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Jewish Journal

One Man’s Passover

Nontraditional roles in a traditional home

by Rob Eshman

March 17, 2010 | 1:12 am

Cover, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (03-19-10)

Cover, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (03-19-10)

In our house, a man’s place is in the kitchen.  That’s the way it’s been for all 18 years of our marriage.  I do the cooking, not because I have to, but because I like to. I actually worked as a chef and caterer for years before we met. My wife picks up the domestic slack doing those household chores I don’t enjoy, like everything else.  This is an arrangement that has worked out well from the start of our marriage.

Then came Passover.

My wife is a Conservative rabbi.  I grew up as a secular Jew. At our wedding, where a dozen rabbis occupied a single table, my father took me aside and said, “I thought I told you not to intermarry.”

It was a joke. My parents loved Naomi from the start. And Naomi and I learned, as every couple must, no matter what their faith or traditions, when to accommodate and how to negotiate.

And then came Passover.

My idea of Passover was to gather family and friends, cook a great meal with some of the traditional foods, and run through the haggadah service in order to eat.

Naomi had a different idea.  But I didn’t realize just how different until a few days before what was to be our first seder together. I was out getting last-minute groceries, anxious to get home, unload and start what would be hours of cooking wedged into a busy work week. I walked in to find Naomi in an unusual place: the kitchen. She was stretching humongous sheets of aluminum foil over every cupboard shelf and counter top, turning our kitchen — my kitchen — into the skin of Apollo 13.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Kashering the counters,” she said.

To observant Jews, the weeks before Passover are devoted to a frenzy of cleaning.  The holiday laws have been developed to demand that every precaution is taken to prevent Passover foods from coming in contact with any form of leavening, or chametz.  Naomi had gathered boxes of perfectly good food that she would donate to the homeless because it wasn’t kosher for Passover.  She had remodeled the kitchen in Reynolds Wrap. She had taped most of our kitchen cabinets shut.  Behind them lay about three-quarters of the cooking utensils I had counted on to prepare a feast for 30 guests.  But because we used these all year long, they had come in contact with chametz — they were not kosher for Passover.

Most bizarrely, Naomi had brought an enormous stockpot of water to a rolling boil. I watched like Malinowski among the Trobrianders as my beautiful, sophisticated, modern wife then set about boiling our silverware.

“What does that do?” I asked.

“It kashers them,” she said. I felt like I had gone from Trader Joe’s directly to the set of “Yentl.”

I had lived in Jerusalem for two years, and I’d seen the wading-pool-sized cauldrons set up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where housewives in wigs and long dresses boiled their pots and pans to make them kosher for Passover.  But in my kitchen?  On the Westside?  By a woman wearing Levi’s and a Christo T-shirt?

I was upset.  The whole thing seemed arcane,  excessive, superstitious.  I had a seder, the mother of all dinner parties, to cook for, and my kitchen had been commandeered by the third century. As Naomi dipped and boiled the silverware, I mumbled, in my most passive-aggressive voice, “Ooga booga.  Ooga booga.”

Fortunately, she didn’t take offense.  But she didn’t relent, either.

And I came face to face with one of Judaism’s harshest realities: The laws of Passover come down heaviest on the cook.  If I was going to learn to enjoy this holiday of freedom, I had better learn to do it within what seemed like some pretty severe constraints.

Passover is a holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage. But like so much of Jewish life, it embodies contradictions. It is a holiday that celebrates freedom but is laden with rules. It is a holiday of liberation that enslaves women — for centuries, it has usually been women — to an arduous regimen of cleaning and preparation. At the Passover meal itself, we are implored to recline and relax as “free men,” but there is nothing relaxing about serving seven courses to 20 guests.  Passover is also a springtime holiday whose foods are supposed to convey, through the idea of nature’s renewal and rebirth, God’s promise of redemption. But check out the Passover aisle of any supermarket and go figure how matzah-meal fruit loops, corn-syrup “fruit” slices and potato-starch lemon bar mix fit into that idea.

The conflicts the holiday engenders are part and parcel of its genius.  It took the service of the Temple — and the rites, rituals and learning usually associated with the synagogue — and brought them to the dining table.  It applied men’s rules to women’s work — a fact that I assume didn’t mean much to most men, unless they, like me, did women’s work.

What I wondered, as I struggled to balance Naomi’s desires for a kosher Passover with my ideas of a sane one, was how what started out as essentially a barbecue, a Jewish luau, ended up as a combination of obsessive-compulsive spring cleaning, a multicourse meal and a night-long symposium.

The original Passover, the one described in the Torah, is very simple: To memorialize the Exodus, each family slaughters a lamb, marks the doorpost of their home with its blood,  then eats its roasted meat along with matzah and bitter herbs, or maror.  That’s it: no OCD-like search for bread crumbs, no aluminum-foil art projects, no cottonseed-oil-fried potato chips or matzah-meal brownie mix.

Skip forward a few centuries to what the historian Josephus describes as a “feast called Passover,” during which the Jews under Roman rule gathered in groups of 10 and slaughtered 255,600 lambs to feed 2,700,000 people.  (For those cooks worried about proportions, that’s about one lamb for every 10.5 people.)

As rabbinic Judaism developed following the destruction of the Temple, the laws of Passover were debated and codified. Without a Temple, without a land, the Exodus story had to take on a symbolic, spiritual dimension.

“An elaborate home-study, home-worship, home-eating experience was evolved to replace the public pageant,” Ron Wolfson wrote in “The Passover Seder.”

That brought the rabbis — all men back then — far up into the business of the home cooks, who were all women.  I can’t help but think that if their homes were like mine — if the woman ran the seder and the man the kitchen — the hundreds of pages of Passover laws would have been redacted to those first three: roast a lamb, eat some matzah and bitter herbs, drink four glasses of wine, and call it a night.

But that’s not the way it worked, in Jewish history or in our house. Instead, over the years, over 36 Passover seders together, Naomi and I have come to appreciate the best of each other’s take on the holiday.

I am still not thrilled with the cleaning and the cabinets taped shut and the boiled utensils — these days, we both like to dunk the silverware, and we both say “Ooga booga.” The truth is, I have felt those arcane rules work both as metaphor and as reality — in preparing for the holiday, I open myself to its lessons. The rabbis understood that spiritual development depends on preparation, on doing the scut work: The instant of liberation is the result of the many dogged, unglamorous steps along the way.  My kitchen, my little temple, looks different on Passover, and it offers me the possibility of being different afterward.

On my side of the equation, I have rid our chametz-free cupboards of the crud that often passes as kosher-for-Passover: the processed, factory-wrought faux foods that drain spring from the holiday. Naomi has — I think —  come to appreciate a seder table and Passover week that is heavy on fresh, green foods: the first artichokes, leeks, dandelion and chard from our garden, our backyard chickens’ first post-winter eggs.  At the seder, I’ve replaced the jarred gefilte fish with ceviche or crudo, and larded — you should excuse the expression — the new potatoes with gobs of green garlic, fresh mint and dill.

Think of the normal Passover celebration: the family gathered around a table, the father leading the seder, the mother rushing back and forth between the table and the kitchen.  Now, reverse it: That’s us.  It’s not a feminist seder — Naomi uses a traditional haggadah.  And it’s not egalitarian: We each have our places. She doesn’t try to make the meal; I don’t lead the seder.  They are both exhausting, rewarding and integral to a holiday where food is asked to do the heavy lifting of prayer. 

But at Judaism’s most demanding holiday, we have found an equilibrium, a place for both our passions.  In hindsight, it makes sense that we would. The seder collapses food into symbol into family into spirit. It blends the bedrock of Naomi’s faith — God, tradition, liturgy — with the fundamentals of mine —  cooking, meals, nature.  Learning to do Passover together, we learned to be Jewish — together.

Rob Eshman’s Passover recipes are on his blog, jewishjournal.com/foodaism.

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