Having grown up in a home where Passover/Pesach was observed with rigour, it came as something of a shock when I arrived in Israel to find that not everyone did the same. It was only in Israel that I heard about people filling their fridges and freezers with bread and pittot before the dreaded matza invasion. I always quite liked matza, and still do, and found it difficult to understand that not everyone felt the same way.
It was also in Israel that I was introduced to different versions of the Seder and the Hagaddah. I grew up thinking that the way my father conducted the Seder (two, actually, because for arcane reasons, in the diaspora orthodox Jews hold the Seder twice rather than once, as is done in Israel) was the only way to do it. He would sit at the head of the table making sure that I, as the eldest child, had dutifully poured water over his hands before he embarked on reading the Hebrew in his quaint, Hamburg-accented Hebrew. He didn’t understand the meaning of the words any more than we, his daughters, did, and he would sometimes even go so far as to make fun of some of the more strange-sounding syllables.
That was not, however, altogether a bad thing, as it at least occasioned some laughter and entertainment in what was otherwise a rather long and boring ceremony. In fact, at the Seder held in our house this year, I introduced the reading of one of the passages in the way he used to do, pronouncing them as he once did, and with the rest of the family repeating the words in chorus after me. It made me think of my childhood and my parents and brought a warm glow to my heart.
The evening before the Seder was the occasion of a mysterious ceremony, in which the whole family, led by my father holding a lighted candle and a feather, would traipse around the house supposedly in search of ‘errant’ breadcrumbs. Pieces of bread had dutifully been placed in predetermined places, carefully laid on paper to prevent any ‘contamination’ of the surface beneath, and these were ‘discovered’ by my father. This led to his mock rebuke of my mother, and we all had a jolly good laugh. At first I would enjoy this game, but as time went on it struck me as idiotic in the extreme. It still does.
But it was the preliminaries to the Seder that still haunt my worst nightmares. How is it possible to scour the house from top to bottom, empty and repack every drawer and cupboard, change over all one’s dishes and saucepans, so that what is used during the year is put away and for the week of Pesach wholly different sets are used (two of each, of course, because dairy and meat must be separate) and also to get rid of every crumb of bread that ever sullied any crack and crevice of one’s abode? The logistics of merely contemplating this feat of acrobatics cause my head to ache.
To the best of my knowledge, there are still orthodox Jewish families who adhere to this form of obsessive-compulsive madness, and my heart goes out to them. I remember the state of exhaustion in which my late mother would arrive at the Seder table, and I would not wish it on anyone.
There is a lot to be said for keeping up ancient traditions, but in my view it is possible to be flexible in certain respects.