I was surprised this year when a few fellow newish Jewish friends told me they weren’t hosting a seder, had never been to one, or up to now had served pasta in commemoration of Pesach–Passover–the world’s most famous no-bread holiday. Technically, Jews avoid chametz–or self-leavened grains–during the week-long festival, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. (Say it with me now: HUM-itz, with the ‘h’ like the Scottish ‘ch’ in loch.) As the story goes, when the Israelites fled into the desert, they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. Thus, three millennia of constipated Jews one week out of every year.
It’s worse for Jews-by-Choice. I’m an adventurous eater by anyone’s standards. But notwithstanding the unexpected deliciousness of a matzah lasagna, there’s only so much cleverly disguised edible cardboard one can stand turning to Elmer’s Glue in your gut before the urge arises to raid the nearest Subway.
As observant as I’ve been on my conversion journey, there was no question–I would be hosting and leading my own seder. The word means ‘order’ in Hebrew, to denote the specific order of rituals Jews perform during the special meals to tell and re-tell the story of the Exodus to future generations at the table. I studied for weeks to get it right. Every seder participant reads from a book called a Haggadah–literally, ‘the telling.’ I chose a brief, English-heavy version to guide our interfaith seder. I was the closest thing to a Jew at the table. Like me, Ryan and our four guests (Mr. & Mrs. Welles Park Bulldog and Mr. & Mrs. Hoosierella) were raised in the Christian tradition, and I wanted to make sure no one felt excluded. (Especially by a page or six of untransliterated Hebrew.)
I needn’t have worried. I hit all the blessings, the turkey was perfect, the horseradish was death-defying, the charoset was phenomenal–and best of all, everyone spoke, participated, and discussed the meaning of Passover and its rituals–namely, redemption and freedom. The joy continued the following day at a fabulous Second-Night Seder hosted by a sweetly singing synagogue friend.
And on the third night I realized the error of my ways. Once the chametz is hidden in the closet, the seder leftovers are gone, and five more days (or six, if you’re Conservative or Orthodox) with no bread, buns, cookies, or cake stretch out in front of you, that’s when reality sinks in. In addition to clearing their homes of any trace of wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats, Ashkenazic Jews (with roots in Eastern Europe) also avoid kitniyot–corn (including corn syrup), rice, and legumes that two 13th-century French rabbis feared people might mistake for chametz. My Jewish ancestors are likely Sephardic Jews (from the Iberian Peninsula) who do not prohibit kitnyot–nor does Reform Judaism. Yet I was still doing a slow swan dive into yeast-deprived madness.
I smiled through non-flour quiche breakfasts and pricey sushi lunches at the office. At home, once the meaty leftovers ran out, I trooped through plate after plate of sweet and savory matzah brie (fried matzah and egg), matzah macaroni and cheese, macaroons, and kosher l’Pesach ring jell after ring jell after ring jell.
Shabbat brought little relief. Friday night’s post-service spread? Chocolate-covered matzah and macaroons. Food during our Saturday afternoon day at the Brookfield Zoo? Nothing. Afterwards? French fries and sundaes at McDonald’s.
But wait! What’s that we see floating down the Chicago River 25 floors beneath our Marina City balcony railing? Chicago Water Taxi‘s big yellow boats, inaugurating weekend service to Chinatown.
And that’s when Passover began to unravel.
Ryan and I had been looking forward to taking a boat to Chinatown, but we thought the service started later. Without thinking, I suggested we make a day of it down the river to Ping Tom Park the next day (aka Easter.) Come Sunday morning, I clued into the fact that there probably would be very little for me to eat in a traditional dim-sum palace that wasn’t stuffed with pork and shrimp–treyf, or unpermitted food, which I would occasionally say OK to under normal circumstances–then wrapped in fried and fluffy chametz for good measure.
Against Ryan’s protestations, I decided to take my chances and off we went. I should have taken the incredibly annoying, blaring radio the water taxi crew played the entire way to Chinatown as an omen. But I was hungry–hungry for anything other than a dried piece of Dulcolax precursor. They say that observing one mitzvah (commandment) leads to observing another. Sunday morning I learned the opposite is true, as well. As I dug into a slow-motion series of chametz-draped treyf, I kept telling myself it was really rice flour wrapping all the oinking, shellfish goodness.
When we got home, I figured it would end there. Then I ruined the one-and-only non-matzah dinner I had tried cooking all week. My shakshouka is usually fluffy, its eggs, onions, and peppers aren’t usually glued to the bottom of the pan by a quarter-inch char of burned tomato sauce. Was someone trying to tell me something?
Ryan tried to cheer me up by taking me on a drive. We went north to Wilmette to learn the route to the mikveh where my conversion will become complete a couple of weeks from now. On the way back, we bought more matzah and eggs and I resigned to make yet another pan of matzah brie, as if in penance for the treyf meal in Chinatown.
I’m a fabulous cook. Yet I ruined that too. As Ryan dutifully ate his way through the gloppy mess, I stood in the kitchen and tried not to cry–or scream out in anger. Really, both would have hit the spot. Instead, I dragged all the chametz out from the bottom of the closet, put it all back on the kitchen shelves, took the elevator to the lobby, came back with a subway sandwich, declared Passover over, and ate half a foot of chametz.
Ryan was disappointed–although he’s not on a Jewish journey, in the end, he made it the entire week without eating chametz. (Then again, they say you “do” Jewish to learn Jewish, so I wonder if there were other motives at work here…) But as I wiped long-missed crumbs from my un-shaven chin I told him in no uncertain terms I had had it. What are you supposed to do when there’s nothing else to eat? How are you supposed to be happy with the monotony of one fake meal after another? If there was leavened chametz in the dessert outside Egypt–or an oasis made out of hero sandwiches–don’t you think the Israelites would have chowed down?
But there wasn’t. And that’s the point. During Passover, Jews are supposed to consider themselves on the same Exodus from Egypt as their ancestors. They’re supposed to feel the same hunger. They’re supposed to feel the same pain. And in that moment as I quickly shut my crumb-littered mouth, I got it, too. My growing unhappiness during Passover had me feeling I was doing something wrong. As it turned out, I was experiencing the very point of the holiday.
No amount of advance planning will make the discomfort of an observant Pesach go away completely. Nor should it. Plan all the phoney matzah meals you want, or avoid it completely and subsist on permitted meats and quinoa. It won’t take all the sting out. If it did, it would be a lot harder to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. It would be a lot easier to forget how badly they were treated that they fled into a desert. And it would be easier to treat others the same way, ourselves.
Still, when Ryan asked if I would plan better next year to make sure I had meal plans for the whole week, I had one answer: “Hell, yes.”
Realization in hand, Monday–the last day of Passover–I returned to the final hours of my chametz fast. Then as soon as the sun went down, Ryan and I drove back up to Wilmette to break said fast–with God’s blessing–at the Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette.
If there’s any more happily Jewish feeling than inhaling a plate of challah French toast 15 minutes after the installation of evening after sundown on the last day of Passover, I have yet to experience it.