Despite the fact that I haven’t attended a Seder for lo these many years, Passover remains my favorite Jewish holiday. Though my mother was Jewish and my father was Christian, neither of them were really too hip on celebrating their respective heritages, so most of what I learned about Passover and Jewish tradition came from my mother’s sister, Aunt Frannie. I went to live with Aunt Frannie and Uncle Mo when I was fifteen, after my parents died. Since they were Orthodox Jews, over the next four years and until I went away to college, I learned everything I ever wanted to know about Judaism but was afraid to ask — and then some.
Orthodox Judaism is steeped in ritual, much of which may seem odd at best and absurd at worst to outsiders, but each nuance makes sense within the tradition. For instance, the Sabbath is a very sacred day of the week, and no labor may be done on this day, which starts at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday. Since, in the olden days, starting any kind of fire for cooking or other purposes was considered labor, it is forbidden for a devout Jew to turn lights on and off or press an elevator button, since that is seen as igniting an electrical version of a “spark.” This meant, paradoxically, that on the “day of rest,” rather than taking the elevator up and down to shul, you had to shlep up and down the stairs.
As technology advanced, so did ways to kind of get around some of these modern dilemmas. Now my aunt’s building has one “Shabbos elevator” that stops at every floor on Saturday, so one needn’t press the elevator button to get upstairs. My aunt had a timer that turned the living room lights on at dusk and off at around 11 pm. To heat up food for the Friday night meal, my aunt put a metal tray on top of two burners that she put on a low flame before Shabbos (Sabbath).
Passover is one of the most sacred of Jewish holidays, but when I was younger all I knew is that it was a lot of fun. The meal was long and drawn out, and we all read from the Haggadah, which provided text in Hebrew and English so I could understand what all the chanting and singing — and the story of Passover — was all about. The tale it told was of the Exodus of the Jews from their Egyptian captors, and how G-d parted the Red Sea to let them escape. Since they had little time to prepare for this event, the bread they brought for the journey had no time to leaven, and thus matzoh is eaten for the entire holiday, which extends over eight days.
There is a Yiddish saying, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Aside from the fact that Jews have been persecuted since time immemorial, the rituals involved in Passover alone give new meaning to the word “difficult.” All traces of leavened bread must be removed from the home prior to Passover, which involves a very thorough version of Spring cleaning. Every crumb must be excised, and only food which is Kosher for Passover (and very expensive to boot) must be used.
Since Orthodox Jews never mix milk with meat, all homes have two sets of dishes throughout the year — one for meat and one for dairy. In addition, every Passover the regular dishes are put away and the Passover milk and meat dishes are brought down from the top of the cabinets for use during the holiday.
Before I went to live with my aunts, I was blissfully unaware of the momentous effort that was involved in Passover preparation — and what I’ve mentioned above is the mere tip of the iceberg. But what I do remember is seeing all my beloved aunts and uncles and cousins around the table.
Passover is also memorable for me because it marks my very first “buzz.” During the Seder, three cups of sweet kosher wine are poured at various intervals during the ceremony — and one extra cup is left untouched for the Prophet Elijah. One year, when I was about twelve, rather than just taking a sip or two each time the wine was refilled, I drank my fill of all three and “passed over” from sobriety into a woozy state that I will never quite forget. But Elijah’s cup was still off-limits.
Though many people see Chanukkah as a big holiday equivalent to Christmas, the truth is that it is a relatively minor affair, especially compared to Passover. Furthermore, the fact that Passover and Easter coincide so closely is very significant, for the Last Supper was actually a Passover seder. The Communion wafer and the wine so significant to Christianity are, in effect, the matzoh and wine that was shared at the final Passover meal before Jesus was sacrificed. I daresay that there are many Jews and perhaps Christians who may not make this connection, but I think it is an important one.
So this year, though I sent (my boyfriend) BG’s mom a flowering bonsai for Easter, I will make a valiant effort to stay away from the giant chocolate Easter bunnies. Instead, I’ll buy my favorite Passover treat — chocolate covered matzohs — and reflect on the importance of this holiday season to so many millions of Christians and Jews. In this delicious way, I’ll try to keep alive the memory of both my parents and how closely connected Jews and Christians really are. The ties that bind our common heritage are good to remember this time of year — and hopefully during the rest of the year as well.