As I plopped down my pasta-covered plate between three matzo-munching members of my eating club on Sunday, I braced myself for public humiliation.
“Someone broke early!” one of them announced, pointing to my oozing manicotti.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, lightly trying to shake off my shame for breaking the rules of the Jewish diet for Passover. Awkward silence ensued. I knew that my friend was joking, and that no one really cared what I ate, yet I still brought taboo and deviance to this table of Kosher Police. I blushed and hoped we would start talking about politics as usual.
It was the Sunday of Passover and, according to Jewish law, I wasn’t supposed to eat anything containing leaven that has been left to rise for more than 18 minutes. The Torah says that, during the eight days of Passover, anything leavened with wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt is out of the question – i.e. bread and pasta. This practice recalls the Israelites fleeing Egypt without having time to let their bread rise. Moses was on a tight schedule, and the sea would only remain parted for so long.
I know several Jews who barely ever attend synagogue, yet still observe the practice of avoiding breads during Passover. On a communal level, there is something extremely satisfying about lamenting with others about the dining hall’s scant kosher options, or reminiscing about our mothers’ impeccable matzo ball soup. On a personal level, it is the individual’s affirmation that he or she is a Jew: reinforcing cultural identity.
But last year, I went home to find that my mother and grandparents had planned a pasta-heavy Passover dinner at an Italian restaurant. No one seemed to care about having a kosher dinner, going through the motions of a seder, saying prayers, or preserving any remnant of a traditional Passover dinner. My grandparents had flown all the way from Florida to be with us on Passover, but the Passover part seemed like a moot point.
I had a small crisis over this lack of propriety until my mother set me straight. My grandparents had flown all the way from Florida to be with us; wasn’t that enough? I could not know then that this Passover, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s would have worsened so much that she and my grandfather had to stay in Florida. At least last year she could form coherent sentences and consistently remember our names. At least, during a garlicky Passover feast that had nothing to do with Egyptians or Moses or liberation from slavery, everyone was in marginally good health.
This year, I decided I had the freedom to choose my own Passover route, so I opted for the CJL. I looked to Princeton’s time-honored Jewish institution to show me how a real Passover seder should go. I wanted to feel part of Jewish life on campus. The people at the CJL have been mostly welcoming and open to my presence, even though I don’t regularly attend religious services.
Mostly. Once an Orthodox-Jewish graduate student complained to me that Reform Jews are “practically Christian.” I, a Reform Jew, was stunned. How could I be rejected from my own faith on the basis of my denomination? How could anyone say that I was not a Jew just because I do not follow every single custom, tradition and ritual that the Torah commands? I had heard that some ultra-Orthodox Jews reject the legitimacy of other denominations of Judaism, but this was the first time I had experienced this dismissal myself. Perhaps these kinds of encounters prompt some Jews to “prove” their Judaism by openly eating kosher for Passover.
I thought about this as I walked to the CJL, and bumped into a yarmulke-topped carrot-top acquaintance with whom I had barely spoken all year. We accordingly parted the traffic of Washington Rd. with our fiery manes, and I had to wonder: did Moses lead any redheads out of Egypt? I quickly forgot this deep philosophical musing. At the CJL I looked forward to sharing a seder dinner with old friends, and reliving the traditions that my family had renounced so long ago.
But when we were confronted with a menu of “themes” for seders, I knew this would not be a traditional seder either. There was the Baseball Seder, which consisted of guys talking endlessly about their America’s homegrown dull sport. I peered in, but decided I preferred matzo balls. There was also the Arts & Crafts Seder, in which a few students and children gathered to create artistic expressions of Exodus. In theory I would have been delighted to draw some locusts and blood, but I had an inexplicable desire to be around people I knew.
Tired of wandering in the desert of possibilities, I settled down at a freshmen-sophomore seder in the main dining room. Everyone went around the room reading Passover-related pickup lines, such as “Can I find your afikomen?” (the afikomen is the piece of matzo that is hidden for children to find on Passover). When my turn came and I had nothing to read, I was tempted to clear my throat and ask, “Want to check out my camel’s humps? Its lovely little lumps?” But I was in decent, civilized company, and I did not want to spoil the mood. My acquaintance had not received a pickup line either, but announced instead, “I’m just here for the four cups [of wine].”
The seder had all the formal components of Passover from Hebrew School, which I attended from 2nd to 7th grades. It was refreshing to hear those familiar musical prayers again at the CJL. The freshmen sang the four questions together about why Passover is different from all other nights in that same whiny tune I’d learned so long ago. We also sang the ever-catchy “Dienu” (“It Would Have Been Enough”) and Had Gad Yo (“One Little Goat”), both staples of the Passover experience.
There were the lamb’s leg, the bitter herbs, and the charoset (an apples-and-nuts mixture). There were the matzo, the eggs, and the salt water. Even the haggadah, the prayer book with the order of ritual eating and drinking, was the same one we had used at my Hebrew School. I also enjoyed the unfamiliar additions to the age-old customs, like singing songs about Passover to the tunes of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Under the Sea.”
And yet, as I sawed a sticky matzo ball in two with my worn knife, I couldn’t help missing my own mother’s cooking and that maybe I should have gone home to be with her. At that moment, she was probably dropping off her own matzo ball soup at my father’s house in hopes that my brother, with whom we haven’t spoken in over two years, would eat it. If I had gone home, we certainly would not have had a full two-hour seder with all the trimmings at the CJL. Then again, we would have fulfilled the most essential unspoken obligation of Passover: being with family.
Why isn’t that the guilt that Jews should be expected to feel on Passover? What is the shame of eating pasta on Passover in comparison with the guilt of deliberately staying at school for the most important family-oriented holiday on the Jewish calendar? I completely respect everyone who follows a strict kosher diet during the eight days of Passover. But it’s hard for me to join in when there are so many important issues to deal with right now, more important than figuring out whether Fruit Loops is acceptable to eat on a particular day. In the end, even though eating matzo is a symbol of being part of the people of Israel, I don’t feel like I have to prove my Judaism to anyone else or to myself. I know what I am, and that is that.
A few days later, I gobbled a blueberry muffin with perverse fervor. I was finished with Passover. I was still finished with Passover the following day when the Kosher Police was quibbling over the kosherness of tiramisu, and I interrupted them with the heresy of all heresies: “I think that as long as you are a good person and remember that it’s Passover, you can eat whatever you want.” No one said a word. They just kept munching their matzos.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am practically Christian. Maybe that’s why I wrote my thesis about the conversos, the Jews of late-medieval Spain who really were “practically Christian” but maintained their Jewish identities throughout the centuries. Perhaps I have an obsession with this phenomenon of living on the very fringes of Judaism. But when there are so many people with different kinds of practices and interpretations, I feel strongly that they should all be included in the community with which they identify, even if some eat pizza and cake on matzo-only days.
On Monday at lunch I spread marshmallow fluff on a piece of matzo, and the combination was amazing. So kosher, so good. Until I had vegetable lasagna for dinner. I admire and congratulate my fellow Jews who have made it through the last week without any form of leaven. It is important to retell the story of Exodus annually, and to create a communal celebration around that retelling. But I passed over the traditional dietary aspect of Passover for the second year in a row, and it still feels okay for me.