Purim is, in many ways, an ideal holiday – no eating constraints, no work constraints, no behavioral constraints. It’s basically a time of “freedom from,” a time to enjoy the rich fantasy of the Book of Esther, and its minimal demands.
Of course, no sooner is the last mishlo’ah manot distributed than it is time to begin to think about Pesach, a holiday replete with work, food, and behavioral constraints. Pesach, the Festival of Freedom, does not offer a lot of “freedom from” – it is all about “freedom to.” Four weeks and one day separate Pesach from Purim – we barely have time to rid our homes of the last hamantasch crumbs before Pesach cleaning is upon us. Try as we may to put it off, this Shabbat, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just two weeks before Pesach, is really the point when we can no longer ignore its approach.
Pesach preparation is, on many levels, an overwhelming task. There is so much to do; the cooking is just a small and relatively trivial part of the whole. Even more than Sukkot, which determines where we eat, it is a complex home ritual that somewhere in our consciousness all year long determines what we eat. This is the season when I wish that I had banned the eating of chametz in most of my home year round. But, really, I console myself, uncontained, crumbly chametz appears only in a few rooms â€¦ and I certainly will do it next year.
More than other holidays Pesach is, on many levels, all about memory. We are enjoined to remember the story of the Exodus and to engrave it in our memories in the most effective way possible by telling and retelling it, by teaching it to the next generation. Without the story of the Exodus, as formalized by the rabbis in the text of the haggadah, the finest meal, no matter how kosher for Passover the food may be, cannot serve as a seder, an ordered Pesach ritual.
But memory suffuses Pesach on many levels. There are remembered actions and ritual objects, books and stories that become part of our individual and collective Passovers. How do we clean for Pesach? I clean the way my mother did, who learned by working with her mother, who learned from her mother and an older sister – and so on. Many years ago when we lived in Manhattan I hired a Beth Israel Hospital nursing student to help with the cleaning. Truth be told, the real goal was to give her some money, as she was the eldest of five girls from a poor Norfolk, Virginia, family. This student, who had converted to Judaism on her own, had become friendly with some of the other students, but really lacked adult role models. I set her to cleaning the kitchen floor and turned to other tasks. Time passed – and it was a small kitchen – but she was still hard at work. When I finally checked to see what was going on, I found that she was using an old toothbrush to be sure that nothing adhered to the floor. As a nursing student, she understood sterile well, but not Pesachdik.
I feel lucky to have had a mimetic tradition, one that enabled me to replicate what had been done in previous generations, updating some of the materials but retaining the basic concepts.
In his wonderful article, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” [Tradition 28:4, 1994], Haym Soloveitchik explains the move to the right in Orthodoxy as being due in part to the breakdown of the mimetic tradition, the transmission of ritual through the generations, and its replacement by reliance on texts which may – or may not – reflect actual lived practice. My nursing student had no mimetic tradition – and I suspect that her teacher in Judaism had never spent much time koshering his kitchen for Pesach.
Of course, the night before the first seder, when the home has been thoroughly rid of any chametz, we symbolically search for chametz, using the traditional set that includes a candle, a feather, and a paper bag. We could, of course, see better if we used an LED flashlight, or even turned on all the lights in the room, but in truth, we know where the chametz is. We have just carefully put it out on paper on our well-scrubbed surfaces.
In a charming recollection of his father, the twentieth-century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai captures the way that he would set out 10 carefully squared, identical cubes of bread on the windowsill, where, with the help of the traditional candle, he could find them despite his failing eyesight, recite the appropriate liturgy, and prepare to burn them the next morning. As Amichai writes, it is a performance, a parable for the way we live our lives, staging our actions with care.
And the next night, guests gather around the table, which has been carefully set with all the props we use to tell the story of the Exodus, some traditional, some personal. There’s the green cut-glass lidded dish that was my grandmother’s, that we use for the traditional Ashkenazic charoset; the Sephardic-style charoset is in a scalloped glass dish. Two Royal Copenhagen bowls hold the saltwater. One is a gift from a Polish woman whom my husband converted to Judaism more than 40 years ago. She asked that we use it at the seder. As we do, we remember the role the Danes played during the Holocaust. The other is a more recent acquisition from a dear friend, also a convert to Judaism, who has been part of our seder for decades. She realized that we needed more than one bowl when we had a crowd. She is a wonderful Pesach guest, who insists on coming to help clean and cook before the holiday. In fact, she has absorbed our personal traditions so well that the year we were blessed with a new granddaughter whom we rushed to see two days before the seder, she took over and had everything ready for our return to burn the chametz.
There are new traditions and old ones. Serving an oversize karpas salad to help people stave off hunger until the moment appropriate for the meal is new. The Four Questions are asked in many languages, including an annual disagreement about the Yiddish, and a new, really fun, exercise using semaphore flags. Would the meal be complete without the particular Litvak-style egg “soup”? The Galitzyaner sweet gefilte fish? The raucous postprandial return to the haggadah and its culmination in song?
So many journeys echo throughout our seder. They have brought us as individuals and as families to this place at this time, to be free to celebrate our many stories of exodus with whatever mixture of mimetic and text traditions we choose, to incorporate new elements and rediscover old ones.
Our journeys are both physical and spiritual, many of us coming directly or indirectly from places of oppression to these relatively tolerant shores, from other religious traditions to Judaism. As the Israelites fled Egypt to gain their freedom from Pharaoh’s slavery, they also set out freely to accept the commandments of an unseen God. May we all find in this season the opportunity to shape our lives in ways that meaningfully connect us with God and fill us with joy.