Last night (at sundown) was the first night of Passover; and Jews the world over gathered with family, extended family and friends to celebrate the first of two Seder meals. The cooking goes on for days and the night goes on forever (if you’re observant).
It is a night of much food and much prayer. It isn’t unusual to still be sitting at the table at 10:00 or 11:00 pm. It’s also a time of major, and I mean MAJOR, clean up. All food not designated kosher for passover MUST be disposed of. Every pantry, every cupboard has to be emptied. Same with the refrigerator.
The kitchen has to be scrubbed, from top to bottom. As in, pretend it’s an operating room, kind of scrubbed. And everything in it, as well. As in the stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, Cuisinart, mixer, you name it. Lots of families (not mine) have separate china, cutlery and glassware for passover. And the ultra orthodox even have separate kitchens.
Like I said, my family was not, and is not, observant. We did always gather together for a huge, family meal. One night at my maternal grandmother’s, the second at my father’s. Which was wonderful. It was always tons of fun. But that was it.
I went to art school with a girl whose family were ultra, ultra orthodox. Her parents used to make a pilgrimage of a different sort, every year before the holiday. They’d head to New York to buy the kosher for passover products you couldn’t buy anywhere else. Like kosher nail polish, because my classmate used to bite her nails. And kosher lipstick, because you lick your lips.
In fact the pilgrimage we celebrate is the exodus, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Passover is the commemoration of our liberation, which took place more than 3,300 years ago. And the reason we eat matzoh for eight days (and nothing made with flour), is because the Jews had to leave in such a rush they had no time to wait for the bread dough to rise.
The food we eat for this holiday is actually very heavy, and filling. My mother used to complain of indigestion every year. I can see her now, hunched over our kitchen sink at midnight, drinking hot water and lemon. In our house, we went back to eating regular food the day after the first seder.
My funniest memories of Passover go back to when I was just a kid. When I was nine, I went to a resort with my parents for two weeks. There I met a girl from Boston, who was with her parents and older brother. We really hit it off, and spent our entire vacation hanging out together. And we kept in touch, once we were back home.
The following spring, Easter and passover coincided. They took place at exactly the same time. Her parents called mine and invited me to go to Boston for the week. My mother, who was a white-knuckle flier until the day she died, was terrified for me to go alone. My father and I prevailed. I was beside myself with excitement. Back then it was a pretty big deal for a 10-year old to travel alone.
Now 10 year olds smoke, drink and have sex. Times have certainly changed. Not that I’m condoning such behaviour. It just is what it is.
We got to the airport. My parents handed me over to special services, or whoever it is, unaccompanied children get handed to. Of course in those days, airport security wasn’t an issue. So my parents were able to walk me to the gate. With the escort who, in turn, handed me over to a flight attendant. Anyway, I will never forget the scene that greeted us.
The departure lounge was empty, except for 12 priests. Yep. I was flying to Boston in the company of a gaggle of priests.
My mother, who took it as a good omen, breathed a sigh of relief and finally released my hand, which she’d been clutching in a death grip. Now that I think of it, it could have meant just the opposite. For all any of us knew, they could have been sent to take me on a one-way trip to the pearly gates. Thankfully the thought never entered my mother’s head. Because trust me, if it had, my luggage might have been on the plane, but I would not have been!
Off I went.
Here’s the joke. My ‘religious’ experiences had been confined to what I’d seen my own family do. Which was virtually nothing. It never occurred to me it could be different, in different families. My friend’s family, for example, were observant. While they didn’t go to the extreme of buying kosher cosmetics, there was not a piece of bread to be found in the house. Not a chocolate bar. Not a half-eaten bag of chips. Nothing made with flour. Not even jello.
There were two seders, as is the custom. Each lasted from sundown until around 11 p.m. It was probably around 9:00 p.m. when we started to eat. We went through every page, every line, every word of the special prayer book. In Hebrew. Which I do not speak. I was talking to myself. Literally.
Debbie and I kept in touch. We stayed friends for years. But I NEVER went to visit her in Boston again. She preferred to visit me, anyway. It was her once-a-year liberation from all things kosher.