Thursday, 2 April 2009

Pesach: Spiritually Uplifting or Soul Crushing? Discuss!

Well folks, it's that time of year yet again. It is the time when the thoughts of all good Jews turn to the hellish nightmare of Passover preparations. (This is a warning to my friends of persuasions other than those of the "tribe" that I will henceforth be referring to Passover by its Hebrew name of Pesach. It is just something that I am far more comfortable with!) It is a time of cleaning, of cooking, of detailed menu preparation, of extreme grocery shopping, of baking with ingredients so foreign sounding and tasting that one cannot help but wonder if the end result will spew some new incarnation of cardboard, and of course the endless patter of family dynamics.  Pesach in a word, is work. A lot of work. A shitload of work. Work that is seemingly endless and most often expected, yet wholly under-appreciated. Ask anybody who is hosting a seder or even contributing to one, how they are planning to spend the next week, and the answer will surely be cooking and cleaning. Pesach is an anal-retentive individual's wet-dream, as the details are so intricate and the juggling so precise as to demand total concentration and full attention. Is this what The Divine One and Moses really had in mind when they led our people our from Egypt?

I find it hard to imagine that God and Moses really cared if we drank the Kosher for Pesach Diet Coke or the everyday regular stuff. I find it impossible to believe that Moses, or even Mrs. Moses for that matter, (her name was Zipporah-just in case you thought that my Bible skills were left wanting!!) cared what brisket recipe we used or if Aunty "Golda" will be offended because we are letting Aunty "Basha" make the fish this year. Does anybody honestly believe that our ancestors intended for us to spend thousands of dollars "koshering" our home for the holiday, simply because some maven somewhere determined that this brand of matzah was the "only" brand of matzah, or that the Israeli matzah meal (which is many dollars cheaper!) is not kosher enough? I cannot fathom that my foremothers and forefathers even knew what rice and corn were, (not a lot of that stuff hanging around in the desert!) let alone consider their prohibition. (The whole issue of the kitniyot is a discussion that I plan to take up before the start of this year's holiday, so please check back.)

No, Pesach is not about all of that stuff, at least it shouldn't be. Pesach is a spiritual and a physical reawakening. We as Jews need to look at Pesach as a basic evocation of why we are still here, what we as a people have been through and what we need to achieve in order to move forward. We need to remember what the purpose of the seder is (to teach our children and remind ourselves of our history) and not to see how fast Uncle Moishey can get through it so that we can finally eat. We need to look at the Haggadah as a living and breathing document that includes all and requires revision on a yearly basis (within its set framework of course!) in order to incorporate the every changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. We shouldn't be looking for ways to "cheat" the system by buying into the "matzah bagel" mentality, but rather taking the time and energy to understand why it is we do what we do. Pesach isn't about deprivation, it is about renewal. It isn't about denial, it is about affirmation. It isn't supposed to be stomach churning, ulcer inducing, or soul crushing. It is supposed to be spiritually uplifting. Let's all try and remember that as we enter into our preparations this weekend.  

Chag Sameach!

(By the way-please follow me on twitter! @dawnbe1229)


  1. Whilst I agree with your comments I find myself struggling with how to impart spiritual meaning into a seder where the participants are spiritually constipated. I am leading the seder and wanting it to be more than an eight glass whine fest. Yet the focus seems to be on having it not too "jewish" least we should offend the non tribal members.

    I guess it comes down to why are we honouring this event in our history. For me as I hear about the new laws in Iran that seek to enslave women,I am abundantly grateful to enjoy the freedom that is all to often taken for granted.

    I like the idea of calling Pesach "The Festival of Freedom", because for me it resonates in a way that isn't about religousity, but more akin to the connection between historic and contemporary themes. From this vanatage point I think that it can truly be an uplifting experience.

    Oh...gotta go...I think my brisket is burning!


  2. Hi Dawn: David Kreuter here. While I have to confess I am not a folkie (jazz fiend for 40 years since my first album at age 12 of Lester Young, Buddy Rich and Nat King Cole) I have strong connections to Pete Seeger and protest song folk movement.

    My mother courtesy of two tix I purchased for her and a friend will be going to the Pete Seeger gala tomorrow. My mother's life and in turn that of my family mirrors the politics and voices of Pete and company.

    When I was growing up in Queens Judaism, Zionism were not core values. Instead politics, yiddishism, education, civil rights, the Vietnam War and the TEACHERS UNION,were the topics of conversation and interest. This naturally led to the folk music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, others.

    You may be aware of the Peekskill beat down put on by right wingers in the 1950s when Paul Robeson was appearing. My oldest brother Paul, who unfortunately died years ago was named after Robeson.

    My mother reminisced to me about her first cross country trip in the late 1940s? and singing Tzena, Tzena, Tzena from Wyoming back to Brooklyn. Pete was very involved in Peekskill - maybe the event was on his property even!

    There is some connection perhaps mythic with Ramblin' Jack Elliott? I think he lived in the same housing project we did in the late 1950s, or his mother did or something ...

    I will get a report from Fran on the event tomorrow.

    We should do a folk music night. Well, maybe not.

    The blacklist was a terrible period in U.S. history. My father, although not blacklisted, was denied a job as a high school principal because of a whisper campaign about his politics. That's all it took. In any case it wasn't that much of a setback but there it is anyway.

    We had a close family friend who lost his job as a language professor at a private college. Irony of ironies the only company that would hire him was a Japanese company (1950s) ... and by the 1970s he was a multi-millionaire scholar sought out for opinions on far east markets!

    Pete's relevancy is stronger today that it has been years. He has never vacated the struggle, maybe it's us who have!

  3. David,
    I am fascinated by these stories. Please tell your mother to have a wonderful time at a once in a lifetime experience. If she can send you a few pictures and she doesn't mind, I will post them. You have a history to be proud of.