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Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 15, 2011

Passovers past and present

Why is this night different from all other nights?

by Jessica Lipsky

Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the story of Exodus, begins on April 18 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 matzah.

While Passover is among the "less intense" Jewish holidays (most reform Jews don't attend synagogue) and many adults enjoy the time spent with family and friends, the love of Passover or "Pesach" doesn't come easily to some.

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 matzah and all the children were disappointed when the ghost of Elijah (who is supposed to announce the coming of the messiah and for whom a glass of wine is left near the door) never showed. My family tended to celebrate with one of three families and 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 matzah, the telling of the Passover story, eating of symbolic foods and finally a meal of foods 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. This might have appealed to me much more as a teenager.

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 ever-changing, crazy schedules. One year, our Haggadah, the text from which the Passover story is told, was printed by Maxwell House Publishers -- we stopped for a commercial break every few minutes and gave thanks to our "sponsor."

Perhaps the seriousness of my childhood Passovers was simply to instill tradition in my eager(ish) mind, but as we got older, my parents began to get less serious. 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?" -- and my father makes a big deal of saying, "This night really isn't different from all other nights, because we recline all the time." And 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 for me and more of a yearly gathering of family and friends. We're bound by a common heritage and religion, but it isn't necessarily the basis of the evening.

The same goes for Seders with my friends, which are usually a silly affair that leaves my house reeking of potato latke oil for days. Most of my guests are reform Jews like myself that seem more interested in our common background and kibitzing about not being able to eat bread for a week. However, at least one of my non-Jewish friends is always interested in attending a Seder.

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 synagogue will hold a community Seder on Tuesday, April 19, as well as a catered Passover luncheon that Thursday. Chabad of the Tri-Valley will hold a series of services and a dinner at the end of the week.

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