Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pesach is over--and I'm sad

J's going through Family Guy on Netflix like it's the only show available. Last night we watched the one in which Lois blows a gasket getting ready for Christmas. She even beats up and then sets fire to Frosty the Snowman.

It made me think of Pesach.

It's a pain in the ass holiday! It brings out the best and worst in people. In particular, it stresses (usually) mothers to a near breaking point as they prepare for it by cleaning the house top to bottom, replacing or rekashering an entire triple-kitchen (explanation to follow) and dealing with guests, children and logistics.

Also last night, by sheer dint of the universe's sense of humor, I read a great blog on Pesach: Ingall talks about all the stresses and perfection issues that Pesach brings. It occurred to me, as I read, that she forgot to mention one interesting thing. Part of the stress of Pesach is living up to all the Pesachs we remember. In thinking about it, it occurred to me that I remember the Seder experiences in my mother's house as being heavenly. The ones I've made I think of as mostly ok. But I wonder if that's a position problem. I wonder if my mother thinks of hers as mostly ok.

My family jokes that Pesach isn't complete unless some minor household repair has turned into a major emergency. We've replaced boilers, toilets, ovens, major kitchen appliances, roofs, large furniture, and nearly everything else in the home because of emergent damage at Pesach time. There is no holiday without a disaster. But we always managed to get it together by Seder-time.

Now for the promised explanation: My parents have always kept kosher. A kosher home has three sets of kitchenware: One for milk, one for meat, and one for either/neither. The either/neither set is mostly glass, and mostly cookware. The meat and milk are complete sets of dishes, cookware, silver, appliances, etc. The Kosher for Passover kitchen either replaces each of these sets with a separate set, or makes what is available ritually kosher, or a combination of the two. It took my parents years, but my mother now has what amounts to 6 complete kitchens: Three for everyday use and 3 for Passover.

Preparation for Passover requires cleaning the house top to bottom, to make sure both that there is no "leaven" left anywhere and to help ritually bring on the mindset of a clean slate. One would expect that the housecleaning would take place before the New Year because of this "clean slate" idea, and some does, but nowhere near what Israelis like to call "Pesach clean." Why? Because we leave our slave-selves behind on Seder night. We become new people. It is our job to (re)dedicate our selves to freedom--both our own and others'--on Seder night. We must let go of the old and allow for a clean start--literally.

If one is preparing a seder, the Pesach prep continues into a full day of cooking.

My mother has three daughters and one son. All four of us are brilliant cooks, I think. But part of becoming a cook is learning at the foot of the family cook. We did this in what I like to call the Kitchen Community. Each of us has a particular strength, and my mother would encourage us in that strength by assigning dishes. My sister, one year, decided she wanted to try to make a soup. She's been the pesach vegetable soup cook ever since. I HATE matzah balls, but one year we found out I somehow manage to make heavenly ones. I became the family matzah ball maker. My father makes the Schoog (hot sauce) required for two of the main dishes my mom makes and general happiness in a Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) home. He's also in charge of Charoset; a nuts, apples, wine, and spices, jam-like spread used to symbolize the mortar in the bricks of the pyramids.

By the time we're ready to change over the kitchens, we have been cleaning for weeks. The night of the changeover (before the eve of Passover), we put some music on the box and got started; my mother controlling the flow of traffic and job assignments. My mother would make an excellent CEO. She can get any project going, can keep a million things in her head at once and knows how to manage people, time, money and all other resources involved. It boggles my mind.

My memories are of late nights (which we knew would be followed by early mornings), singing aloud to the music, picking out harmonies with my sisters, cleaning, cooking, replacing whole sections of the house, and feeling GREAT! I'm sure my mother's stress level was high, but she made it such an enjoyable experience I actually looked forward to Pesach, work and all.

We spent the next day cooking, laying the table, preparing the house for guests--all to the sound of music. It was glorious.

My parents took a rather Chassidic turn to Seders. The general practice is that kids are kids. Banishing them will keep them from the experience and making them sit like adults will make them hate it. But if one lets children play in the context of the seder (or synagogue service) kids will associate the practice of Judaism with joy and come to love it. They will also grow to participate, and choose to do so out of a love for the practice.

I'm glad my parents saw it that way. Our seders included food fights--using the candy and nuts my mother provided in little bowls to stave off hunger for the three hour long telling of the exodus before dinner--along with Hallakhic (that is the study of Jewish law) fights. We don't hide the Afikoman, we carry it; one by one, each person at the table gets a pillowcase with Afikoman in it to carry over her shoulder symbolizing the exodus. We fought over who would carry first, because that kid would have the "privilege" of leaning back and cracking the Matzah to bits on the back of her chair!

One of my favorite memories is from a year when I invited a Jewish college friend to seder. When he left he told me he had the most fun he'd ever had at a seder and he was surprised. I asked why. He said, "Well, your dad's a rabbi. I figured it'd be stuffy and boring and serious." Well, we were serious, but never stuffy or boring. In fact, I think my life has been many things, but boring has never been on the list. My parents don't "do" boring--and none of my siblings do either.

In many ways, this year's seder reminded me of all those things. I was invited to my cantor's house and being unable to make the 3 hour trip to my parents' I gladly accepted. My cantor is in her second year of "making Pesach" and is still learning how to handle all the stress. Her husband is blind, and thankfully was raised by amazing parents who never made that a reason or excuse to not be involved: he's the muscle of the setup, putting together tables and organizing things, carrying the wine, etc., much like my dad is. And with a few more years of practice I have no doubt she will come to the place of beautiful equilibrium my mother has cultivated.

But it made me miss home. It made me grateful for all the joy my parents built into Pesach. It made me remember why I love this holiday so much. And while I know that Lois speaks for parents everywhere who get stressed out over major holidays and whose families don't recognize the hard work that goes into happy holidays, I hope my parents remember our seders as heavenly--because I know that I do.

Next year: Pesach in Jerusalem!