The Jewish holiday of Passover is arguably the most existential-phenomenological of all the Jewish holidays. In the Haggadah, the book we read at the Passover Seder on the first two nights of the holiday, the text asks us to imagine ourselves as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt—to put ourselves in the places of our forbearers, to truly try to feel what it feels like to be enslaved, and then to be liberated.
Among the many rituals that help cultivate this feeling is the one that prohibits the eating of “leavened” bread—bread that has been allowed to rise. The story behind this is that the Hebrews did not have time when escaping from the Egyptians to allow their breads to rise, so we must now, in commemoration, eat only “unleavened” bread—known as matzah. For the eight days of the holiday, all of your “bread” products are symbolically “sold” to a non-Jewish friend or neighbor who then allows you to “buy” them back at the end of the holiday. The price is usually a penny, even with inflation, but contracts are signed. Among Jews from Eastern Europe, the admonition against unleavened bread also includes all other grains and legumes, as well as peas and corn, all of which get bigger when you put them in water. Jews from the Middle East do not follow this tradition about legumes.
Over the years, I have seen friends celebrate the holiday in countless ways, and have heard about many different others. Because the holiday requires you to get rid of your bread products, many people find the coming of Passover an excellent time to engage in spring cleaning. In recent years, I have heard of people taking advantage of the dietary restrictions and using the holiday as an opportunity to do vegetable and juice cleanses. This year, I have friends who have deemed email as “chametz,” the word covering all forbidden foods on Passover, and are using the holiday as a technology vacation.
On the first two nights of the holiday, families and communities host Seders—the above-mentioned ritual meal that includes the reading of the Haggadah, the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. Some families have quiet Seders for just a few, some have massive Seders for 40 relatives and friends, while others celebrate at local community centers in larger groups of more than 100. At every Seder, the text is basically the same, although there are many different Haggadot, with many alternate translations. Some people do everything, some people skip big chunks. Some sing with gusto, some simply read the passages. Some passages spark huge philosophical arguments, some simply are what they are.
I tell you all of this to explain why, as Passover approaches, I find myself, yet again, in a quandary. Passover is a holiday with a tremendous amount of meaning. It is, as I said, the most existential-phenomenological of the Jewish holidays. As an existentialist, I feel like I should approach this holiday with great joy and excitement. Instead, I approach it, yet again, with dread.
Some of the smallest things stymie me on Passover. Literally.
I am allergic to nuts. Not the food intolerance kind of allergy. The full-blown you-eat-them, you-can-die kind of allergy. And Passover is full of nuts!!!! Not the people, but the food! When you cannot use wheat flour, as anyone who is gluten-intolerant knows, you use nut meals. It adds texture and some flavor. Nuts are in EVERYTHING! The cookies, the cakes, the vegetables, the casseroles, the fruit dishes, the fake breads.
One year I thought “Yes, a vegetable and juice cleanse would be a GREAT way to spend the holiday!” Not having a juicer, though, that lasted less than a day. “Yes! This is time of year to do a spring cleaning on my diet!” That lasted maybe two days before I reached for the Kosher for Passover potato chips after I was too exhausted after work to cook during the intermediary days of the holiday.
And when I walked into a store yesterday to check out the assortment of my favorite brand of Passover treats—the ones that taste most like the real thing and not like cardboard—only to find that in their quest to make everything gluten-free, they changed all their recipes to include almond, I thought that was it. I’m done with Passover and it hasn’t even started.
But then I remembered the point.
This holiday is not about having 40 people at your house or finding the really tasty Kosher for Passover Rioja. It’s not about the spring cleaning or the detox from technology. It is about imagining yourself as a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt. Taking eight days out of your life to live your life differently. To feel deprivation in some way. To feel sadness. To feel pain. And at the end, to feel the joy of liberation. I remember trying to explain this to one of my nephews when he was younger and was dying for pizza by the sixth day. I told him this in words but I’m not sure the feelings really hit me, so I’m sure they didn’t convince him.
The importance of this holiday is really allowing yourself—myself, ourselves—to take some time out of our lives, to stop the busy-ness, and feel for a moment or a day or eight, what it means to be a slave. Whatever that means to us as individuals, for those experiences can vary tremendously.
But if we do not recognize where we are and have been enslaved, how can we truly appreciate what it means to be free?
— Sarah Kass