Friday, March 30, 2012

Passing Over Holidays

In Israel, Pesach or Passover is approaching.  For those who never experienced the period before this holiday, it is both similar and different than the closest social Christian equivalent, Christmas.
Preparations begin four weeks before the actual event.  In fact, once Purim is over, it is time to get ready for Pesach, a bit like the time between Thanksgiving and Noel.  Pesach also causes stress and even depression as people have to decide which side of the family has priority this year (although there is a bit of a consolation prize in the holiday at the end of the Pesach for the losing side of the family).  People lacking or far from family seek invitations.  As the event approaches, people have to find appropriate gifts for the hosts, a challenge familiar to most Americans.  The last week involves multiple food shopping trips, hours by the stove, disagreements among parents and children about helping out, and massive cleaning of the house.
Yet, Pesach has its unique aspects.  On the one hand, the menu is fixed by the rules of the Haggadah, the book everybody reads during the Pesach seder, or ceremony.  That being said, there are numerous ethnic variations on the exact version of the required food, not to mention the grey area of foods that are allowed for Sephardim but not for Ashkenazis, such as rice. Second, a common topic of conversation is the exact number of guests who are coming.  A classic Israeli comedy show Zehu Ze once jokingly portrayed three women bragging about how many people they were feeding, with the last one claiming she had tables throughout the neighborhood just to seat all her guests.  As for cleaning, Pesach cleaning is a bit like spring cleaning, but all hametz, leavened bread products, must be removed from the house.  Of course, some take this duty more seriously than others. In some neighborhoods, you will ritual burning of bread and placing of pots and pans in boiling water as part of the house preparation.   As for the seder itself, the reading of the Passover story has three basic versions: read only selected parts and eat early; read everything and eat late; and read everything and allow unlimited additional commentary and eat VERY late, sometimes approaching midnight.  The actual atmosphere varies widely depending on the family and number and age of guests.  My grandmother used to read about our suffering in Egypt as if she was suffering right then.   Other people view the evening as an ideal occasion to catch up on gossip with cousins.
Pesach is as the French would say: chacun à son gout – to each his own.  However, like any good holiday, aside from causing an upset stomach, it creates a feeling of belonging to one’s family and religion.  Alternatively, it is as Tom Lehrer said in the song National Brotherhood Week, “Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.”

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