Sunday, March 29, 2015

Primarily Primal: A "Recipe" for Pesach

A “Recipe” for Pesach
Ilana Rosansky

How do we know it’s spring time?  Do you think that the bright yellow and purple crocuses and daffodils really herald spring? Well, they might, but it seems to me that the fragrance that heralds spring is furniture polish and dish detergent and old boxes in the garage or the
basement.  Spring cleaning, cooking, baking, hauling boxes of ‘stuff’. Isn’t that what Pesach has come to mean for us? We literally turn our homes upside down and inside out before Pesach. And if we’re having company for seder, we turn ourselves upside down and inside out (with anxiety) before Pesach, too.

I don’t know what it is about Pesach and family tradition. My Mother z”l always cooked late at night after we kids had gone to bed. My Mother was a ‘lone Pesach zombie cook’. I wonder what she thought about all night long after my father had shlepped up the last carton from the basement and brought down the last utensil or bowl from the cupboard “too high” for her to reach, above the refrigerator, and we kids had finally gone to bed.  Because, sure enough, every Pesach (before we had a dishwasher, other than me, and even after we finally got a dishwasher), my mother would be banging and battering, running water, slamming doors, opening the oven, closing it. You could hear the steam rise with a tell-tale whistle on the magical little vent on the pressure cooker. You could smell all the wonderful foods, and the eggs (which she always made the night before).

Talk about tradition! Every year my mother had seder — both nights. There were mostly relatives the first night and mostly friends, the second — except for those relatives who were regulars both nights, and those relatives who didn’t really like the ones who came first night!  And my father, brother and I were conscripted laborers and gophers for this event, year after year until my parents finally retired from the seder business, in the early 80s, moved to Florida, and started going to ‘organized’seders.

And just as reliably, year after year, while my mother would be banging and clanging and creating in the kitchen, my father would go through his Pesach rituals.
He would clean his desk (and the dining room and living room, and elsewhere) of
unnecessary papers — and our house had lots of paper, everywhere; both of my parents were avid readers and they were both teachers.  Sometimes my father would even remove books from the bookshelves and carefully vacuum the dust from the books and from the
shelves. I used to love to watch him put the books back — just so — on the shelves (not so far back that they hit the back wall of the bookcase, but not right up to the edge of the shelf, either). And each year, my Dad would bring out all the haggadahs from the cupboard in his study alcove. And the matsah cover, with years of wine stains, from his parents’ seders. And he would meticulously pour sweet kiddush wine from a big bottle into various decanters. When I was very young, the big bottles were 5-gallon bottles of wine my grandmother had made, which, since we drank wine only on Pesach, lasted a long time after she died. It was a genuine end-of-an-era when we finished the last of Grandma’s thick, dark, sweet wine — right down to the gritty dregs. To this day, I can’t get used to drinking anything but heavy sweet wine for the 4 cups, and I am still looking for the perfect sweet, dark wine that would come close to the taste of my grandmother’s wine...

I was thinking about all of these rituals the night before erev Pesach one year, as I performed the same long lonely all-night vigil — banging and clanging. Running downstairs, looking for missing Pesach dishes, cooking, peeling, boiling and baking. What would Pesach be like, I wondered, if everything were somehow magically finished by a reasonable bedtime, the night before erev Pesach? Would Pesach be as meaningful without the endless, back-achy exercises I put myself through during the wee hours?

OK. So that particular year, was a bit more strained than usual. So the kitchen sink drain backed up about 2 a.m., and for every drop of water I needed I had to try to make do with the bathroom sink!!!  OK. Yes. You really can slip the skins off cooked beets under the faucet in the bathroom. You can shell hard-boiled eggs in the bathroom, but what a schlep!

Yes. I think there is more to the night before erev Pesach than mere food preparation. I think, that in spite of all the work and planning and chaos, important spiritual work gets done here. There is something meditative about solo food preparation. I actually think that making charoset the old way, with a chopper and wooden bowl is more conducive to meditation. You can think about God, and the miracles wrought in Egypt and at Yam Suf the Sea of Reeds a whole lot easier when you are chop, chop, chopping. Somehow, the food processor “doesn’t cut it” — as a spiritual experience, that is. ‘Chop, chop, chop’ works better for me, anyway, than ‘on-off-on-off’.  Well, that may be a matter of personal preference.

I don’t know what my mother thought about each year before Pesach. I kept meaning to ask her; now I no longer can. But I notice that, since the time of the Torah, we Jews have been hooked on recipes and meticulous detail. Take our Torah reading for the maftir on Pesach morning:
And in the first month on the 14th day ofthe month, is the Lord’s Passover. 
On the 15th day a festival begins; seven
days matsot should be eaten. The
first day shall be a sacred holiday when you should do no mundane work. As a
burnt offering to God, you shall offer two young bulls, one ram, and seven
yearling sheep, making sure that all are without blemish. The grain offering
that you must present should consist of wheat meal mixed with oil, 3/10 for
each bull, 2/10 for the ram, and 1/10 for each of the seven sheep. And one
sin-offering goat to make atonement for you. These are presented in addition to
the morning burnt offering, the regular daily sacrifice... The food of the
offering made by fire should be a sweet fragrance...

I think that we have these explicit recipes, so that we can have a mantra of sorts; so we can transcend all the detail and connect with God. I think God is right there in our kitchens helping us prepare ourselves spiritually while we prepare food for our families and friends. This is really what it is about. We are celebrating what God did for us. We are meant to understand that we, like B’nai Yisrael, were there at the time of Yetsiat Mitsrayim, the Exodus;
that God rescued us along with our ancestors. 

So every year, we go through the preparations of our seders and preparing our homes for Pesach, so that we have cleansed all chamets from our homes.  Chamets comes from the Hebrew verb Ch-m-ts which means to ‘turn sour’.  Thus, each spring, when perhaps our inner selves have turned sour from the long winter, we have an opportunity to clean it all up and begin anew. Thus, all of the frenzy of preparation has simply set the stage for what we now can do spiritually.

So now we are ready to connect with God. Let’s not forget that step of the recipe!