Passover has always been a lonely time for me.
Not that first night, of course. The seder was a burst of colors, sounds, and tastes. Purple Manishewitz seeping into white table cloths, my Israeli mom and our visiting family pounding their fists and howling “Achad Mi Yodaya” long into the night, the bitter taste of the horseradish that we dared each other to eat in enormous prickly mouthfuls.
The hard part was the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and on and on and on until the pleasures of that first evening were lost in the endlessness of being the only Passover-keeping family around town.
Keeping kosher was fun at home. We feasted on the Sephardic staples of rice and beans and dark chocolate lollipops from Brooklyn. But it was an entirely different matter at school. Being the only Jewish family meant that we were the only ones bringing matzah and cream cheese sandwiches until we were so tired of them that we made our way back to the lunch line to stuff ourselves on French fries and soggy spinach.
I was always keenly aware of my Jewishness, but during Passover, everyone else was aware of it, too. Bringing “Church wafer” sandwiches for lunch wasn’t exactly a way to make being Jewish seem like a fun thing. I got teased so much that I found myself going hungry rather than bring in our “weird” Passover foods.
Despite all that, I kept Passover, in my own loose fashion, every year of my life. That first bite of pasta when the sun set on the last night was more than just a reward, it was a testament to my self-discipline and strength.
And so I wanted to give my kids that same feeling of strength and self-discipline. When they were very little I made a real effort. Rice and grilled chicken replaced their staples of pasta and schnitzel. And then they grew older and my oldest son launched a war against Passover.
“No one else in my school keeps Passover, not even the Jewish kids, so why do I have to? How does not eating bread make me a better Jew? Why do I have to keep kosher when dad doesn’t?”
I have always believed that my job is to give them a background in Jewish traditions and then let my kids make their own decisions about religion. If Passover didn’t make sense to him, well, then I wasn’t going to force him to keep it.
So, he didn’t. He and my (non-Jewish) husband would slip out for pizza or burgers while I fed the other little ones yet another dinner of rice and grilled chicken. (Yes, I’m aware that there are other more interesting options, but none that appealed to their picky little appetites.)
Without the rest of the family keeping kosher, Passover felt even lonelier than it did when I was a child. I started to wonder if it was even worth all the effort.
It continued on that way until last year. My middle son, the one who talks to God and doodles biblical scenes on his notebooks, decided to keep Passover with me. For school days, I made him peanut butter and jelly on matzah or matzah pizzas. At dinner, we’d sit together eating rice and matzah-coated chicken while the rest of the family fended for themselves.
We had great talks on those days. Talks about what it meant to be Jewish. Talks about self-discipline and how hard it is to do things you believe in even when no one else is doing them.
At the end of the week we took that first big bite of spaghetti and exchanged triumphant smiles. Before bed that night he gave me an extra big hug.
“It wasn’t so hard to keep Passover, Mom. I liked it, actually.”
“Yeah? What did you like about it?”
“It made me feel strong to be able to do it. That’s what being Jewish feels like to me. Being strong.”
I hugged him again, so tightly I could feel his little heart pounding against my chest. This little boy with his wise words and big heart had not only reminded me of why I keep Passover, but also helped me feel, for the first time in a long time, the joy that comes in keeping traditions together.