I’ve always thought people go kind of overboard for Passover, but this year, when I’m hearing about everyone’s plans over Facebook, I’m having a hard time relating to the lengths people are going to, especially when most people aren’t even having company. Someone mentioned having a kosher for Passover ice cream maker, and I just don’t get it.
I know I can just scroll past these posts, so I’m not asking for advice about that so much as wondering if you can explain why people care so much and put in so much work for this one week.
Puzzled by Passover
There’s long been a running Jewish joke that anyone who does less religious ritual than you is a heretic, and anyone who does more is a fanatic. Obviously, in that mindset, we all embody the ultimate correct-ness of Jewish ritual, political beliefs, COVID cautiousness and anything else that is fractious and along a continuum. You can either stay in that place of self-righteousness or, like you’re doing, try to understand where everyone else is coming from.
My answer for why people go to these lengths for Passover is two-fold: it’s both “Tradition!” and “pushing back on tradition!” (There’s only a Fiddler song for one of those.) And depending on where someone sits and how they view the world, these two contradictory feelings might collide in a way that makes Passover preparation seem over the top to someone coming at things from a different perspective.
In the “tradition,” column, there might be things like, you have to make two main dishes, three kinds of kugel and four kinds of dessert that no one even likes for seder because that’s what your mom always did. Or, you have to change over your dishes because that’s the only time you see certain family heirlooms that stay in storage the rest of the year. Or, you have to clean every inch of your kitchen because otherwise a particular family member with a different level of religious observance won’t eat in your home and that family member leads the seder. You know, tradition.
In the “pushing back on tradition” column, we live in the 21st century! We’re no longer repressed shtetl Jews forced to eat nothing but potatoes for a week. So, there’s a motivation to try to make the food better, more normal, less ethnic, less steeped in deprivation.
If someone can make a cake that no one would believe is kosher for Passover, then why not? If someone can afford (and has the space to store) the extra equipment, yes, even an ice cream maker, doing so may make the holiday feel more celebratory and less oppressive. Yes, it’s only a week, but it’s a week that often defines people’s Judaism, so people approach the holiday with as many different perspectives as people approach everything else about Jewish identity.
As I have counseled so many times before, I encourage anyone celebrating Jewish holidays to do so in ways that are meaningful to them as individuals. Especially this year, when many of us still feel completely separated from our communities and families (and we feel that way because we are, in fact, incredibly isolated), the holiday has to work for you.
Even if you feel bound by the strictest interpretation of Passover cleaning and eating, there are still more and less extreme ways to enact those laws in actuality. Even if you don’t feel bound by any stringencies at all but you know you still have a couple weeks left to grab a box of matzah, there are more and less intentional ways to approach what you eat for that week.
Even if you are bored to tears or enraged to angry laughter at your friends’ posts, remember that this holiday, at its heart, celebrates freedom. So, to answer your specific question, people care so much because freedom is both the most personal and the most universal expression of who we are as individuals and as Jews. And if that’s not worth going overboard for, I’m not sure what is.