Or, Why Does This Night Suck More Than Any Other Night?
I hate Passover.
I’ve hated it for as far back as I could remember. I actually remember telling someone how much I hated it when I was about ten, and hastily adding a half-serious “Sorry, Hashem!” after, with a quick glance up at the sky. It’s been surprising to me to learn that most Jewish adults I know actually like Passover (offically known as “Pesach”). They look forward to it. They have happy memories of it.
I just can’t understand this. Are they celebrating the same holiday I’m celebrating? Here are my reasons for hating Passover.
The Food Sucks
When I ask people why they like Passover, they always say the most baffling thing: “It’s the food!” It’s true that there’s a lot of food on Passover. It’s also true that nearly all of it sucks.
I was a big carb-eater when I was a kid. I still am: bread, rice, and baked goods are some of my favorite foods. But while I eat carbs and sugar much more sparingly now, as a kid in the ‘90s, I fully bought into the Food Pyramid propaganda of six to eleven servings of grain a day. Carb-heavy foods also tend to be easier to prepare — pasta takes ten minutes, a bowl of cereal or a sandwich takes two — so they were the basis of a lot of our single father meals. Going without wheat, oat, or corn products meant going without a lot of the food we usually had in the house.
One of my earliest Passover memories is sadly eating a bowl of Kosher for Passover Cheerios, and honestly, I don’t think much has changed since then. You would think with advances in gluten-free cooking, we would have figured out how to improve Kosher for Passover foods by now. We have not. They still all taste like wet cardboard. The cereals, the baked goods, even the macaroons suck. You can’t help but compare it to the food you’re not eating; a mouthful of some good charoset does not make up for all we are missing. I imagine Passover food sucks a little less for Sephardic Jews, who still get to eat the good stuff — kitinyot! Rice and beans, Passover-style? Yes please. But we Ashkenazis are determined to make things worse for ourselves. We can’t even have hummus!
“But matzoh ball soup!” I hear you cry. Look, if you’re Ashkenazi, and Pesach is the only time you eat matzoh ball soup, what kind of horrible life are you living? Besides, matzoh meal is one thing, and matzoh itself is another. Somehow, I don’t know how or why, but matzoh itself tastes a thousand times better when it’s not Passover. I’ve eaten it other times of the year and it’s been edible, but even on the first day of Passover, it tastes like wallpaper paste.
Passover is just not good for food. The far superior big food Jewish holidays are, of course, Purim, and Sukkot. On one, you are obligated to party, and on the other, you eat lots of great fall foods and get to feel like you’re camping. Even Yom Kippur is better than Passover: it’s one day of fasting, sandwiched between one pre-fast meal and one post-past feast. Passover is seven days of eating wall paste and cardboard. It’s worse both in quality and quantity.
The Story and the Company
I should love this part. I tell a lot of long, rambling stories, and I think a lot about bad things happening to my enemies. Besides, my name literally comes from Exodus! I get a shout-out every Seder! Yes, it hurt my feelings a little as a child to be compared to horseradish, but I’ve come to appreciate my bitterness for what it is.
The Exodus story is disturbing on several levels, though. There are a lot of modern attempts to tie it to contemporary tales of justice and human rights, and I appreciate that, but to me it just feels like a rather dramatic, elaborate revenge narrative. Although, while most of the plagues seemed to me when I was a kid, but are they really any different than what’s happened in the past year? Or past few decades? Disease, death, fire… maybe not plagues of frogs, although Australia’s had them before, and they had plagues of mice this year.
The story also drags on and on, for hours. Though this is also likely due to the way I was raised: I grew up sort of on the brink of Conservative and Orthodox — “Conservadox,” as some say. We worked our way through the whole Haggadah, and our seders felt like they took all night. I have many memories of falling asleep in my chair long before they over, sometimes even before we ate. Seder conversations were mostly about the holiday, and about family; secular topics seemed to be actively discouraged, at least until the adults had a few glasses of wine. Passover was never supposed to be fun for us.
Every time I talk to someone who grew up less observant, their seder descriptions are very different. For them, it’s just a dinner with people they haven’t seen in a while. They used an abridged version of the Haggadah, sing Dayenu, eat matzoh ball soup, and have fun conversations. I even remember someone I dated calling me the day after a seder, telling me how all the Boomers had gotten drunk and said embarrassing things. When someone brought up the summer camp they all used to go to, an uncle’s friend told the table that it was the first place he ever got to second and third base with a girl, except he didn’t use the terms “second and third base.”
I’m not sure that’s really how I’d like to spend a seder, either. Consider it a fifth question: which is worse, a boring seder or an awkward seder?
Finding the Afikomen Inevitably Disappoints
As you can see, much (if not all) of my frustration and resentment against Passover goes back to my childhood. Even the attempts to make it more child-friendly backfired on me. In theory, finding the Afikomen seems like the best part, right? Give the kids some time to escape from boredom. Let them go on their very own treasure hunt! They’ll get a dollar bill or some fruit gummies if they win! But I found very quickly there is no way to win this game if you have a big family.
I have exactly two memories of playing Find the Afikomen. One is from when I was about five, when my preteen brother Jon lifted up a painting and yelled “Here it is!” approximately ten seconds into a hunt. (So much for giving the kids some time.) The second is when I was about nine, visiting East Coast cousins, none of whom were older than three. I found the afikomen in a light fixture after about two minutes, but as soon as I made eye contact with the adults, I knew that it wasn’t mine to win. Resigned, I asked my toddler cousin, “Maybe it’s up on the ceiling! Have you tried looking up?” She found it five minutes later. You’re always either too young or too old to win, I concluded.
I remember someone (I think it might have actually been Rhea Perlman) telling me once that her family had their own spin on finding the afikomen, one the kids found particularly frustrating. “Every year, my father hides the afikomen in the same place,” she told me, “Under his butt.” Every year, the kids would stare at him, expectantly, and he’d stare right back at them, arms folded, and absolutely refuse to get up off his chair. That’s so unfair, I remember thinking on their behalf. As an adult, though, I have to admit it’s really funny.
Elijah Also Disappoints
Speaking of things supposedly fun for kids, there’s also Elijah the Prophet. You leave a glass of wine out for him, and he allegedly comes by, and maybe drinks it. Being visited by Elijah should be fun for kids, but it isn’t, unless you like staring at a glass of wine to see if it looks like a ghost is drinking it. (I once had a teacher who said the adults in his family used to kick the table so it would look like the wine was moving, and yell “Look! It’s Elijah!”) You can’t explain to kids the whole complicated story behind Elijah’s cup, that the cup actually symbolizes the coming of the messiah. So Elijah, to kids, is just Santa without the presents, the Easter Bunny without the chocolate, the Tooth Fairy without the money. What’s the point?
You’re also not actually supposed to know what Elijah looks like, he could come in the guise of anyone, anywhere. There’s a cute story about Elijah in the All of a Kind Family books, a series about a Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century. They explain to their youngest brother Charlie that Elijah could look like anyone, and may be unkempt and dressed in rags. So Charlie goes out on Passover and comes back to their apartment announcing that he’s found Elijah, in the guise of Tony, the guy who sells ice on their block. Tony bemusedly drinks his glass of wine, thanks everyone, and leaves. The rest of the family is forced to admit that well, Tony the Ice Man very well could be Elijah.
Why Does This Night Suck More Than Any Other Night?
I put a poll out on Twitter the other day, asking fellow Jews if they actively enjoyed Pesach. Two-thirds of the answerers said they did, and one-third said they didn’t. Most of the people who said they didn’t shared my reasons: they didn’t like the food, found the story disturbing, and didn’t like having to spend time with extended relatives they didn’t like. I’m not as alone as I thought.
But many more people love it. They have happy memories of it. So it all comes back to personal experience, I suppose. I don’t remember fun times with relatives, because we had to spend it with relatives we didn’t like. I don’t remember good food, because I don’t come from a family of good cooks. I don’t remember a sense of community, I remember my first grade teacher explaining that Ancient Jews put blood above their doorways, and all the other kids in my class saying “Ewww!” in response. Would it have been different if I had grown up somewhere with more Jewish people, if I came from a line of people that embraced the spirituality of Judaism, rather than using it as a cudgel for their own holier-than-thou narcissism? If I actually fully believed in a God?
I’m not sure. But I know I like the idea to have a Pesach my way. To make good food, including kitinyot. To plan an actually fun collaborative scavenger hunt to find the afikomen, one that doesn’t end in ten seconds. To try to tie the story of Exodus into actual social action needed today. I just haven’t done it yet.
But there’s always next year. B'Yerushalayim.
Stuff I Did This Week: On a completely secular note, I had a great time hanging out with Irish drag queens Kiki Saint Clair and Candy Warhol on the Friends of Dorothy podcast! I talked about which county in Ireland my grandmother is from, Derry Girls, and my preteen crush on Mira Sorvino, which feels a bit awkward now that I know she follows me on Twitter.
I also had a great time with my friend Christy Carlson Romano on her YouTube channel! We watched some of my old commercials and movie clips and ate sour things! I love sour things, and Christy’s always fun, so it was a lot of fun!
Fake BBC Show of the Week: It’s Got Me in Bits