Dear Bintel: How on earth are we supposed to do Passover this year?
From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected]
I don’t think I could clean my house if I tried. I’ve been working full-time, trying to get my children through school, trying to keep my parents safe, trying to not become the worst version of myself or forget the next one most important additional email or thing to do…and now it is Passover, and we’re supposed to clean the house and cook a Sseder and feel like free people?
I’m at a loss. I feel like I need a team of people to get my life back on track. Who can afford the therapy and the organizing consultants and the housekeepers everyone keeps telling me to get? Even if I could, who has the time to find and interview and research such people?
Passover was my favorite time as a kid, with all these props and plays and songs and we just won’t be there this year. I know somehow we’ll get to Pesach and it will all come together and then vanish as the next big task comes up but I’m just too harried to feel thoughtful about getting there. Is there a way out, or through, all of this?
I Want Everything To Pass Over
I don’t even know you but I feel this tremendous tenderness and compassion for you in reading your letter. I mean it in the deepest sense: There is too much to do, and no time to do it well, and you are describing an insane pace of life.
Sometimes, when life just feels insane and overwhelming and like a firehouse of urgency from which you can never break free, all of our malcontents become tangled and impossible to pick apart. That makes it even harder to know how to find our way through the insanity.
Let’s break it down.
Pesach is coming and the idea of cleaning the house looms like the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back, not to mention cooking, hosting, and preparing for seders. Theologically, you are struggling, if not outright laughing, at the idea of feeling free when you feel your time is never your own.
Let’s take each on its own.
I don’t know who you are hosting, but can you give up on doing more than the bare minimum of getting your house kosher for Passover this year? We want you coming to the seder with some spiritual hope or enthusiasm, if at all possible. I want you to reserve your precious time for the ritual, not the endless tasks that usually precede it (even if sometimes, and for some people, those tasks are spiritually meaningful).
Passover is often celebrated as a material holiday. This year, let’s emphasize the spiritual. Right now, you are dreading the tasks it will take to get you to the Seder, and feeling guilty about that dread. Of course this makes you dread it even more. Would you laugh if I said let’s aim for joy?
For now, let’s prioritize within an inch of our lives. Buy the charoset, the chicken soup, do premade everything. Drop the traditional dishes that defined the holiday for you in years past. Do what you need to do to get your house kosher for Passover as you need it, but ditch any aspect of spring cleaning that often accompanies such efforts. You are working full time, presumably juggling some remote schooling, and maybe even the caretaker of your parents. We are a year into a pandemic. There will be other years.
Is there a song, a musical, or even an online lecture series that consistently lifts your spirits? Play that while you do whatever cleaning you cannot escape. Think about a question you would look forward to discussing with your children, and whoever will be at your Seder. Not a question you think sounds important, or which you would love but you know will fall flat with this crowd. Think about the people who will be around your table, and ask yourself: What do I want to learn from this group? One question. Premade everything.
We talk about Passover as a holiday of freedom, but it is really a holiday of hope. The Jews were slaves for over 200 years in Egypt. By the time Moses came, they were skeptical that freedom was possible, or even desirable. They were comfortable in the darkness. And then Passover comes in with the sweeping conviction that complacency is not the right answer, and we can all be redeemed, even if it is really, really, really hard. It takes plagues and split oceans to drag most of us from the darkness, but it can be done.
You sound skeptical that freedom is in your future. Passover wants to say that it is. Maybe this is the year you relate to the story of Passover, the redemption from slavery, more than the final outcome. But let’s hold out for redemption.
And if it is any comfort, you can remember that you come from a people who know how to get through darkness. You are celebrating a holiday that promises that the impossible hope of redemption might be just around the corner. This is a dark year, but don’t give up on hope — for a better year, for a joyful Seder. Come to Passover, however you can, through your heart and mind. Leave the cleaning and the cooking for a year that can handle it.
Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected]