The exact origins of Passover (this year April 6-14) are lost in time, but we are confident that thousands of years have passed since the Israelites/Jews/Hebrews left Egypt. The resulting holiday is celebrated annually to commemorate our departure and remind us what we were departing from. One of my favorite passages in the Hagaddah, the story of the exodus, states that “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” In other words, the gaining of freedom was not a one-time event. We should be thankful that we emerged from slavery and celebrate continuing to live in freedom. I think the message is timeless and universal.
However, I’ve recognized for many years that Passover does not promise freedom for all Jews. Because the household has to be made ready for Passover and one or two nights of a houseful of family and friends sitting down to the seder, many Jewish women are enslaved for weeks before and after Passover. I have not been surprised to hear some contemporary Jewish women express their resentment at the work needed to clear out the forbidden items (chometz), clean the premises, bring out special cookware, serving ware, dishware and glassware, shop for Passover food, set a nice table, cook a large meal or two, and then, even before the men and the children finish singing the last song of the evening, start cleaning up the mess.
It’s no wonder that, with women spending more time out of the house, earning more money, there has been a significant growth in Passover-based vacations. You can take a cruise, you can go to a hotel close to home (if home is near certain major US urban areas), or to increasingly exotic locales. In a moment, you can find packages in Arizona, California, Florida and Israel, of course. But how about Cancun, Mexico, Maggiore, Italy, Whistler, British Columbia, Paphos, Cyprus, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Cannes, France, and Estepona, Spain, all under strict rabbinical supervision. The real supervision comes from Mama, who says, “Enough of this backbreaking work. If Passover’s a holiday, I want to celebrate, too.”
Not just women felt some dread at the approach of Passover. We field Jews were and continue to be reminded of the Don’ts of Passover which are aimed at the vital area of our mouths. Don’t eat bread, don’t eat pretzels, don’t eat rice (unless you are the descendants of Iberian Jews), don’t eat corn, don’t drink beer. Don’t eat anything without a Kosher for Passover sticker. By the way, my mother recalls her mother, the formidable Esther Malka Goldenberg, a traditionally-observant Jewish woman who operated a grocery store for about 40 years on the lower East Side and then Brooklyn, pasting Kosher for Passover stickers on groceries already in stock. So, the joy and excitement that we usually felt in the big family gathering around the seder table often was soon dissipated by the negative feelings surrounding the next week of watching carefully what you ate and drank.
I had reason to reconsider this negative view of Passover when I was speaking to a non-Jewish clerk at the Shop-Rite supermarket in Englewood, NJ, where we were shopping for Passover merchandise in advance of the holiday. He was stocking the shelves and he didn’t know what the fuss was about, why this sudden explosion of merchandise tailored for one holiday. I told him that it goes back to the days of the exodus, that Jews left Egypt with little more than the clothes on their backs as they fled ahead of Pharaoh and his army. But, instead of repeating the old story about not having time to wait for bread to rise, I told him that leaving almost everything behind forced us to start anew, and that cleaning out our house and our pantries today is our tribute to our ancestors and expresses our obligation to regard ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt. We also accept this new start in memory of those who, at many times and places, had no choice in having to deal with radical disruptions in their lives. And that’s a good thing and not just a Jewish thing.