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.
Categories: JEWISH CONVERSION JEWISH HOLIDAYS JEWISH OBSERVANCE
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.
My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion
Realize I’m really late to this conversation – but there are tons of good Passover dishes. Cauliflower run through the food processor then baked comes up just like rice. Soup is generally good, so are fritattas, all kinds of casseroles. You just need someone to show you how to cook for Passover – get copies of the California Kosher book, and Spice and Spirit, which I think is out of print so you have to get used. I think they may have a Pesach only volume even.
It’s just a matter of knowing how to do it, which I imagine must be brutal if you’ve never really lived with someone who does it – my mother in law even makes fake rolls out of matzah meal. Get yourself invited to someone who cooks for Pesach, you’ll get a whole set of recipes. I’m a vegetarian and can even do it. Email me and I can send you a file with my collection.
I came across your blog totally by accident, but totally identify with the being observant in a Reform/Secular community. For me, the worst ribbing comes from my brother.
I just love your writing.
Thanks! I love that you’re still reading!
There is actually lots of kosher for Passover, non-kiniyot, food to eat. Next year, pop up to the Judaica stores Hamakor and Rosenblum’s in Skokie and buy yourself one of the many good Kosher for Passover cookbooks that are filled with recipes. A key starch for the week: Potatoes! The week is much more difficult for vegan non-kitniyot Jews, but since you are omnivorous, it really isn’t that bad. My family tends to go through lots of eggs and cheese that week. Remember: all fruits and most vegetables are fine.
Just be glad that you don’t have the added burden of converting your whole kitchen to “kosher for Passover”. I know some observant families that end up with an additional week of almost no chametz even before the holiday due to the laborious requirements of kashering and changing all the cookware and dishes. I opt for staying up half the night to do a marathon session of kitchen conversion a couple nights before to minimize the before-holiday time with a kosher-for-Passover kitchen. And I do a very late night again to reverse the process the night after Pesach ends. (Although we are still unpacking the chametz boxes…)
Warning #1: don’t overdose on the macaroons. I used to like them (having not developed a dislike for them in childhood like so many of my Jew by Birth friends), and then one Passover I ate too many of them as work-time snacks (that was many years before I converted, but I did keep the basic Passover dietary laws). Since then, I still eat them, but I don’t particularly like them anymore. Warning #2: don’t bother trying the ‘Passover pasta” no matter how much you miss real pasta. I was curious one year and tried a package—blech! Maybe I just cooked it too long, but it was like glue.
I used to laugh at the irony that many of our Jewish friends don’t bake much during the rest of the year and then go crazy baking lots of stuff at Passover. But this year we made some delicious Passover brownies, banana-chocolate chip cookies, and Passover “popovers” (which my teenaged daughter decided were really just muffins and that next year she, being our family’s popover specialist anyway, would develop her own superior recipe for real Passover popovers).
By the way, it is good that you found out in advance how to get to the mikveh in Wilmette. You can see the synagogue from the freeway, but it is not near a freeway exit. And the little frontage road that it is on could be easy to miss as well. I guess these days it is easier to find with Google maps and GPS units. Your visit to the mikveh is scheduled to be very close to the Hebrew anniversary of my conversion. Best wishes for a deeply meaningful experience.
Debbie, I learned the hard way about the macaroons, too. They’re a childhood comfort food from my NYC upbringing (many of my friends in my native city were/are Jewish.) But one small baggie of them is enough in an office desk.
You’re of course right about the fruits and vegetables. I just didn’t plan very well in advance beyond the seder. Next here I hope to be better prepared. I also may be more thorough with my kitchen preparation. By the weekend before Pesach, I was so exhausted/stressed from the food shopping, I began my kitchen cleaning by kneeling in front of the stove and trying not to sob.
Ryan and I have the mikveh directions down. You see it right from the highway, but since it’s halfway between exits (Old Orchard and Lake Ave), if you’re already seeing it, you’ve gone too far 😉 Thank you for the words of encouragement. I’m counting the days. Nine to go…
Today, someone posted a hate-filled comment (since removed by me) under this blog entry. The comment was signed with a fake name, but the IP address pointed directly to the firm where the person in question recently moved across the country to work. Which proves my often-repeated point–you can’t hide on the Internet.
It wasn’t me…It wasn’t me.
But you know that I always enjoy signing my name to anything snarky. I promise it wasn’t me. I give myself credit; the ruder the better.
Anyway. As much as I think it’s cute that you’ve gone full-hog-Jew (pun intended) with the same fervor as my downstate, flood plain Evangelical Christian relatives who believe they are as close to knowing Jesus as they’ll ever be, I miss the old Michael. You used to be funny. Really funny. I even miss how you poked fun at me, and I’d leave our friendship for a few months and then return like a co-dependent friend.
Come back Michael. ::Robert shaking box of matzoh crackers like an owner with biscuits to a puppy::
You were funny when you’d talk about chili, your date of the week…past dates…past loves…other people’s loves, your trips, your foibles. I come here looking for something funny, and I leave empty.
Michael come back!
It’s interesting as a secular Jew you think I’m a Bible-thumper just for talking about religion. I might say a similar thing in reverse, that there’s an enormous part of your heritage that you’re missing out on. I won’t, because your journey is your journey.
And mine, of course, is mine. Consternation and drama will never be gone from this blog. (After all, consider who’s doing the writing.) But I’ve changed and as a consequence my blog has changed. Moreover, joining the Jewish people is a lifelong commitment. There is no Control-Z on conversion.
To put a finer point on it, I wasn’t overtly religious and I wasn’t a Jew. I am now an observant Jew. Some of my secular friends find it hard to grasp that last sentence. Some don’t.
I know a comfort zone is a hard thing to step out of. For example, nine months ago I’d consider being called a Bible-thumper an epithet.
I wouldn’t call you a Bible thumper. Talmud thumper?
I’m happy that you’ve stayed with it for this long.
We’ve seen New-to-Chicago-Michael.
Then there was Change-the-World-Michael.
Followed closely by Who-Am-I-Without-A-Boyfriend (Devyn)-Michael.
I think everyone got a laugh out of Boyfriend-of-the-Week-Michael.
I hated when you were I’m-Leaving-Chicago-and-Going-Back-to-New York-Michael.
Looking for something spiritual, there was Buddhism-Michael.
You gave up on that because you realized you were ADHD-Michael.
Which led us to a period of I’m-Crabby-About My-Life-and-I’m-Moving-Out-of-Marina City-Michael.
Finally, we’re at I-am-a-New-Jew-Michael.
I’m glad you’re New-Jew-Michael. Even if some of your ancestors gave up on Judaism, you’re exactly what the religion needs. I bet those in your family would be proud of you. I’m proud of you–IF you continue to believe. Converts are the most fervent followers; I’m too old to believe in burning bushes and ghost stories. Judaism isn’t touchy-feely. I need touchy-feely. It’s difficult for me to hear about God’s love when 99% of what I heard growing up is, “God will condemn your household, kill your cattle and slay your children” if you have a certain type of grain in your house. That’s not a happy God. It’s a vindictive, spiteful, high maintenance God.
I’m spiritual. My heart aches when I hear/read about the Holocaust (I do not go to Holocaust museums because I’ll have an anxiety attack). But I’m not religious. And that’s good enough for me. When I’m old, I’ll rely more on faith to explain life’s mysteries. Until then, I’ll follow along and pretend.
The only difference between the “Phases of Michael” list you set forth and everyone else on the planet is that I live my phases in public. I could write a similar list about everyone I know. Most people try to hide their inconsistencies, but that doesn’t make them any less malleable over time. Things change. People change. Lots of people try to pretend that’s not the case.
Being gluten free I don’t eat chametz anyway so it’s not a problem. I have noticed that many, many people in my Reform congregation do not eat kitniyot (we also do 8 days of Pesach around here) so I figured I should follow suite since I don’t know anything about my supposedly Jewish ancestors (they were Italian). By Sunday I decided maybe it was a bad idea. I don’t eat gluten and I try not to eat too much meat. Cutting out beans, lentils and corn is a pain in the arse.