By Dr. Meredith Barber
Spring is in the air and Pesach is around the corner. I look forward to the seders every year. We—my husband and children and I– always travel to northern New Jersey to be with my extended family. The seders are always a happy family reunion and a wonderful celebration of freedom and spring … until we return home to Philadelphia and I’m faced with how to handle the part about eating only pesadicka food. I see the post-seder days of Pesach as deprivation with no redeeming features. This dichotomy—between joy and celebration on the first two nights and scarcity the rest of the week—has never made sense to me, and I experience the holiday in an unbalanced way.
More Jews, we’ve been told, celebrate Pesach than any other Jewish holiday. It’s no wonder. For adults, the theme of emerging from the narrow places to the Promised Land resonates strongly. Scores of Haggadot are in print, and Jews use the story of liberation to promote many social-justice issues.
For children, the seder offers endless opportunity for involvement: There are the four questions, the four glasses of wine or grape juice, the afikomen, the four children, and opening the door for Elijah the prophet, to name a few. My children, ages 7 and 9, love the seders.They sit around the table for most of the premeal service but usually disappear sometime in the middle of the meal, first to find the afikomen and then to play. As in many homes, the night ends in glorious chaos, with people dispersed around the house and just a core group left at the table, singing “Chad Gadya.”
After the two seders are over, the heaviness begins. I find the rest of the week of Pesach to be burdensome and devoid of meaning.
When I was a young adult, I overhauled my kitchen, as I’d watched my parents do, and brought out two new sets of dishes. But after a few years, it felt like so much drudgery and it gave me no satisfaction. For some Jews, I know that this spring cleaning can be cathartic. Who doesn’t enjoy going through the fridge and cupboards and tossing away bits of food that long ago expired? But making something as benign as bread off limits for one week a year is vexing, and whether or not something is kosher l’Pesach is no small matter. An Internet search of “Is corn syrup kosher l’Pesach?” yielded 85,000 hits just now. I find the issue tedious.
Here is our current observance. We mostly-sort-of keep kosher l’Pesach in our house. We use our everyday dishes. We follow the Sephardic custom of allowing peanut butter, rice and beans. I don’t seek out heckshers. We avoid bread, pasta, cake, cookies, and crackers.
Out of the house, our practice changes from year to year. Some years, I limit our outings, and when we do go out, I pack pesadicka food. One year, we visited the Easter bunny and I brought our own pesadicka chocolate. But other years, I am totally lax outside the house. Last year, before returning to Philly, we took our kids to New York City for the day. I didn’t have the heart to restrict their choice of food, and so, just two days into the holiday, we completely ignored that it was Pesach. Was I at peace with watching them eat M&M’s from the M&M Store? No. Was it the best choice for us? Maybe.
Even in the home, where our practice is more consistent, our kids are not happy about keeping kosher l’Pesach. I’m sure they sense my ambivalence. They whine and complain about it, in a way that reflects my own whining and complaining. Why do I continue to keep it to the extent that I do? I’m not sure. Growing up in a home that observed the Halacha of Pesach must have ingrained something in me about chametz. I can’t quite give up the practice, but I can’t quite embrace it either.
Living life as a committed progressive Jew means determining exactly how one wants to practice one’s Judaism. Sometimes the pondering produces peaceful solutions. I love how my family observes Shabbat, for instance, and I’m at peace with how we observe kashrut in general. But in other cases, such as Pesach, I’m still wrestling. I haven’t found the right answer for myself, but I carry on. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Maybe I’ll just soldier on and accept that this is one of life’s messy areas. For me, celebrating the seders is being in the Promised Land, and observance the rest of the week thrusts me back to the narrow places. Maybe that’s a Pesach lesson—that you cannot have one without the other. Maybe we are always in the Promised Land and in the narrow places. That is the ongoing blessing and struggle of being human.
Meredith Barber, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist who sees adults, adolescents and children in her private practice in Narberth. She co-leads a monthly drop-in music-and-spiritual-direction group.