Pe•sach•pho•b•ia noun \ ˈpā-ˌsäḵˈfō-bē-ə \
Definition: an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of the holiday of Pesach
I have a confession to make and it isn’t going to be pretty. For years and years, I dreaded Pesach.
Around here, the yom tov that falls out in the spring where you eat matza instead of bread was known as the “P-word” because the mere mention of Pesach had me getting frazzled, so my loving family members learned to tiptoe around the subject entirely. To be fair, I should mention that those negative associations began right about the time when I started making Pesach on my own, so it wasn’t like I had anything against the actual holiday itself – it was just the hours of work, the worrying that I might have missed a crumb somewhere and the inability to cook anything in advance that , unfortunately, had me feeling the way I did.
But then somewhere along the way, things changed. While I am never going to be that person who plans fun, creative Chol HaMoed outings, we started making kid-friendly sedarim for our crew, much to the delight of young and old. The idea of coming up with cool shtick and new decorations for our Seder table actually added considerably to my pre-Pesach to-do list, but it also gave me the perspective to focus on something other than scrubbing baseboards or peeling potatoes. Spending my time dreaming up new ideas for our Seder table became a real game changer for me and while there is still plenty of work to do, I don’t obsess the way I used to. Instead, while I spend hours with my Dustbuster and my Windex eradicating chometz from the Hotel Eller, my brain is hard at work mulling over more crazy ideas for the kids, with an ultimate goal of creating happy memories of the entire yom tov that will stay with them for years to come.
Of course, you don’t need flying marshmallow hail and plastic grasshoppers ricocheting across your table to create a memorable Pesach Seder, although I do admit that I enjoy them immensely. I remember the tiny crystal bowls that were maybe only an inch wide and had the cutest little spoons that my mother used for charoses and how the prospect of having to eat the slices of horseradish that we used for maror would have me worrying for hours in advance. And I can’t help but smile every time I recall my sister waiting for my brother to have a mouth full of matza as he worked his way through his self-prescribed extra large portion that he needed to eat within the requisite nine minute time limit and then trying her best to make him laugh, a spectacle that had us all in stitches. Other things that stand out in my mind about Pesachs of my childhood are the dishes, especially the set of white ceramic mugs decorated in colorful striped graphics with phrases like “mazel tov” and “oy vey,” definitely the kind of thing you didn’t see too often back then. Also high on my list of Pesach memories was the annual debate between my parents about how my maternal grandmother might have made her Shabbos Chol HaMoed specialty, yaptzuk, back in Poland. Ironically, while yaptzuk (or yapchik, depending on what Eastern European country your family hailed from) may be all the rage now, I never met anyone who even knew what it was when I was growing up.
Realizing just how many wonderful associations Pesach sparked in my head, I polled my kids to find out what stood out in their minds, hoping that their recollections went beyond a cranky mommy who wasn’t always at her best. Thankfully, they shared positive thoughts with me, remembering the white plastic cups that I decorated every year with puff paint for the sedarim so our little ones could drink from something that looked festive and was appropriately sized for their little hands. Having had the honor of hosting my in-laws for Pesach many a time, my crew recalled more than a few of their stories, questions and jokes, some of which have become as much a part of the Pesach rituals in our house as eating matza and hiding the afikoman. Like me, my kids also had fond memories of Pesach serveware, especially the decades-old orange and green plastic pitcher shaped like a pineapple, leafy top and all, that had been one of my husband’s childhood favorites.
I am writing these words just days after Purim, with coronavirus casting its long shadow over Pesach, which undoubtedly for some people will be vastly different than they had imagined just a few weeks ago. I confess it is a little bizarre to be writing about Pesach with the understanding that there is no way of knowing at this particular moment in time how things will look in just a few weeks, but that’s okay in a way. While my heart goes out to all those who are filled with anxiety and who are facing the possibility of incurring serious issues, including financial losses, at the end of the day, Pesach isn’t about where you went, what new clothing you wore or even how elaborate a meal you were able to conjure up with a somewhat limited pantry of ingredients.
Instead, Pesach provides us all with a good two weeks or more to touch base with our history and to remember who we are and what we are all about. It is a time to remind ourselves what defines us as a nation and our responsibilities to carry those lessons forward to the future. And yes, it is also a golden opportunity to focus on the positives in our lives and to create memories that the next generation will pass down fondly to their kids.
Whether you read these words in the last remaining days before Pesach or even over yom tov itself, it is most certainly crunch time and there is plenty of work that needs to be done. Whether it is obliterating stubbornly caked on blobs of gunk from the floor of your oven, eating those last few chocolate crinkle cookies that you hid in the back of your freezer for a rainy day or washing seemingly endless piles of dishes on Pesach itself, focusing on the high points of the holiday will help you keep things in perspective and the stress at bay.
Like so many other significant moments on the calendar, Pesach is a time to make memories – beautiful ones, silly ones, uplifting ones, funny ones and just plain old memorable ones. There is no doubt that it is easy to get bogged down by the parts of yom tov that require you to roll up your sleeves and expend some serious elbow grease, but by doing that, you miss the most important part of the holiday, which is, first and foremost, a massive celebration of freedom. As we sit down at the Seder table to discuss how our ancestors were emancipated from slavery in Mitzrayim all those years ago, I will also be uttering a silent prayer of thanks for having finally been liberated from my personal misconceptions that Pesach is a cause for anxiety, instead of recognizing it for the special gift that it truly is.