This article appeared in the March 19, 2010 Jewish Advocate.


On Passover, allow for fun and festivity

by Susie Davidson

Our senses of humor and ability to reach for the moment can take us a long way, and although Passover is different from all other nights and holidays, why should we treat it any differently? So instead of griping and groaning about the extra effort Passover requires, why not see the beauty, the charm, and the enjoyment, along with the deep religious significance? Like these exemplary community members, all of whom have serious vocations and passionate causes, let's appreciate the festivity, make a joke, take pleasure in the annual Passover experience, and share it all around.

In “The Salads of My People,” an entry in her “Mind Over Manners” blog, Robin Abrahams writes, “Passover…means no leavened bread, or more or less any grain products, for a week. (It's like the sacred Atkins diet.)” Abrahams, who holds a PhD in psychology and writes the “Miss Manners” column each week for the Boston Globe Magazine, enjoys it when Passover coincides with the Christian Holy Week: “I was walking Milo, the dog, on trash-collection day, and the recycling bins in one house were filled with discarded palms. The bins at the house next door were filled with discarded matzah boxes.”

The Torah commands “with bitter herbs they shall eat it," and maror, which comes from the Hebrew word mar, or bitter, symbolizes slavery in Egypt. But where we go from there is up to us. “Our chrain-off, a challenge to make, and eat, the bitter-est horseradish, has been going on for as long as I can remember,” said Kayla Werlin of Longmeadow, who directs Mak'hela, a Jewish chorus. To carry on the family tradition, Werlin made ceramic bowls with family members’ names. “It's been great fun,” she said. Explosive, we'll bet.

Hot or not, we incorporate our food preferences and aspirations into our Passover observance. “I use as many organic ingredients as possible during Passover,” said Marion M. Stein, BBTOS (Bring it Back to Our Schools) Coordinator at the New York-based Teva Learning Center, the leading Jewish Environmental Education Institute in the U.S. “We also eat lots of vegetables, and I compost all the kitchen vegetable parings and food scraps,” she said. But the Brooklyn-based environmental activist, who is spearheading an April 18 Day of Learning and Action at Hebrew College in Newton, stresses that this practice is not just for Pesach. “I try to do this all the time,” she said.

Some like Stein are dedicated and need no reminders. For the rest of us, we have anecdotes. “Well, my very first Passover, I was trying to do everything right, at least by some modest standards I'd set for myself,” Miss Manners, a convert to Reform Judaism who is married to Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes for dubious achievements in science, told the Advocate. “I hadn't started keeping Kosher yet - I still don't, except for not eating pork or shellfish - so I thought I'd try to abstain from forbidden meats as well as hametz.” But on the very first day, she forgot and bought a slice of pepperoni pizza. “I drew a big "K" on my dominant hand for the rest of the week to remind myself,” she recalled. “[If I had converted Orthodox], I'd have to write notes all over my body like that guy in "Memento!" she said. (Her first book, “Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners," is just out, and certain to contain great profundity.)

For Margo Golden, it's all about the soup. "I make a great matzo ball soup that is to the specification of one of my stepsons," she said. "I try to make this soup often, and we discuss all of its merits, and see if there is any room for improvement." Golden, who is President of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, sees to it that all she makes is healthful. "All the ingredients for the soup are from Whole Foods, and I pick out the most impressive (largest) carrots," she said. "And if I see a good article or recipe in a newspaper during the lead up to Passover, in my recipe folder it goes," she said. "If there are guests, especially if one of my two stepsons invites a friend, all the merrier."

"My family and I once attended a community seder at Ft. Meade, Maryland," recalled Phyllis Levine, a Brookline native. "The leader of the seder was very clever, and brought the entire community together through song." It was one of the best Seders she ever attended. "From that point, I learned the value of adding humor to the Seder and try to include Passover parodies and other touches at my own," she said.

Judy Faust, who chronicles family stories and produced "Angels of Austria," a film about her mother's return to Austria by invitation 50 years after the Holocaust, attended a public school in Hartford, Conn. “At Easter time, everyone, like it or not, made an Easter bonnet,” she recalled. “So being five or six years old, I wanted to wear my bonnet. My brother and father wore a hat, a yarmulke, and I didn't see any difference!” They finally allowed it, and she remembers their bending to her youthful desire to this day. Last year, Faust attended a “Women’s Passover” in Maine. “It was the best Passover I ever attended. Each of 15 women interpreted their passage and contributed great dishes such as chocolate-covered matzahs,” she said.

“My late father came from 16 generations of Orthodox rabbis,” said Zvi A. “Skip” Sesling, former Chairman of the Brookline Board of Selectmen. “One year, my sister was visiting from Israel and we insisted that he conduct a Seder ‘the old fashioned, old country’ way.”

Despite his mother’s protests, his father agreed. “We sat down around six, and the Seder began. We finally ate around 11 p.m., and finished somewhere around 2 or 3 a.m.,” he recounted. “And, oh yes, he conducted it by heart!” Sesling, who just released a new poetry collection, “King of the Jungle,” says that nowadays, “the whole family gets together, we all contribute to the meal, we all participate in the Seder, and it is just a joyous, peaceful and fun evening.”