Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pesach is Coming!

Update: Since this was written, in 2004, both children have graduated from college. Our Seder table is filled with friends we’ve had seder with for almost 20 years – and their grown children; with cousins who live in town; and adult friends of our kids’ who come to learn and to share. In re-reading this one more time, I’m struck again by my in-laws’ generosity in welcoming me in to their family, in sharing their rituals and customs so lovingly, and in supporting and sustaining us through the difficulties we’ve faced. We’ve been blessed.

Pesach is coming! Pesach is coming! The mantra in my mind begins shortly after Tu B'shevat, when I walk into grocery stores and see the first boxes of matzah stacked in the aisle. "Oh, no," I think, "Pesach is coming. I've got to get ready."

When I began to explore Judaism, Pesach was the most overwhelming of all of the rituals or practices. My husband-to-be took me home to his parents' in '78 before we got married. I'd been there often enough to recognize the pervasive changes in his mother’s kitchen. I panicked -- I knew I could never "keep Pesach" the way she did.... I suspected you had to be "born Jewish" in order to know all the rules... I had no intention of converting at that point. We had decided to raise our children as Jews and maintain a Jewish home -- and it would be my husband’s responsibility to pull those pieces together.

We continued to "go home for Seder" for the next couple of years, when we could. The holiday became more familiar, but no less overwhelming. By this time, I was studying with Rabbi Gene Lipman, z'l, and (although I had not yet decided to convert) knew that to "do Pesach" would take more than just my husband’s efforts -- it would have to be a family affair. I asked my mother-in-law how she ever managed to remember everything. She shared with me her “secret for remembering details" when she showed me her manila folder labeled "Pesach." Huh! I realized that meant we wouldn't have to remember everything -- just where we put the folder. Maybe this was possible after all.

In 1982, the emotional content attached to Pesach struck me with full force. That year, my mother-in-law greeted us at the door with outstretched arms as she took her grandson from me. "Pesach is coming," she crooned, "Pesach is here!"

Our son had been born 8 weeks prematurely the preceding fall. His English names remembered three out of his four great-grandfathers. But when it came to the name he would be called to Torah, I flat-out refused to name him "Fishel." "No son of mine is going to be called Little Fish," I sniffed to Rabbi Lipman. Gene grinned, as only Gene could when he knew he'd stirred up a storm, and suggested that we consider a name beginning with the "pey" sound. He made some suggestions. Finally, I settled on "Pesach" thinking, how appropriate it was for this child who had been so at-risk. My husband concurred: our son became Pesach.

That year, my father-in-law read from the haggadah (Maxell House, of course -- was there any other?) the mandate to tell the story as if we ourselves had been saved. I watched that little baby being passed around the table from person to person and the full impact began to sink in. For the first time since his birth six months earlier, I paused in my busy-ness. My son -- by the grace of God and modern medicine -- had been saved. The Angel of Death didn't stop by his crib in the Neonatal ICU. No sooner had I begun to grasp that reality than another one struck. By our decision, he would be Jewish -- no, that wasn't exactly accurate: by my decision he would be Jewish.

I could have said, "no," you see -- I could have said to my husband when we were courting: "Gee, I can't agree to raise our kids Jewish." Or "Gee, if that's what you want, I can't marry you." But I had agreed -- and the emotional import of that decision was beginning to make itself felt. By agreeing to raise our children as Jews in a Jewish household, I had also agreed not to raise them with the meaningful traditions I had grown up with. The holiday rituals, the life cycle rituals, the ebb and flow of the annual calendar, the sense of spirituality and the Divine -- all would be from his tradition and none from mine.

So along with the sense of redemption came a sense of loss. And I was struck again by how "in sync" I felt with how I imagined the Israelites must have felt -- leaving the familiar (even if, in their case, it was so bad) for the unknown must have involved a sense of loss as well as excitement, relief and liberation. How could it be otherwise?

When we went home that year, I bought a manila folder and inserted in it my mother-in-law’s recipe for chicken soup with matzah balls and my father-in-law’s recipe for matzah brei. It was a beginning.

Over the next few years, we made many decisions: when to clean and how much; who to ask to seder; what haggadah; separate dishes or not -- and did that mean pots & pans, too?; which foods to serve; who gets the afikoman prize; to sing or not (traditionally, my husband’s family didn't -- we do, but not a lot!). There was the year that Pesach only ate Cheerios (before the Kosher for Passover substitute) -- that was the year I declared Cheerios were "kosher-for-Passover-but-only-in-the-kitchen." My orthodoxly-raised mother-in-law rose to the occasion: she kept a spare box in the laundry room! Pesach was coming, you see.

Or the year that both my kids were eating only peanut butter. I was *not* going to spend 8 days in food wars -- that's not my definition of freedom. So peanut butter (a new jar untainted by bread crumbs) was declared "kosher l'pesach" by Rabbi Mom. (It was interesting to note that the Conservative Rabbis followed suit four years later!)

There was the year my daughter begged me to buy extra boxes of sugared fruit slices because all her friends kept snitching hers. And the year, my father-in-law and his brother-in-law grated horseradish root in the kitchen -- and the fumes were so intense their tears flowed freely -- and the rest of us were in gales of laughter for hours. (My father-in-law got a horseradish dish for Chanukah the following year -- and the laughter began all over). Or the year that I put symbols of the plagues on the table and challenged the kids to figure out which symbols represented which plague -- my kids were disdainful: they were too old for such nonsense. But next year, they searched until they found where I’d stashed the toys and insisted that they be on the table.

Or the year -- the one that ended up being our last all together -- when against familial protests, I inserted an adaptation of "The Four Children" entitled "The Four Generations." That reading ends: "And what about the grandparents, whose question is almost too difficult to ask? To the grandparents you shall say, "Look around the table. All of this and more." That was the year my in-laws schlepped chicken soup and pot roast on the plane from Florida – and my father-in-law again commandeered my kitchen to make matzah brei. The following year, we cried our way through seder: my mother-in-law had died unexpectedly right before Purim.

This year, Pesach is coming home early (spring break doesn't coincide), but he's asked to take Grandpa's matzah brei recipe back for his dorm mates. It will be our last Passover with our daughter home. I'll dig out my folders (they've grown to four), find my recipe for Passover granola, and decide that closets don't have to be cleaned, since we don't normally eat there and what would chametz being doing in the closet any way...

Tears and laughter; laughter and tears. Over time as the journey unfolded, the rituals have become as familiar as a favorite sweatshirt. Truth be told -- I find the preparations for Passover still almost overwhelming. But there is familiarity in the overwhelming-ness. I enjoy the Seder, and take comfort that it's finally become familiar -- but it's not my favorite part.
My favorite part of Passover? When I sit at the kitchen table on the first morning of Pesach -- crunching my matzah, watching the birds, rediscovering all my favorite Passover accoutrements. My house is clean, my menus planned for the next eight days, the office is closed. I pause. And remember. And feel connected to the generations of Jews who have gone before us. And I thank the Eternal for both life and freedom -- and the gift of being able to choose and recommit.

Pesach is coming! Pesach is coming! Excuse me, I've got to get ready!

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