In This Jewish Life, I include brief overviews of our major holidays throughout the year as a way to introduce the heart of the book: real-life stories of men and women as they pass through these seasons. In 2018, Passover begins on the evening of Friday March 30 and I’m sharing the text of my Passover overview as a sample from my book. Here it is …
“Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” M. Joseph, Judaism as Creed and Life
PESACH, PASSOVER, follows Purim by a month and a day and commemorates the liberation of the People of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Outside of the High Holidays, Passover is likely the most widely observed holiday of the Jewish calendar. Celebrated for eight days (seven in Israel and by Reform Jews), Passover begins with a ritual meal called a Seder, an hours-long celebration filled with food, discussion and singing that enables Jews to fulfill the commandment to retell the story of our going out from Egypt.
The most distinguishing feature of Passover is matzah, a flat cracker that substitutes for bread during the holiday. When the People of Israel fled Egypt, there was no time to allow their dough to rise. The flattened cakes they ate come down to us as matzah.
The laws of Passover dictate that prior to the beginning of the holiday, the home must be cleaned of all chametz, that is, any food that might have any leavening in it whatsoever. No bread, no noodles, no cereal or cookies. The night before the holiday begins, some families conduct a chametz search. By candlelight, children set out with a wooden spoon and feature to collect bits of chametz that their parents have set around the house for them to find. These last bits of chametz are set aside to be burned the following morning. Those who observe the law in the strictest sense will have in their homes only those foods that have been certified kosher for Passover.
On the Seder table are other foods symbolic of the Passover story—saltwater simulates the tears of the Hebrew slaves; horseradish represents the bitterness of their lives. An egg symbolizes the cycle of life; charoset, a savory mixture of wine, cinnamon, apples and walnuts, symbolizes the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. Four glasses of wine are drunk, at prescribed times during the meal.
To entertain children during the long meal, a tradition developed to hide a small piece of matzah called the afrikomen during the early part of the meal. Toward the close of the evening, all children present are invited to search for the afrikomen and then ransom it back to the head of the household.
The Passover story is told in a book called a Haggadah. Haggadot, plural, may be simple or ornately illustrated. They have long been an art form in and of themselves; there are hundreds of Haggadot to choose from.
“Jewish Time” is often code for being five, ten, even fifteen minutes late. Jewish time also has a deeper meaning, because the Jewish calendar is calibrated with the cycles of both the sun and the moon which means some holidays are in synch with a full or new moon. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins appropriately with the new moon. Each year on the first night of Sukkot, we look up through the cornstalk roof of our Sukkah and see a full moon shining through. It is a kiss my husband I always savor. And now, Passover’s full moon.
Look at the sky tonight and you will see a gibbous moon a sliver or two away from fullness. I am racing against that fullness to get everying in order for Passover. What does this involve? OK, that’s one Jewish question to which you know there can be five, ten, fifteen answers. For the Darvicks it means a total scrubbing of the kitchen to rout out the chametz (anything leavened). It means eating up all the noodles, bread, rice, peanut butter and tossing out-of-dates condiments their metal caps smeared with gunk. It means taking a toothbrush to the molding joints of our cabinet doors, wiping down the tracks of the drawers, sponging smears of grape jelly from the freezer gaskets and more. HOW does grape jelly get there, anyway? It also means a wholesesale switch over of dishes, baking pans, silverware and whatall, all, all and more all.
It is a pain in the neck and a boost to the soul, this fury of scrubbing, wiping down and sponging. The metaphors to inner cleaning rise like a sink full of bubbles. There is something so satisfying about the results: cabinet surfaces once again gleam softly in the light; the fridge is free of any (and I mean ANY) crumbs; no more wrinkled peas rolled out of reach on the freezer floor.
Newly-lined shelves are stocked with matzoh and other K4P (Kosher for Passover) foodstuffs. The vegetable bins are as full as my heart as I await the arrival of family and friends around our table. There is a lot of gratitude, too. To have so many friends and family to welcome; to have the means to purchase what we need and more. To be in a country where grocery aisles are filled with blue signs directing Jewish customers to the K4P aisles. Could Moses ever have envisioned such freedom? Could his wife ever have imagined having to switch the goatskins?
But still I am racing. There are a last few untesils to dunk in boiling water, fish to pick up, food to start cooking. There is the table to set with my great aunt’s plates, my grandmother’s silverware, the white melamine Seder plates the kids made in nursery school and the Elijah’s cup my grandfather gave us when we married. The moon edges closer to her fullness and each night I go outside and tell her, “I’m getting closer.,.I’ll make it. Come Friday night, my fullness will match yours.”
The March sky and now even April’s have been reminders of the ancients. Each evening in the western sky, Venus and Jupiter have been do-si-doe-ing across this heavenly dance floor of black velvet. Some nights they shuffle close as teenagers. Other nights they do a respectable minuet, their celestial bodies no closer than fingertip to fingertip. Last month a gleaming crescent of moon cut in on this magnificent planetary pirouette.
The ancients depended on these lights to mark time, plant their crops, guide their spiritual lives. And way way back in time, a time much closer to the time when the greater and lesser lights were set into the sky, a full moon shone upon a night of destruction and liberation, a night when the climactic tenth plague propelled from Egypt a band of former slaves who followed a leader who was following the voice of an invisible, yet omnipotent, God. They brushed their lintels with the blood of a sacrifical lamb, ate hurriedly with their neighbors and fled the straits of their enslavement, hastily-mixed bread on their backs and terrifying unknowns at their front.
The word Seder means order and this Friday night the world over, Jews will follow the same order: opening the same book, performing the same rituals, reading the same words. They will eat variations of the same foods and tell the same story to their children and their children’s children, a story almost as old as the stars and moon shining down upon them.
It is story that looks back into slavery and forward to freedom. A story that binds generation to generation and binds one’s insides with bread of affliction. (Eat matzoh for a week and you’ll know what I mean.) There will be readings from across centuries of philosophers, feminist readings, and perhaps a reading of eating bread during Passover because that was all there was to eat that Passover in the camps. Some will sing the spiritual Go Down Moses and all will sing Dayenu. And it will be enough. More than enough and good, so good.
So I rush to the final tasks, cross off the final items on my list, all the while whispering to the moon, “I am almost there, I am almost there.” All the while I whipser to God, “Thank you. Thank you for Your outstretched hand, and the parted sea. Thank you for Miriam’s song and the manna. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Passsover with the Henigs, 1966. Forefront smiling into the camera, my sister Amy. To her left, my dad. Head of table, Mr. Henig. I'm the one across from my dad, same bangs. Sister Lisa hidden by Mrs. Henig.
Thanks to my
Mom for capturing, and preserving, this priceless image.
Awoke to a snowfall. One month into spring by the calendar and there was snow on the ground. Snow here. Snow there. Snow was falling everywhere. Passover begins this evening and it was SNOWING. This Hebrew month – Nissan – was decreed in the Torah as the first month of the year. The natural world was beginning anew, regenerating everything in sight. All the sky above me was regenerating was snow. (Let’s leave Rosh Hashanah, that holiday we all call the Jewish New Year, for another post.)
When I’d gone to bed the night before, the hemlocks edging the backyard were upright and green, adolescents taking in the rays. By morning they were once again bearded with snow, their spines hunched over as if protecting their fading and feeble hopes for sun. I considered introducing an eleventh plague at the Seder this evening.
I drove to synagogue with the wipers wiping and the defroster defrosting. Today is the fast of the firstborn but the rabbis set aside the fast if firstborns studied first. So, firstborn that I am, I was off to synagogue for the morning service, a bit of study and a last bit of bread before the coming week of matzah. The morning would close with burning hametz – the last of the forbidden crumbs/noodles/bread that we had gathered last night.
We stood before the grill, waiting for the hastily-gathered twigs, paper and a windblown branch or two to catch fire. When it finally blazed we recited the blessing nullifying any errant crumbs we might have missed and threw our little bundles of chametz into the fire. We stayed a few minutes warming our hands and faces in the open flame while the snow fell around us.
I pondered the plague of snow God might have sent had Pharaoh ruled Minnesota instead. It occurred to me that God had sent something else from the heavens in addition to the insects, boils, hail and the rest. There was manna, too. As the story goes, the Children of Israel could imagine it into whatever they wanted – roast beef, pizza, cherry pie. Walking to my car, the snowflakes falling about me, I imagined them into cherry blossom petals, the kind that swirl through the air on fragrant breezes come May. Long after the snows have passed and we are truly set free from winter.
Been cleaning for Passover, a yearly ritual greeted with equal measures of excitement and dread. It’s such a pain! There are so many details! But if not for Pesach, would I ever take a toothbrush to the cabinet doorhinges or run a toothpick along the grooves of the roller-drawer supports, driving every last bread-y and pasta-ish crumb from my cupboards? I love the gleam of white, the crumb-less corners, the knowledge that even though no one else will notice, the undersides of my counter are as clean as the top. Were the freezer’s grey rubber seal a four-year-old boy, it would squirm and grimace at my wiping fervor.
There are all kinds of discoveries… the missing skewers that played hide and seek beneath a stack of dishtowels; that box of cornstarch I knew I had bought; the last bit of rubbing spices my son brought back from a trip out West. We made some mean burgers with the mixture.
The sweetest find was a gift bag sandwiched in between a dozen others of its kind.
How had I missed it in years past? Inside the bag were fifty-two slips, each numbered with a quality I loved about my husband. It had been a birthday present, one slip for each year of his life.
I sat down on the kitchen floor and began to read: 42. I love your dedication to family. 2. I love how we call each other and get busy signals. 17. I love laughing with you. Some were poignant: 8. I love how you make silly noises with McKenzie. Next month makes a year since we had to put our sweet dog to sleep. Another, now obsolete, has been transformed: 36. I love how you study with Elliot so he can succeed. These days such father-son conversations run to workplace advice. One referred to a virtue trumped by the economy: 35. I love that you are meticulous with our investments and finances. Sitting there amidst the unswept crumbs and bits I read every single one.
We’re coming up on 29 years. Throwing and tossing have their place. Better by far is what we hold onto.