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HOLIDAY FEATURE How Passover gives order to a confirmed mess-maker

LOS ANGELES, March 1 (JTA) — I’m so used to the clutter that has accumulated in my 1986 Honda Civic that usually I don’t even notice it. Now and again, however, I squint and think to myself, “Why am I seated in a mobile garbage can?” The passenger seat is piled high with unopened junk mail; empty water bottles roll around the floor among the gum wrappers and ATM receipts. The scent of stale tobacco wafts up from the ashtray so crammed with cigarette butts that it won’t close. I’ve taken to writing directions on Post-its, which now dot the dashboard like yellow Band-Aids. It is a vision of chaos. And that’s why I look forward to Passover, maybe more than any of the Jewish holidays. I may travel to a seder in a mess of my own making but I arrive to perfect and ancient order. Some say cars reflect their owners, that they are some sort of representation of how we travel through life. I don’t appreciate this interpretation but neither can I deny it. I lack the ability to organize the details of my life. I always have. I was the kid who slaved over her book report only to turn it in with a spaghetti sauce thumb-print on the cover. There are people whose lives are effortlessly organized. They employ elaborate filing systems and always have a supply of stamps on hand. They have personalized thank-you cards and usually own a vacuum cleaner. They write recipes on index cards. They are another species to me, other-worldly creatures I can only admire from afar, as distant from me as a supermodel or NBA center. So when I, generally the youngest at the table, ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I have my own reasons. For one thing, I’m not defrosting a pizza pocket and eating it off a pan lid so as to avoid washing one of the stack of dishes that I keep piled in a teetering sculpture above the sink. No matter where I am, or who is kind enough to host me, Passover provides a welcome respite from my habitual dissolution. There is order. There are the same four questions, the same four glasses or wine, the same 10 plagues, the same songs and stories. Every year, whether at the home of relatives or friends or strangers, there is a sameness. It appears, as comforting and familiar as the memorized refrain of a favorite poem. For a moment, I am part of something that dwarfs the job I did or didn’t get, the fact that I haven’t done my taxes, the fact that my last oil change was during the Reagan years, the heavy weight of a million scattered details. I am not from a very religious family. My earliest seders were abbreviated affairs, always cut short by my grandfather saying, “Dayenu with all these prayers. Let’s eat already. I’m Hungarian.” My brother and I never understood why being Hungarian made my grandfather so hungry, but we giggled at that every year. And I’m sure he said it just to make us laugh. It was one of our own odd little family traditions, the repetition of which gave us a sense of order even in our less-than-devout Passover service. A ritual is a ritual. For me, still less than totally observant, rules create order even in the breaking of them. I, for example, can’t resist the siren song of the bread product for long. Around the third day, I usually break down. Still, I have something to break against, and that gives me more structure than I usually have. Maybe this isn’t what Passover is supposed to be about. I should be thinking about freedom from slavery. Perhaps, in my own small way, I am. So this Passover, I will have my customary evening of externally imposed order. There will quite possibly be a cloth napkin involved. I will be free of the meaningless minutiae that tends to clog my world, eclipsing, at times, what truly has meaning. Then, I will stroll out to my car, with its bumper held on by a bungee cord, and drive off into the night, wondering if I’m ever going to get that oil change.