ENCINO, Calif., March 20 (JTA) — Why is this night different from all other nights?
This night is different because I, a person who equates working in the kitchen with working on a chain gang, cook most of the multicourse Passover meal. Single-handedly and from scratch, I might add.
While I know that Passover is not the Jewish holiday in which we make amends to those we have harmed or offended, it is my opportunity to compensate my family for all the fast food, frozen food and bowls of Cheerios that have constituted dinner over the past year. Cereal, as well as pancakes and eggs, are supper staples, causing my son Zack, 16, to consistently and vehemently complain, “Mom, we’re the only family in America that eats breakfast for dinner.”
But Passover encompasses far more than one day. In fact, weeks earlier, I embark on the five stages of Passover preparation: denial, procrastination, resignation, recipe-hunting and relentless list-making. Then I begin the actual work of scrubbing, sorting, shopping and trying to remember if mustard seed is kosher for Pesach.
This annual process invariably leads me to a question of my own: How can this labor-intensive and rule-ridden holiday of Passover celebrate freedom? The concept is oxymoronic, if not perverse.
Perhaps it was some Midrash-era Freud, in the first known application of experiential transgenerational psychology, or simple abnormal psychology, who commanded that each of us regard himself as if he personally went out of Egypt.
Me, I’d rather experience the real thing, risking the wrath of Pharaoh’s soldiers and wandering in the wilderness, in return for the convenience of having manna delivered six days a week — on time, at no charge — for the next 40 years. After all, the Bible (Numbers 11:9) describes the taste of manna as “the taste of a cake baked with oil.” That beats any bowl of Cheerios, including Team, Frosted or Multi-Grain.
And if you think Moses had difficulty trying to control 603,550 whining Israelites — and that didn’t include the women and children — try preparing a seder that conforms to the various culinary persuasions and health concerns of my extended family.
I admit that I have my own vegetarian agenda, which I have been quietly foisting upon my family over the years.
The vegetarian matzah ball soup was the first to appear. More amazing than the parting of the Red Sea, this soup magically transforms the world’s ugliest vegetables, with celery root pre-eminent among them, into a delicious and universally liked soup that truly “tastes like chicken.”
A roasted beet has replaced the shank bone — but not without controversy.
“Yuck,” says Danny, 8.
“What is that?” asks Jeremy, 10.
“We are not required to eat meat at Passover,” I explain. “The shank bone is merely a symbol, commemorating the paschal lamb. As Rabbi Huna stated in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Pesachim 111b, a broiled beet can be halachically, or legally, substituted.”
At this point, everyone stops listening, commenting or caring because we still have four more parts of the seder, from the washing of hands before the meal to the Hillel sandwich, charoset and maror on matzah from page 67 to page 80 of the Haggadah we use, before the meal is served.
Last year, in an attempt to transform the seder into a dairy-and-fish extravaganza, I barely escaped an insurrection when I suggested we pass on Grandma Norma’s brisket.
“Mom, I thought you weren’t evangelical.”
“But we always have brisket.”
“I’m calling Grandma.”
So the brisket has been reinstated — indefinitely. Also reinstated, in a continuous loop playing in my head, is Janis Joplin. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing more to lose,” I find myself singing. Because after I’ve lost my chametz, stamina and sanity, as I do every Passover, what’s left?
But the truth, and maybe this is the underlying lesson of Passover, is that we’re blessed to have so much to complain about — from the crowds at our overstocked grocery stores to the mess in our overstocked cupboards.
From the choices of Haggadahs — including environmental, egalitarian and even interactive online — to the numbers of model Seders we attend at our children’s day and religious schools. From the millions of verses of “Chad Gadya” to the millions of matzah crumbs we sweep off the floor.
The other truth is that most of us can’t possibly comprehend the true horrors of slavery. I constantly carp that my freedom ends when afternoon carpool begins. Danny protests, “You always have things you have to do: schoolwork, setting the table and taking out the garbage cans.” Gabe, the 12-year-old philosopher, adds, “No matter what, you’ll never be completely free.”
But our complaints are pitiful in light of the indignities and difficulties that the Israelites endured — or the atrocities that the European Jews experienced in World War II or the Russian Jews under any of their anti-Semitic governments.
The Bible commands us no less than four times to tell the story of Passover to our children. To put ourselves in the Israelites’ sandals, no matter how unrealistic or uncomfortable. To put ourselves in the shoes of oppressed Jews through the millennia, to remember our collective history, hostilities and victories.
The Exodus from Egypt, the escape from over 400 years of slavery under Pharaoh, marks an event no less monumental than the birth of the Jewish nation. Perhaps this is why Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday worldwide.
But with freedom comes responsibilities, regulations and restrictions.
With freedom also comes the opportunity to practice our religion without repercussions or reprisals. To moan meaninglessly about all our chores. And, even, to replace the shank bone with a broiled beet.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.