SM’s Helpful, Non-Comprehensive Passover Primer

It is that time of year again, folks! By which I mean: Passover. Heretofore referred to by the Hebrew name of Pesach, because that’s how it is in my head. (Note: all of the following refers to Ashkenazic practices of Pesach. Sephardic practices are very different, but I am not familiar enough with them to write a compare/contrast piece.)



For those of you who don’t know, Pesach is, to borrow a friend’s favorite suffix, crazypants.

This friend also laments the fact that when you see Jewish characters in fiction, the only holiday they usually talk about is Hanukkah, as if that is the big poobah of the Jewish calendar. To that we say, HA. Hanukkah is one of the least important Jewish holidays from a religious standpoint, since it was instituted purely by the rabbis and not by the Torah itself, and also requires relatively little action, both during the holiday and in preparation for it. Basically, you gotta buy candles or oil and dust off your menorah (which you probably got for your bar or bat mitzvah, or else you can get a cheap one from the internet or your local bodega or whatever) and be home around sundown to light it. And if you get home later than sundown, okay, you light it then. Different customs may require that you don’t do anything more strenuous than reading a book for about 30 minutes after lighting the candles. Very intense.

Pesach…whooooo boy. Where do I even start.

Well, there’s the fact that if you live in America, the first two days and the last two days of Pesach’s eight days are, unlike any days of Hanukkah, capital-H Holiday days, which I’m using here to mean that they are basically two-day Sabbaths in the middle of the week. No electricity, no driving, no public transportation, no writing with pen/pencil and paper, no igniting fires (alas), no sewing, no talking on the phone, no texting, no internet. (Fun fact: Josh Malina, the actor, once tweeted, “Good Shabbos!” and when asked what that meant, he explained, “It’s Hebrew for ‘I don’t have access to google.’ ” High fives, Josh.)

Capital-H Holidays are different from the actual Sabbath in a couple of ways, the major one being that you are technically allowed to cook on Holidays for what is immediately needed. Although since you are still not allowed to ignite a fire, there are obviously limits on what kind of cooking you can do, and therefore most people who are planning to be at home and eating all their own food for Holiday meals have to do a metric boatload of cooking and baking beforehand. You do not want to know how many quiches and kugels and casseroles and lasagnas we (read: mostly my mom) have made in the past few weeks. And that’s not counting the desserts —brownies and blondies and cookies galore.

And THAT’S not counting the fact that Pesach has its own dietary requirements. As in, you’re not allowed to eat almost anything you normally eat. Or anything that was in close contact with anything you normally eat. The technical prohibition is against chametz, i.e. leavened food, but for practical purposes (since what is leavened food anyway) chametz includes everything EXCEPT water, raw fruits, vegetables, and items that have been officially certified on their packaging as Kosher for Passover, or kasher l’pesach.  You basically need to completely restock your fridge and pantry for this holiday and cook everything with flour substitutes such as matza meal and potato starch. Also, you have to boil, cover, or temporarily replace all your dishes, pots, pans, silverware, countertops, table tops, and anything else that may have been used for chametz. Plus you must clean every nook and cranny of your house to find any other possible chametz that might be there. Lurking. Waiting to pounce.

I like to think of it as the ultimate holiday for all your neurotic compulsions, sanctioned and encouraged by Jewish law. On the eve of the Holiday, you even get to burn the chametz that you didn’t manage to get rid of. Partay!



Lots of people avoid all this by going away for Pesach. They go to visit family who have turned their houses upside down, thereby sparing themselves the necessity of doing it to their own homes. Or they go to a hotel, which is sparkling clean already and serves them their Kosher for Passover food.

My family has never gone away for Pesach. This is probably due to a) more family in one house for 8 days? No thank you, b) a family of nine in a hotel for 8 days? Pfft, ain’t nobody got money for dat, and, probably most importantly, c) my dad is the rabbi of a local congregation and the rabbi MUST be available on Pesach to answer questions regarding Jewish law on a holiday that is this completely neurotic and overwrought, and as I said before, for at least 4 of 8 days, phone calls and internet are not allowed, so he must be available for face-to-face consultation. Also to give sermons, which he is very good at since naturally he takes after me.

Additionally, the congregational rabbi must be around very close to the beginning of the holiday for another reason — he is the congregants’ representative to sell all the chametz that was not able to be cleaned/eaten/burned/flushed down the toilet/fed to pets/hidden in gifts given to “friends”/etc. This means that in the week or so leading up to Pesach (and, let’s be real, at midnight on the last possible day), people come to our house, meet with my dad, fill out a form delineating the value and location of said chametz, exchange an object of a certain minimum value (e.g. they hand a pen back and forth), and thus my father is authorized, as is traditional, to go to a gathering in Riverdale with the rest of the New York rabbis who hold all the forms from all their congregants and sell their chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach. (There are of course stricter opinions that say this is not allowed, but we will ignore those for the time being.)

I have to admit that I find the whole selling-chametz-to-a-non-Jew to be, well…kind of hilarious, to be honest. The basic way it’s done is that the non-Jew (who is a lovely Christian gentleman who used to live locally and now comes in every year specially for the sale, which is incredibly sweet in itself) pays about a penny or two upfront, with the agreement that he will pay the rest of the untold millions of dollars the day after Pesach, or the sale will be voided. And even though this is clearly a charade and everyone involved knows it, there are apparently six different ways that the rabbis ensure that the sale is solid and legally binding, even though it will be voided in a week. And when I was there with my dad one year, in the room with like 50 rabbis, the meeting kicked off with a check on the exact value of gold or silver or something on the stock market or whatever that morning, to make sure that the pennies being paid upfront are of enough value to bind the sale. The whole affair is compulsively neurotic in that adorably Jewish way.

Lastly, of course, is the tradition that most people have heard of if they’ve heard anything about Pesach: the seder, or sedarim in plural, since in America, we have two of them, on the first two Holiday nights. You can probably Wikipedia it and get more information about the technicalities of seder procedure than I can possibly give you (four cups of wine, dipping of parsley into saltwater, recitation of the Haggadah, festive meal, singing of incredibly repetitive Hebrew and Aramaic songs, et al), but what it probably won’t tell you is that since a seder is a family or communal get-together, no two sedarim are alike, just like no two Thanksgiving dinners are alike, even though most of us Orthodox Jew types are reading the story of the Exodus from the same Haggadah.

A seder can be huge (we host our synagogue’s seder every year on the first night and this one had close to 50 people in attendance) or not terribly large (a friend of my was bemoaning the fact that his sedarim were going to have only his parents, brother, and grandmother, so he’d have to be very present and talkative and unable to slink off unnoticed). Our home seder often serves as a mini communal seder, topping out at 16 to 18 people, who can range from “fun guests you enjoy having” to “that guy with terrible hygiene who mutters incoherently to himself half the time and spends the rest interrupting people’s conversations to complain that his sister refuses to host him anymore and he can’t understand why.” Win some, lose some. In ancient times, it was typical to invite as many people as possible to your seder because the korban pesach, i.e. the Passover Sacrifice, i.e. an entire roast lamb, was required to be eaten before the dawn of the next morning; leftovers had to be burned. And while the base text that we read from the Haggadah is fairly standardized, people are free to, nay, encouraged to expound and elaborate and offer up additional thoughts, possible lessons learned, and questions about the story and the rituals of the seder. A common answer given for “Why do we do X Random Seder Ritual?” is “So that the children will ask.” It is a holiday of questions, although the answers may range from the satisfying to the creative to the ridiculous.


Independently of one another, my 13-year-old little sister and my 21-year-old little brother have already said to me this holiday, “You know, I really don’t like Pesach,” as if this is a surprising revelation. It’s really not. I obviously find many aspects of it amusing, but I can’t necessarily claim to like it. I’m sure there are people in the universe who like stressful cooking and compulsive cleaning and having strangely unbalanced guests at their table and having to read huge chunks of Hebrew text before getting to the actual meal and having to eat obscene amounts of charred-cardboard-tasting matza and not being able to eat normal food and stammering through neverending songs in foreign languages, but I don’t think it’s all that scandalous or presumptuous to say that most of us, y’know, don’t.

This holiday is nuts. It’s over-the-top and designed to drive anyone bonkers.

It is also clearly designed, in the way that it has evolved over the centuries, to force members of families and communities to interact with each other, forging and reinforcing connections between them. The preparation for Pesach is a massive undertaking, and would not get done in my house if everyone didn’t pitch in, at least a little bit. We band together against our common enemy: Pesach. And even if you don’t have a huge family, turning everything over from chametz-tik to kosher for Pesach isn’t always something you can do alone; this year I was hired by a family friend to help her lug boxes down from her attic and restock the kitchen. It forces people to ask for help that they might not otherwise ask for, and for people to provide that help because we get it, we understand that we are all at the mercy of this nutty holiday and can’t in good conscience make it even harder for someone else.

And the evolution of the system of selling chametz, in addition to creating a situation where rabbis of various communities have a forum in which they are able to get together once a year (no other holiday has such a thing built into it), also forces people to have face-time with their community rabbi. Depending on your rabbi and your comfort level, this can be a fate worse than death or it can be kind of nice. The old joke is “What’s the difference between a rabbi and a therapist? Therapist costs money.” And many a chametz-selling meeting has taken a turn for the therapeutic, I can tell you that. I found out this year that you can sell your chametz online, and I can’t help feeling like that kind of misses the whole point.

Pesach is supposed to be a time where we celebrate our freedom, how we were Exodused from Egypt. But I see Pesach as having more in common with the slavery we were freed from than the freedom we’re supposedly celebrating. It’s kind of a holiday of endurance, not celebration. In essence, in its present incarnation, I see Pesach as a trial by fire that we have to go through every year with our families and our communities, and hopefully come out stronger on the other side, and THAT’S when the enjoyment of our freedom can kick in. We are reenacting the Exodus, people! Freedom awaits at the end; you just have to survive long enough!

Although, of course, there is also the fact that absolutely nothing in American law prohibits any of this crazypants holiday. We can be as weird and bizarre as we want and our government does not care one whit. That is freedom, folks. Freedom to be complete whackjobs and fruitcakes and never having to fear for one minute that anyone will stop you. Enjoy that. Savor it.

Chag Sameach, everyone.



This post was originally published in slightly altered form as a Facebook Note on April 17, 2014. There were, sadly, no gifs in the original.


Like this post? I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you (yes, you, you wonderful and very attractive reader) that my GoFundMe campaign is still open — The proceeds no longer go toward automotive school tuition, because I have paid off my loan in full, but you can still commission me to write anything you want. Like, you can force me to watch ANYTHING and review it for you. Anything. Real-Housewives-of-Atlanta-kind-of-anything. Hit me with your best shot.


On Vacation, Restlessness, and Self




I never used to get restless. I could just sit and zone out for hours or do absolutely nothing with a week or more of vacation and see everyone growing restless around me and freaking out over not being productive, and I would feel like telling them all, “Hey! Whoa! Chill out! Watch more Netflix.”


This is the first vacation that I have ever been on where restlessness of my own has found me and sometimes drives me to the edge of my nerves. True, some of that is due to exhaustion (I can’t seem to get into a good sleep cycle due to jet lag over the 7 hour time difference between New York and Jerusalem), some of that is due to dehydration (I keep forgetting to drink as much water as I should since the tap water tastes different here), some of it is due to being cold and shivery a lot (the apartments here tend to be really really cold because everything is made of heat-sucking stone), some of that is due to people’s constant questions about “so what’s next for you with this auto mechanic stuff?” (not that I blame them for asking; it just can get a bit stressful to repeatedly answer, “I have no clue; I’ve never done this part before”), and some is due to people telling me what a terrible tourist I am since all I do is meet up with friends in coffee shops or burger joints or pizza places and sit and chitchat instead of doing this whole Traveling To A Foreign Country For A Month THE RIGHT WAY.


Am I going to get back home and feel like this month of my life was wasted? That I could have done more with it? That I would have been better served to just dive straight into job hunting as soon as I graduated as a Certified Automotive Technician? That I’m just stalling for no good reason, since I’ve done nothing worthwhile here? Maybe. I don’t know. That’s kind of why I’m writing about it — because writing about it produces something tangible, something solid that I can point to and say, “Look, I produced something. I got some thinky thoughts out of it. I learned, I experienced, I lived.”


I think what I’ve learned most, or at least what I’ve had reinforced, is the way the company I keep impacts me. How who I am and how I feel about myself is much more malleable than I’d like it to be, and how I feed off different people’s energy in different ways. I’ve written about this before, a year ago actually — — in the context of relationships and how they draw out different selves from people, and how a large part of choosing to be in a relationship with a particular person is a statement of, “I prefer this version of myself, the one that I am with this person, and want to be this way on a permanent basis.”


Due to my coffee-shop-burger-bistro-pizza-place-hopping lousy tourist ways, I’ve hung out one-on-one with a lot of different people here, or in small groups, and I’ve been able to see and keep track of what selves get drawn out of me by what people. People tend to see me as a very self-confident person, with a pretty strong personality who is comfortable enough with herself to refuse to take shit from anyone, and for the most part that’s true (otherwise I’d never have gotten through automotive school). But I am also not the type to force my opinions or my attitude onto others when I don’t feel like there’s a natural entry point for me, and so when I’m around those sorts of people, I can feel my internal self making accommodations for them, adjustments, compromises, or just retreating into thoughtful silence or inconsequential small talk, because that’s all I feel like I’m able to contribute, or would like to contribute.


It’s not like that’s a terrible thing; there are all kinds of people in the world with all kinds of interests and all kinds of communication styles, and so being able to communicate with each one about exactly the same things in exactly the same way is a patently ridiculous notion.


But still, I don’t especially like being around people who make me feel smaller inside, who make me feel like I have less to offer, make me feel boring and one-dimensional. Not through any fault of their own; just due to the way interpersonal energy flows between people, or doesn’t, and feeds on itself and builds on itself, or doesn’t. I like being around people who make me feel bigger, and interesting, and multi-faceted and smart and funny and alive. I can spend forever with people like that, and I can tell that there are some people who like to be around me because I make them feel that way.


The other sorts…well, they can be enjoyable company for a while, but ultimately I’ll find myself yearning to be alone with myself and not at the mercy of anyone else’s energy flow. They make me feel fractured, as if with each one of them, I am a piece of self-mosaic, rather than one whole united awesome self. I know that I am made up of all those pieces of the mosaic, and there’s nothing wrong with facing that truth, but I really prefer feeling whole and not having my attention called to the existence of all the cracks.


Don’t get me wrong; I do have a lot of people here who make me feel like that whole awesome self, and it’s been so great to meet and spend time with them. But I have a lot of those people back home too, and I can’t wait to get back.






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On Responsibility to the Community — Sexism, Intermarriage, and Other Fun Stuff (Part 2)

 Commissioned post count: 2 out of 8 requests so far.


[Continued from Part 1, found here. Requested by Elissa G.]


This part is going to be a lot more Jewish, because Judaism and community are so inextricably intertwined and as an agnostic Jew who keeps most observances for all the “wrong” reasons, I of course have much to say about the communal aspects of Judaism as opposed to the religious ones.


But first I have to talk a bit about what makes a community. A common (but by no means universal) Jewish take on community is that it’s like a diagram of concentric circles — you and your personal bubble (or “dalet amot”) in the center, your family in the circle around that, your Jewish neighbors in the circle around that, then non-Jewish neighbors, then Jews in your city, then non-Jews in your city, then Jews everywhere else in the world, and everyone else in the world in the circle around that.

Like this. Only not as tasty.

The closer the circle is to the center, the greater the urgency for you to help those people. Responsibility becomes diffused the further out you go. Which is quite practical when it comes to allotting the limited resources that we all have in life — if you try to help everyone equally and spread your resources too thinly, then no one gets the help they need. So “take care of your own first” is as good a way as any to divvy up the resources.


Still, in reality, a diagram of the communities that we belong to probably looks more like this:



There is family, there are school friends, there are neighborhood friends, there are internet friends, there are colleagues, there is extended family, there is step-family, half-family, people who were in the same school clubs as you, people who went to schools you graduated from, summer camp friends, people who are fans of the same shows/music/youtubers/sports teams that you are, people who are the same gender as you are, people who are the same ethnicity as you are, people who are the same religion as you are, and so on and so forth, and some of these may overlap a little and some of them may overlap a lot, and some may have absolutely no overlap at all.


And you may feel a strong connection to some of these communities and little or no connection to others, and other members of the community may see you differently than you see yourself. For instance, colleges are always going to consider you part of the alumni community and ask you for money, whether you feel any affinity toward them or not. Some Yankee fans may consider you basically a brother if you’re a Yankee fan too, while you yourself may have much more stringent criteria for what makes you feel connected to someone in a brotherly way. And you may feel more of an affinity for your friends than you do for your own family, or vice versa. Or you may feel very strongly drawn to a particular cause that involves a particular population, like the homeless or LGBTQ teens.


So when it comes to “taking care of your own first,” the question of who “your own” truly is becomes muddled and confusing.


Personally, I usually tend to latch onto people, not communities. True, I may feel a connection and common ground with a person who is Jewish, or a Yankee fan, or a woman, or a rabbi’s daughter, but that alone is seldom enough to inspire any kind of loyalty. I’m not gonna put myself out there for someone and do them any special favors just because of those things, if the person as a whole is not someone I find compelling. I don’t owe anyone anything just because they may belong to a community that I belong to. But for my friends, my real true friends, who are there for me and have established a reciprocal relationship? There’s very little I would not do, regardless of what community they may belong to.


Obviously I try to have a basic baseline of human decency with most people I meet, and I try to stand up for what I think is right/fight injustice on a situational basis as discussed in Part 1, but just as obviously, I’m not an unendingly generous person who will just give and give and give to anyone who needs regardless of who they are and how they treat me and what they mean to me. Just because we inhabit this world together or share some particular commonality does not put some cosmic, crushing responsibility on me for them, or on them for me. I don’t think that is a healthy way of thinking.


[Side note: I wrote this conflict into characters from the series of (mostly unpublished) novels I wrote in elementary school and high school — one of the characters, Jake, has a phenomenal range of superpowers, one of which is the power to heal others, and once he develops that one enough, he begins to feel that any time he spends sleeping, or eating, or talking to his girlfriend, is essentially causing other people to die, because he could be healing them. He internalizes that cosmic, crushing weight of responsibility to others, any others, to the point where his friends begin to conspire to somehow weaken his powers because the guilt is destroying him. Great power, great responsibility, etc. Yeah, that was the way High School Me grappled with this issue and the pressure to be a good person. Aaaaaangst.]

Self Portrait of High School SM


Nowadays, I rarely do things that are “good for the community” or “what the community wants/needs” if I do not also have enough personal reasons to do those things.


For instance, religious Jewry is a very small minority in the world, and is probably getting smaller. As a result, what is good for the community, and what is built into the cultural programming of most people in it, is that you should a) remain religious, b) marry someone religious or at least Jewish, c) have lots of Jewish babies.


I do not think that “because the community needs you to” is a good enough reason for any of those things. People should be able to remain religious because they want to, and stop being religious if they want to, and if a different religion speaks to them more, they should be free to go for that. And people should have children if they want children, and if they don’t want children, well, they probably shouldn’t be having them.


And this may be a controversial thing to say on a public blog, but I have zero philosophical/ideological problems with Jews dating and marrying non-Jews, because I don’t think anyone’s responsibility to the continuity of their community should supersede their own personal needs. If I were 1000% convinced that religious Judaism is the absolute best of all possibly ways of living and that bringing it closer to extinction is this horrible, unspeakable crime toward future generations and the world as a whole, then maybe I’d be sad about people intermarrying. But…I don’t think that. I think Judaism is certainly a valuable, valid, often excellent way of living, but so are lots of other ways. And yeah, I think it would be a shame if it died out completely, but I don’t think that putting that responsibility on any one person’s shoulders, at the cost of their personal happiness or fulfillment, is fair.


Again, personally, I keep many religious observances for various different reasons, as I’ve written about before. I also, after much consideration, decided that I am not willing to date non-Jews, not for ideological reasons, but rather for practical and emotional ones.


Practically speaking, I know it would alienate me from my community, my family, many of my friends, and even the possibility of being truly, madly, deeply in love does not make up that cost. And since I am not the sort of person who falls truly, madly, deeply in love without an intense period of dating, it’s unlikely I will form an emotional connection with a person who is not Jewish that is strong enough to make me want to date them and risk all the fallout.


Emotionally speaking . . . oy. So much of my fight for my identity and my life struggles are deeply tied to religious Judaism. And that’s a part of me that needs to be understood, and understood on the intuitive soul-deep level that only comes from having been through it yourself. I don’t need everything about me to be understood that way — I don’t need a partner to intuitively understand what it’s like to be from a big family, or what it’s like to want to be an automotive technician, or what it’s like to be a woman — but I need this, I need a partner who intuitively understands what Judaism has put me through. It’s like how some war veterans find it difficult to adjust back to relationships with civilians and only feel at home among their old army buddies. I’m not saying that my upbringing was the equivalent of a war, but it was an emotional pressure-cooker of an experience that’s difficult to convey to others who haven’t lived it. That’s also why I’m reluctant to date people who’ve never had their heart broken. I’m a snob like that.


Well, Elissa, I hope you got your money’s worth. I did not intend to write this much, but your topic gave me thinky thoughts.




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