Purim is my favorite Jewish holiday for all of the obvious reasons—costumes and candy—but as a friend of mine grimly warned a few weeks ago amid a stream of celebratory Facebook statuses, “Purim is the horse Pesach rides in on.” And like that, all my mirth was sapped. (Don’t worry—it was later restored by alcohol.)
I despise Passover. I start dreading it the moment my Purim hangover subsides. Back when I was younger, I didn’t even wait until the holiday was over; I started fretting about Passover as the mishloah manot baskets arrived out our house. My mother would lament, “What are we going to do with all of this chametz right before Pesach?” and then started setting aside snacks to give to our gentile neighbors.
She also told me to pick out chocolates and candies to bring to school to share with my classmates. Imagine if after receiving a bounty of Halloween candy, a mother told her kids that they had to give most of it away—to neighbors, friends, classmates—because in a few weeks time, it couldn’t be kept in the house. (This actually sounds like something Jimmy Kimmel would suggest to parents—tell their kids that they had to give away all of their candy and then record their children’s reactions and upload it to YouTube.)
We even regifted on the spot—as mishloach manot deliveries poured in, we repackaged them and handed them out to all the Purim comers we hadn’t thought of when we made our original round of holiday baskets. Within a few days of Purim, all of the goodies had either been eaten or given away.
Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, I tolerated and accepted as normal all kinds of unusual, non-mainstream behavior—from not using electricity on the Sabbath to keeping two sets of dishes in the house to rock climbing with a skirt over my pants. Vacationing in Disney Land entailed packing a week’s worth of food into a suitcase. Going to the movies meant bringing your own snacks because you couldn’t be sure that the popcorn is kosher. (To this day, I can sneak any food into a movie theater in my purse. This includes milkshakes.) And none of this stuff actually bothered me at the time.
But Passover took it all too far. I’m a naturally anxious sort of person and holiday prep exacerbated it. One teacher told us to unscrew the receiver on our phones to find crumbs that we might’ve spit while talking and I spent an hour trying to figure out how to disassemble our phone until my mother caught me. I spent hours reading the miniaturized list of ingredients of the family’s moisturizers, deodorants, and to ensure they didn’t included chametz ingredients. I verified these lists against the the annually updated guide written by Rabbi Blumenkrantz.
I did the same thing when it came to my makeup, but in this instance, my zeal was a little self-serving—the more chametz-laden makeup I found, the more chametz-free stuff I could buy at the makeup counter at the Kings Plaza Macy’s where many other religious women were scrutinizing cosmetics with Rabbi Blumenkrantz’s book in hand. We were all there to buy makeup for God. And because Clinique was offering a free gift. (Don’t tell me that the major cosmetic companies don’t know that Passover helps them move product. They must know.)
These are just a few examples of the type of over-the-top behavior that you hear about as this holiday draws near. All Orthodox Jews have their own stories about the craziness. (In fact, this story in the New York Post describes the lengths that some will go to and the amount of money they’re willing to pay to make sure their homes are crumb-free.)
If the Haggadah were rewritten in modern times, I’d like to think that the character of the Wicked Daughter wouldn’t ask about the Exodus from Egypt, but would instead ask, “What is this cleaning to you?”
The Haggadah would continue, ‘To you’ and not to herself. Because after several years of therapy, she has finally learned how to separate herself from her family’s pathology.” And it should be considered a pathology. In the upcoming version of the DSM, Passover would be perfectly at home under “anxiety disorders.” (Perhaps we can lobby for its inclusion in the latest version of the manual.)
And yet despite recognizing the insanity of the holiday’s preparation, I continue to observe it more stringently than I do anything else. During the rest of the year, I laugh off a lot of kashrut as “food cooties” and order freely at restaurants, not concerned that my brunch omelet might touch something forbidden on the griddle. Yet on Passover I worry, like a little boy confronted with a girl on the playground, as to whether the salad I’d like to order from my usual café will get chametz cooties from the nearby bagels.
I’ve often wondered why I continue to fret over minutiae when it comes to this holiday when I’ve largely given it up in other domains in my life. The reason, I’ve concluded, is fairly disappointing—Pesach only happens once a year. As I’ve noted earlier, my so-called rebellion took a long time and a lot of thought. Decisions about my kashrut observance were considered and made multiple times—will I eat that restaurant? What will I eat? What won’t I eat? So many questions, and I answered them differently day-to-day until I figured out answers I was comfortable with. Similarly, my deliberations over my Sabbath observance repeated themselves, week after week, for several years.
But holidays such as Passover only happen once a year, which means I don’t get as many opportunities to figure out how I want to observe them. I don’t have the chance for the same sort of trial and error. So for one week, I default to something that very closely resembles the sort of Passover I was raised with, not out of any sort of principle but because I haven’t had the chance to think up anything better.
Not that I haven’t made any changes. A few years ago, I joined the ranks of many other Jews who have incorporated kitniyot into their Passover diets. I now buy and drink coffee from the same vendors I purchase from year round. I no longer cover my countertops with layers of aluminum foil. But that’s about it.
Once again, I will boil my sink, wipe down my countertops, and eat off of plastic plates. (Sorry environment!) I might even buy a new lipstick. You know, because the old one might have miniscule crumbs on it. And because Clinique was offering a gift with purchase.
Previous columns: David Brooks’ Orthodox Fantasy