It’s passover, the perfect time for another installment of Growing up Jewish.
Passover is a very big holiday for the Jews. It commemorates our escape from slavery in Egypt about two gazillion years ago. (We have very long memories). The story goes like this.
Once upon a time the Jews were slaves in Egypt. The pharaoh was a tyrant who ordered that newborn Jewish boys be thrown into the Nile and killed. The mother of one little boy saved him by floating him away on a boat. The child was found and adopted by one of the pharaoh’s daughters and was brought up as royalty.
That child was Moses. Eventually, Moses figured out who he was and demanded that the pharaoh let his people go. When the pharaoh refused, god turned to the plagues. He turned the Egyptians’ water into blood. He inundated them with frogs, lice, flies, livestock diseases, skin boils, hale, fire, locusts, and darkness. Not sure why god couldn’t just kill the pharaoh, but…
Finally, for his encore, god killed all the newborn Egyptian babies. That’s where the name passover comes from. The Jewish families put a little lambs blood on their door so that god would “pass over” their homes and leave their kids alive. So passover is about celebrating freedom from slavery AND the murder of thousands of Egyptian children because of what their Pharaoh did.
So here’s to the smiting of infants! La Chaim!
Now, even though the Jews were free, they had picked up all sorts of nasty habits and psychological damage from slavery. So rather than let them go straight to the promised land, god made them wander aimlessly in the desert for 40 years – enough time to kill off that generation and start fresh. These new people would have to end that nasty pork eating habit they picked up in Egypt. Otherwise, more smiting!
There is a litany of symbolic things that need to happen if you are a Jew who celebrates passover. The first thing is that you have to clear your entire house of bread. Apparently, the Jews were in such a hurry to get out of Egypt before the pharaoh came after them, they did not have enough time to let their bread rise. So they baked flat bread. For the eight days of passover, Jews are only allowed to eat flat bread – matzoh.
Now here’s where it really gets bizarre. Matzoh is made of flour and water, no yeast. That makes sense so far. But it isn’t just that you aren’t allowed to have bread or yeast on passover. You aren’t allowed to have flour. So instead of flour, everyone makes things with “matzoh meal.” Matzoh meal is what you get when you crush matzoh up, which is made of FLOUR!
In order to purify our home of all bread and (non-matzoh meal) flour, my mother would go through a two week process of cleaning that involved copious amounts of bleach and very, very bad moods. She would also cover up all the dishes we used during the normal year (because they had touched bread) and pull out the passover dishes. In addition to the several sets of dishes we had during the normal year for keeping kosher, we also had to have a couple sets for the eight days of passover. I think god must have owned a dish factory.
The biggest part of passover is the seder. Usually, you have two. A seder is an excruciatingly long dinner where you and your most annoying relatives sit around a table and read the entire story of passover. At various points in the reading, you stop to do symbolic things – like put a drop of wine on your plate for each of the plagues. You also occasionally partake in a smidgen of some disgusting, symbolic food-like item from the seder plate. Here’s a pic.
Mmmm. Looks delicious doesn’t it?
Finally, half starved and a bit drunk from the four glasses of wine you are required to drink, the meal arrives. It inevitably begins with matzoh ball soup* and finishes with macaroons. You know the end is in site when you are told to go open the front door to allow Eliyahu to enter – that would be the prophet who will announce the arrival of the messiah.
Christian’s think Jesus was the messiah. Jews say, horseshit. If he was the messiah, the world would be at peace now. Which makes me wonder. If Jesus is god’s son, do you think god is embarrassed? I mean god is big into plagues and baby smiting and all that. He’s a bit of a neo-con. And Jesus is kind of a hippy. But I digress.
Finally, somebody hides a piece of matzoh. All the kids look for it. The kid who finds it gets $1. Since I was the only kid around much of the time, I was pretty much guaranteed the dollar. So, at least they paid me. Although, ironically, at slave wages.
* A guy walks into a Jewish deli and asks for their best dish. The waiter brings him matzoh ball soup. The guy is a little skeptical, but tries the soup anyway. The waiter asks, “did you like it?” The guy says, “yeah, I did like it. What other part of the matzoh do they cook?”