Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the story of Exodus, begins at sundown April 6 this year -- to the joy of many and the consternation of a few devout lovers of bread, which is given up for a week.
Observed for seven or eight days, Passover celebrates the story of how God helped the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt by inflicting 10 plagues upon the Egyptians and the Pharaoh. Traditionally, a family, group of families or friends will gather on the first or second night of Passover and hold a Seder, a symbolic dinner where people read the story of Passover and eat unleavened foods. During the Seder, the youngest person will ask guests questions about the holiday and children hunt for hidden Afikoman, or matzoh.
Although many Jews do not attend synagogue during the holiday and prefer to spend time with family and friends, the love of Passover or "Pesach" didn't come so easily for me.
Now it's my favorite religious holiday. But as a child I always dreaded the mid-spring celebration: Passover was a horrible holiday with bad food and way too much discussion. Everyone looked forward to finding the hidden matzoh and all the children were disappointed when the ghost of Elijah never showed. (He is supposed to announce the coming of the messiah and a glass of wine is left for him near the door.)
My family tended to celebrate with one of three families. While I was excited to see my friends, I inevitably found myself squirming at someone's rigid dining room table waiting for the macaroons to debut.
Our Seders would consist of about 10 parts, beginning with blessings and wine (Kadeish), breaking of the matzoh, the telling of the Passover story, eating of symbolic foods and finally a meal made without yeast. During the storytelling portion of the evening, the youngest person at the table would be responsible for asking guests the Four Questions about the significance of the Seder -- a task I reluctantly accepted until my younger brother learned to read.
But whenever a lack of bread caused my inner brat to rear her ugly head and complain, my parents would placate me with stories of Passovers past, where more traditional Jews wouldn't take any lip from restless children.
"Those Seders could last for hours if people were traditional," my mother told me recently. "You were fidgeting, hungry and couldn't eat anything. People wouldn't hesitate to smack you on the head and tell you to straighten up and fly right if you complained."
She later told me that crotchety uncles would ply their young relatives with rye whiskey, hoping to get them giddy about washing dozens of their mother's best china plates after a three-hour dinner.
But as the years progressed and my parents got tired of wrangling their hungry and bored children, our Seders became more of a semi-formal dinner among close friends with crazy schedules. Perhaps the solemnity of my childhood Passovers was simply to instill tradition in my eager(ish) mind, but as we got older, my parents became less serious.
One year, Maxwell House Publishers printed our Haggadah, the text from which the Passover story is told, and we stopped for a commercial break every few minutes to give thanks to our "sponsor." Because you are supposed to recline during the Seder -- in fact, reclining is the answer to one of the Four Questions, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" -- my father makes a big deal of saying, "This night really isn't different from all other nights, because we recline all the time."
While I still try to keep kosher for the week, we have pretty much given up on traditional foods.
As a result, Passover has become less of a Jewish holiday and more of a yearly gathering of family and friends. When I host Seders apart from my family -- typically a rowdy affair that leaves my house reeking of potato latke oil -- we're bound by a common heritage and religion, but it isn't necessarily the basis of the evening.
Last year, I hosted a Seder for seven of my friends, half of whom weren't Jewish. Even though I left work early to slave over matzoh ball soup, latkes and tzimes (a fruit casserole) and properly prepare my house for the festivities, I didn't have a single Haggadah -- much less one for each of my guests.
I convinced one of my attendees to swoop a book from her parents, our newest "sponsor" and an unintentional ode to previous Passover gatherings. For the rest of the evening, each guest took turns reading from the Haggadah in a variety of silly, drunken voices pausing only to toast to God's charity and say "Di'anu," meaning, "It would have been enough." My roommate and I agreed that the round-the-table reading would become our new household tradition.
The story of Passover is one of challenge and hope, which is easily understood by family members of all ages. My own relationship to the holiday has changed throughout the years, as has my willpower to avoid cereal and pasta. Maybe the food has just gotten better.