Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Ghost of Pesach-Past

Ma still tells us what it was like to make Pesach in the old country. 

So, on erev Pesach—

Wait, wait, hold up. What do you mean, erev Pesach? First there had to be weeks and weeks of preparation, right? 

Don't interrupt. On erev Pesach, Zeidy would climb up into the attic and hand down the Pesach things, and while Babi unpacked them and "turned over" the kitchen, Zeidy headed out to get mitzvah matzos. 

My mother had a friend who could do one better:

On erev Pesach (yes, also starting from erev) while her mother leisurely pottered about the kitchen, her father would organize his children into an assembly line to churn out matzos on a home-made apparatus in the cellar

And then (she would pause for effect)and then—

"We took a nap."

Cleaning one's house from top to bottom is not required, because crumbs are not chometz. Something that can actually be eaten is. Even if a sealed bag of cookies lies forgotten in the back of the closet, it is declared hefker by b'dikas chometz anyway.

Therefore, why the hysteria over Pesach? Why is it womenfolk everywhere tear their hair out and collapse exhausted at night and weep into their coffee and plead with their husbands to go to a hotel? 

My theory is that it all comes down to food. 

In the old country, food storage wasn't a possibility. While we can store a roast in the freezer until it is needed, they couldn't. Additionally, without supermarkets, there wasn't all that much in the area of "sidedishes" and "mains" and "desserts" (in general). There was no obsessing over menus; just staple favorites, like paprikás. And oh, the bliss of potatoes (we don't bruck). 
LOTR Potato meme
When Babi took out those pots on erev Pesach morning, she wasn't planning a ten-course meal with leftovers. She only made enough, like every European housewife, to satisfy everyone, but with nothing to pack away. Packing away wasn't an option, either. 

Mind you, she didn't have electrical appliances. The cake had to be whipped up by hand. By hand. She cooked and baked on yontif day. Like everyone else did.       
Our yontifs tend to revolve around food. After centuries of doing with less of it, a nation can get a little excited with all the available options. But if it makes our yontifs less enjoyable, our women hollow-eyed, our children associating "yom tov" with "screaming mommy," can't we just get along very well without that magnificent slab of meat that needed hours and hours of TLC? How about some (emphasis on the "some," and opposed to "piles of") shnitzel instead? Everyone likes fresh shnitzel.
It would help on so many levels! The women wouldn't be frantic, the men wouldn't be pre-diabetic, the children would relax along with their relaxed mother, and there wouldn't be any worries as to how to fit the leftovers back into the already overflowing fridge.

A week before Pesach, Ma's friend called up, her mixer whirring loudly in the background. "I need to make about ten cakes," she bellowed over the machine. How many cakes does one really need for the first two days of yontif, even with guests? Heaven forfend if (1) something doesn't get thrown out and (2) everyone doesn't gain five pounds. 

Another friend of hers called up. "I'm calling you on erev Pesach," she said, "because you are the only person looking forward to yontif." Ma doesn't cook a month's worth in advance for a week-long holiday. She does some preparation before-hand, of course, but nothing epic. What is the point of being able to cook on yontif unless one actually cooks on yontif?

Making Pesach is always an endeavor that requires strategy and preparation. But it is still yontif. It saddens me how persecution blazes in women's eyes at the mere mention of this holiday—a holiday! We should look forward to it, not dread it!

For we have been freed! So free yourself!      


Daniel Saunders said...

I'm with you on this one. But we're fighting society! Some of the worst aspects of contemporary Jewish society have nothing to do with halakhah and everything to do with social expectations: "This is what's done! Why? Because it is!"

Incidentally, not so frum people can be just as prone to this sort of behaviour, if not more so - if Judaism is seen as being about tradition and group conformity rather than halakhah, legitimate change is stymied.

TooYoungToTeach said...

Totally with you on this...I'm not up to making Pesach yet, but the cleaning is retarded and fresh food is just better.

My mother taught me the beauty and deliciousness of fresh food. It could be a simple as shnitzel, mashed potatoes and a garden salad, but it made that day - Scrumptious.(Btw, this is not just Pesach, but all year round)

My MIL has Pesach out of the freezer, she bruks and uses every possible ingredient - my mother's food is better.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Prosperity has ruined Judaism.

Mr. Cohen said...

Overall, your most recent essay is very good. Good enough to be published in the major Jewish newspapers and magazines. As I said before, you have so much talent I can’t understand why you are not yet married. There is just one point about your writing that bothers me: the (mispronounced) word YONTIF.

First, there is no letter nun (נ) in YOM TOB; therefore the “N” in YONTIF is an undeniable mispronunciation.

Second, there is no hirik vowel in YOM TOB; therefore the “I” in YONTIF is also an undeniable mispronunciation.

Third, there is no Hebrew letter Feh (פ) at the end of YOM TOB; therefore the “F” at the end of YONTIF is also an irrefutable mispronunciation.

Last but not least, YOM TOB is two separate words, so it is wrong to combine them into one word: YONTIF.

TooYoungToTeach said...

It's Yuntiff. Same as it's shalashudis. It doesn't make a difference what the actual word is, and what the rules are, the culture has spoken :)

Sarah said...

I totally agree with the spirit of your post and the lack of halachah saying we need to go crazy over crumb-hunting, but the reality is that a lot of women (like my mother) work full-time. So does my father. My siblings and I are all in various levels of school, full-time. Because of that, we have no choice but to turn over early and cook in advance. My parents can't take off the entire day of erev Pesach, as much as they'd love to -- they can only take off a few hours. And my siblings and I can't do it -- aside from the younger ones in yeshivah, we have class on erev Pesach and can't afford to skip it.
Also, regarding cooking, we make sure to do it in advance because we all (including my mother) want to go to shul. Obviously, each person is different, but as much as my mother loves cooking, she doesn't enjoy spending the entire chag cooking and washing dishes, and she'd far rather go to shul.

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts:
1) My German born and bred grandfather told my mother many times about how hard his mother worked to prepare for Pesach back in Europe, to the extent that she would be literally fainting with exhaustion at the seder. (It bothered him very much, even years later.)So I would not totally agree with your contrast of long ago/nowadays. Although I do agree that nowadays we have a lot more "stuff" cluttering up our homes.
2) I've heard it said that Passover is the most observed holiday by non-Orthodox Jews, far above all others due to the childhood memories people have of long ago grandparents going to such crazy lengths to clean homes, turn over kitchens etc.--obviously leaving an impression that still holds on.
3)Fresh food without a doubt tastes better, but I agree with Sarah, even though I'm not a big shul-goer, my enjoyment of yom tov comes from relaxing, especially sitting around and reading. I'd rather do the minimum of heating stuff up than be in the kitchen peeling potatoes twice a day.
But of course, YMMV...depends on what works for you.

Princess Lea said...

DS: We must keep on fighting the good fight!

TYTT: That's one of Ma's sayings: "Nothing like fresh food." She can tell the difference in how heartily we eat when something was just made and when something was defrosted.

MGI: It's not necessarily prosperity. B'H no one goes hungry today, and even a pauper has a freezer.

Mr. C: You are attempting to quibble with Yiddish, not Hebrew, and they are not the same being.

A gitten Peisach is how it goes, even though there's no "yud" in Pesach, either.

Sarah: Obviously, no one today is going to leave Pesach prep to erev yontif; I edited my post to clarify that. My point was more along the lines, as you echoed, of the unjoyful hysteria that has leached into our celebrations.

I wasn't beredting the cooking or cleaning in advance. I'm on cabinet duty this Sunday myself, and I'll be cranking out sponge cakes soon. As I clearly said above, Pesach does require work, but why can't it be joyful preparation?

Also, we eat too much. Mostly I just eat because it's there, not because I'm satisfied. Preparing TOO much in advance isn't necessary, and causes an onerous burden.

Cakes and whatever requires an electrical appliance will always get made in advance. Especially this year, when the first day falls out on Shabbos. I wasn't saying no one should do anything before Pesach. I was saying we don't have to do so much that women are on Prozac. Those other stories were meant to be cheerful vignettes, not how-tos.

Anon: Hey, those are family tales. We each have our own. Besides, German-born? Your great-grandmother probably dotted more "i"s than my Hungarian one. ;)

I haven't heard that about Pesach; in my experience, Yom Kippur is kept more fervently. Do they observe the whole Pesach, or have a Seder then have pizza the next day? The Seder is intriguing, I think, because there is an actual saga associated with it, as opposed to Succos.

Again, I wasn't saying no one shouldn't prepare in advance. Just that these complaints about preparing suck the happiness of yom tov, and it shouldn't be like that. Also, one can always cook more if needed.

Mr. Cohen said...

SDK said...

Almost all non-frum Jews with even the most remote form of Jewish identity still make seder. They do not necessarily clean for Pesach. They definitely do not turn over the kitchen. Some people do not realize that you are not supposed to (drive, work, etc.) on chag -- this was news to me. But they make a seder and many of them observe some form of food restrictions during Pesach. I know people who will eat all sorts of chometz but not bread. Although this is extremely different than frum Pesach, for that person, it is a way of remembering and observing Passover all week.

Pesach is a big deal, even for the non-frum. The entire family gets together, people fly home from college even though it's not convenient, a big meal is prepared, political and religious arguments break out between family members, some form of haggada is read. It is a meaningful annual Jewish event for most Jews.