'My favorite religious holiday'

Writer passed over from being a bored child to a ready hostess

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.

For those Jews who are no longer wandering the desert but are still without Seder plans this Passover, there is a wealth of Pesach activities to participate in. Beth Emek in Pleasanton will hold a Passover festival, luncheon and Shabbat morning services on Saturday, April 7. Chabad of the Tri-Valley is holding a series of services and lunches throughout the week. Tri-Valley Cultural Jews will also sponsor a secular progressive community second Seder potluck on Saturday, April 7 at 5 p.m. at Bothwell Arts Center (2466 8th St., Livermore).


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Posted by G-Man
a resident of Danville
on Apr 6, 2012 at 8:44 am

OK, so where is the article about the true meaning of Easter? As a Catholic, it isn't lost on me that too many times in the press and pop culture today, Jewish Passover is seen as this uber-serious holiday (to wit, this article), and Easter is treated as if its all about candy Peeps and chocolate bunnies (see the other article in today's edition of this publication on Easter candy!)... well, it's anything but that. I'm not going to preach, but c'mon, let's give equal coverage here. Easter egg hunts are NOT the true meaning of Easter, and Passover isn't the only thing going on this weekend.

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Posted by Catholic
a resident of Danville
on Apr 6, 2012 at 9:28 am

I completely agree with you, "G-Man". I have been concerned that Danville Express seems anti-Catholic, especially with the non-sense their paid blogger, Tom Cushing, has written about our church's religious practices being violated by President Obama's healthcare plan. Maybe it is time for Catholics to stop buying advertisments in this periodical, and stop spending money on any advertisers who do?

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Posted by Jessica Lipsky
a resident of Danville
on Apr 6, 2012 at 11:17 am

Let me be the first to assure you that the Danville Express, San Ramon Express and Embarcadero Media are not anti-Catholic or Christian. The opinions of Tom Cushing are not necessarily those of our staff or this paper.

Growing up Jewish in the San Ramon Valley, I didn't see a ton of information on Passover in our local papers. This article is just meant to inform readers about a holiday many are unaware of and provide a youthful, fun perspective on what has been a traditionally serious event.

I wish a very happy spring season to all Valley residents, regardless of religious denomination.

Jessica Lipsky

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Posted by PSMacintosh
a resident of Danville
on Apr 7, 2012 at 12:08 am

Thanks for sharing that "slice of life" and holiday viewpoint.
I think it always takes a bit of guts to put one's personal life out to display, especially one's spiritual/religious side.

G-Man and Catholic: As to the "lack of articles about the true meaning of Easter" argument:
Don't forget that this is an ONLINE FORUM and YOU are able to initiate/start your own posting of your own views or issues or information. (There is only limited censorship.) So you could create the "balance" that you feel is missing.
Knowing, of course, that whatever you submit will be subject to the scrutiny and "comments" of others. (And some folks can be downright nasty, as you've probably seen.)

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Posted by Mary
a resident of Danville
on Apr 7, 2012 at 7:31 am

Glad to see that others find the columnist T. Cushing as offensive and derisive. I do not think his diatribes are interesting or thoughtful. They are mean spirited and appear to be written with the intent to divide the readership. I am not opposed to different views, what I do oppose is bullying which I think this columnist is. Either that, or he is a sensationalist looking for readership. His attacks on Catholics are blatant and redundant.

Jessica, I hope your faith touches you personally this passover season and that you grow in it spiritually. Thanks for sharing your traditions with us, even if they are not the same as mine.

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