Passover Present and Past by
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I wrote and published the piece below several years ago. It is the “think back” part of my story. As we all know, this year (despite what Trump says) churches will be empty on Easter. The only Easter egg hunts will take place within a nuclear family sheltering in place. And for those of us who celebrate Passover, a Zoom Seder was the best many of us could do. Most of the special foods are unobtainable anyhow. Just my luck that we had been invited to celebrate with friends of my daughter, their parents, and my daughter’s family. All I had to do was bring was the soup. Instead, my husband and I sat by the computer with our Haggadahs and attempted some version of a virtual Seder with our children and grandkids, minus most of the foods described below. When we got to reciting  the ten plagues, I know all of us were thinking about an eleventh one that was keeping is apart this year. Next year, at a real table with loved ones.

PASSOVER PREPARATION FEELS LIKE BEING A SLAVE IN EGYPT FOR ME

Cartoon by Retrospect contributor Marcia Liss

When we got to reciting the ten plagues during our Zoom seder, I know all of us were thinking about an eleventh one that kept us apart this year.

I’m not a particularly observant Jew, so I really have no right to complain about Passover. After all, I don’t switch all of my dishes or buy a totally new pantry full of food or clean my house obsessively to remove all traces of chametz (leavened bread). The latter might not be such a bad idea. I could rid my home of all those cracker crumbs and Pirate Booty pieces wedged in my furniture by my grandkids.  Does anyone do spring cleaning anymore?

I digress – back to Passover. Here’s what I do have to do if I am hosting a Seder:

Plan a menu that includes a ridiculous variety of food regardless of how many people are coming. Even though most of us could live without these things (and live longer), we will need chopped liver, gefilte fish, chicken-matzo ball soup, kishke, hard-boiled eggs, a matzo casserole (call it what you will – they all taste the same), seasonal vegetables, potatoes, chicken and/or brisket, and at least three desserts. Same menu for 10 or 30 people.

Shop many times over, searching for foods that are easy to make and also kosher for Passover. This means going to several markets in neighborhoods that stock these things. And going back again and again because I have forgotten one thing.

Buy a huge quantity of matzo. I could buy one or two boxes but it’s so much cheaper to get the 5-pack. Ditto a massive number of eggs. I told you this was not a holiday for the healthy.

Create the Seder plate. That means making charoses, a dish of chopped apples, nuts, cinnamon, wine, and assorted other goodies, depending on family tradition. We will also need parsley, a roasted egg, horseradish root (or a jar of horseradish). Finally, my personal challenge – I will need a lamb bone. This item is not usually available where I shop, but I can’t bring myself to use a chicken bone. So, I go to a butcher shop where they stock these. It’s just one more shopping trip.

Make a special dessert that everyone will eat without using flour. It’s not impossible. I’ve made flourless chocolate cake, chocolate mousse trifles, and any number of special mixes (see shopping above). All of these items call for 1,000 eggs and lots of sugar. More healthy eating.

For a woman who is accustomed to cooking easy meals for two, all of the domestic demands tend to freak me out.  But who am I to complain? If I were observant, I would be covering all of my countertops and preparing all of this in specials pots and pans.

The next step is planning the Passover service. Since I have young grandkids, none of the six sets of Haggadahs I have purchased over the years will work. The traditional Seder starts at sundown and can last past midnight. Ours can’t be more than fifteen minutes long or my grandkids will bolt. I spend hours editing A Children’s Haggadah, which is already abridged, to its essential parts. I know – they should learn to sit and listen, but I know they won’t. I decided a few years ago that it was better for them to participate and enjoy it than to watch them squirm and for me to sit and listen to their whining.

If I were setting a proper Passover table, I would need my nicest tablecloth and napkins as well as special dishes, silver, glasses, and wine glasses that I only use for this holiday. Since I am far from proper, I shop (again) for the nicest paper and plastic ware I can find. I must remember to put out dishes of salt water for dipping and lots of wine in case we get past the first cup.

A website on how to prepare for the holiday recommends a nap before (LOL), but I know that will never happen. In my tradition, I must work myself into a state of exhaustion to begin the Seder in the proper frame of mind. Then, I must miss parts of it going back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen to fetch important foods and keep everything hot. By the time we get to the page that says, “Dinner is Served,” I’m ready for my nap.

When our kiddy Haggadah proclaims, “This year all Jews are not free,” I briefly think that applies to all of the women-folk who put this production together. But I know I am being ridiculous. I think about people all over the world who wish they were lucky enough to have all of this food to share with people they love in the comfort of a home. I look at my family and guests and understand why this is the one holiday celebrated in the home rather than in a place of worship. After slaving over all of the preparations, I am free to partake in the blessing that is sharing a wonderful tradition.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Brava Laurie!
    Years ago I came across a funny Haggadah that had bracketed prompts in the text that read something like:
    (Now the cook gets the gefilte fish)
    (Now the cook heats the soup) etc

    Next year may we celebrate once again with family and friends!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Dana, I love the notion of a Haggadah with directions for the cook. Maybe I wouldn’t forget to serve something that way. I usually find one food in my refrigerator after everyone has left that never made it to the table — LOL!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    A very good description of what it takes to create a seder, Laurie. That’s why, when I was doing it at my house (and actually running the seder, since my husband couldn’t, not knowing much about being Jewish beyond eating the food), that I had to hire a caterer to provide and serve the food, while I ran the seder.

    The coronavirus certainly changed things, but for me, it gave me a chance to be with my brother; something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, so that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

    Be well and stay safe. And I think you are correct. Does anyone do spring cleaning anymore? I remember my mother cleaning the house from top to bottom, clothes going into and out of cedar closets. A million years ago!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You are right that having some professional help would be a good idea. But when it’s my husband’s family, his sisters are pretty helpful with the clean up. My kids, not so much. It did occur to me that with my kids in 3 different states, we could use Zoom after this is over to “get together.” It’s so hard to find a way/time for everyone to be together in real time. I think spring cleaning is a lost art, at least in my household. Although getting ready for a move is a painful version of it. Stay safe and lookiong forward to the time when we can write about this plague in retrospect.

  3. Suzy says:

    This is great, Laurie, both the piece from several years ago, and the new introduction you added in response to COVID-19. As to the burden on the cook, I have always participated in potluck seders, so the burden gets shared equally by all. My specialty was the charoset, although I was also great at hard-boiling the eggs (lol). So I have enormous respect for you for doing the whole thing. And Marcia’s cartoon is perfect. Too bad that this year you didn’t get to go to the seder where all you would have had to bring was the soup. Next year at a real table with loved ones, for sure!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Amen, Suzy. Even though we have had a potluck aspect to our celebrations over the years, if it’s at my house, it’s my mess. I’m always exhausted by it — so many details to manage. Plus, I keep changing the Haggadah to make it more inclusive and meaningful. I make myself nuts trying to create a meaningful seder with good food for all. Not this year, though! We should exchange charoset recipes. And my hard boiled eggs are sometimes hard to peel. What’s your secret?

  4. Marian says:

    Laurie, you’ve perfectly described the craziness of Seder preparation. I marvel at how the previous generation of women did it. Kishke as well? We didn’t do it for Passover, although being part Romanian, I do love it. Now that my diet has changed, I’ve been eating gluten-free matzah and relishing those desserts without wheat. Here in the Bay Area we have a store called Mollie Stone’s that carries lots of kosher food all year and goes all out for Passover. You can find almost anything there. However, this year it would have required a dedicated trip, and I just wasn’t up for that. We will say the blessing over plain matzah and wine, with a Seder plate in our imaginations.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      This was definitely not the year for me to observe Passover. We had virtual seders with two of our kids & their kids. I refuse to waste food these days, so we used a raw egg. Couldn’t get the nuts for charoset or parsley. Used a tiny chicken bone and some weird horseradish Instacart sent me. We did have matzo, and I made vegetarian chicken matzo ball soup for us and our daughter’s family from a mix. Had to leave it on her porch. All in all, it was pretty lame, and I still had a lot of clean up for just the two of us. It was a strange Passover, in keeping with the strangeness of these times. Covid-19 was our eleventh plague.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Laurie, and also a cautionary chapter in the age old tale of “Be careful what you wish for.” Finally, this year, you get a Seder without all the exhausting, nerve-wracking preparations. Happy with the trade-off? Of course not. But, of course, the whole, subtle point of your original story was that despite (or maybe even because of) all the attendant efforts, your Seder is a truly cherished tradition. Next year….

  6. #WordToTheWomen. Thank you, Laurie. Your intro paragraph about this year provided a bit of a balance to your wonderful piece. It captures both the sweetness and exhausted-ness of trying to put on an intricate, ancient family traditions, as society moves through its own paces. I love that you have given in to having the kids actually enjoy it, instead of having memories of boring words and rigid expectations be a part of the memories they are building,

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, January. After trying to celebrate remotely and not boing able to secure all of the traditional foods, I have a better perspective on the hard work that goes into maintaining and updating traditions.

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