salt and trans fats.

From an illuminating recent article in the New York Times, we learn that despite having these plentiful new “healthy options,” even the most otherwise health-conscious McDonald’s customers, by and large, are still ordering deep-fried crap.

While the article quotes all sorts of experts in an attempt to solve this so-called mystery, I suspect the true answer comes from food consultant Darren Tristano, who poses the radical theory that “consumers don’t see fast food as a place to eat healthy.”

You don’t say.

In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan issues the injunction, “Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not.”  Per example:  If you want ice cream, eat ice cream.  Don’t waste your time with those non-fat, no-sugar-added “frozen dairy dessert” imposters.

In like spirit, we just might need to face the awful truth that when a person enters McDonald’s, it’s because he wants a goddamned hamburger, because that’s what McDonald’s is for.

Establishments that peddle culinary garbage ought to embrace their unique place in the food universe, and not attempt to be something they are not.  There are certain destinations whose core purpose is, and has always been, to contribute to the great American tradition of slowly eating ourselves to death, and by God, they should not stop now.

Wash Your Hands

I do not mean to sound like a prude, but I make a point of washing my hands every time I go to the bathroom.

Call it a personality quirk.  It was the hygienic habit upon which my beloved grandmother most insisted, and one I have never quite kicked.  Indeed, on occasion I will even take to the sink before sitting down to dinner, using both the water and the soap.  If I’m feeling especially hoity-toity, I will do the same before breakfast and lunch as well.

Nonetheless, I am acutely aware that many of my fellow Americans do not trouble themselves with this admittedly time-consuming activity, and I would not presume to impose my own snooty traditions upon them.

In a fresh study published by the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers found that a resounding 5.3 percent of people using public restrooms washed their hands for at least 15 seconds.  (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.)

Among the subjects observed, 10.3 percent did not wash their hands at all, while an additional 22.8 percent used water but not soap.  The report notes that “the presence of even discreet observers could have affected behavior, probably encouraging more hand washing,” which somehow does not make me feel any better.

For that matter, neither do the signs in the restrooms at Starbucks, which provide a step-by-step explanation (complete with accompanying illustrations) about how hand-washing works.

Ostensibly, these diagrams serve to reassure Starbucks customers that the coffee behemoth takes the “all employees must wash hands” policy seriously.  To the contrary, I dare say we can be forgiven for growing suspicious of the company’s hiring practices, if these signs fairly reflect its estimation of the intelligence of the average employee.

I remember well the moment in my junior high school cooking class when the teacher cautioned us, “If you saw what happens in the kitchen of any fast food restaurant, you’d never eat there again.”

All these years later, thanks to a plethora of enterprising documentarians and other journalists who have done the dirty work for us, we no longer have to idly speculate about what atrocities our Big Mac suffered on its journey from the slaughterhouse to our plate, let alone the much shorter, but no less treacherous, path from the grill to the counter.

It was only last week that America was subjected to a photograph of a Taco Bell worker using his tongue to polish a tall stack of hard taco shells, to which Bill Maher observed, rightly enough, “What?  Like Taco Bell was health food before?”

The debate we might have, from these anecdotes and many others, is to what extent personal hygiene and cleanliness is a personal choice, and at what point it becomes a societal imperative.

The matter of fast food workers is among the easier ones to adjudicate.  It is fairly difficult to argue that the folks who handle your food are not responsible for ensuring their paws are reasonably sterile.  While we cannot expect our lunch to be free of every last micro particle that could possibly cause us harm, it would seem a reasonable enough request for it to be devoid of the urinary and fecal matter of the good folks who prepared it.

But what of the rest of us?  Do we not owe the same courtesy to our fellow customers?

As the cliché goes, every time you touch a doorknob, you are also touching the hand of every other person who touched that doorknob since it was last cleaned.  The same goes for every tabletop, every salt shaker and, of course, every coin and dollar bill.  And how often does anyone bring his stack of legal tender to the cleaners?

We know we inhabit a dirty world, and most of the time we passively accept it and hope for the best.  What other choice do we have?  In a culture in which one in three does not believe in using soap, things do not look promising.

The challenge for us—individually and collectively—is to stop viewing hand-washing and the like as mere matters of personal preference, and regard them instead as mandatory prerequisites for living in a civilized society, in which our own behavior affects others in ways we are not always aware but ought to be.

As a nominal libertarian, I take no pleasure in the notion that I should behave for the benefit of people other than me, and that my actions have consequences outside my own self.  However, part of becoming an enlightened person is to face unpleasant facts, and the moral imperative of washing one’s hands is one of them.