Who Sets the Table? is a new multi-media project that will look at who does what to make Jewish holidays at home happen. On one hand, households are more egalitarian than ever. On the other hand, women still do more housework than men. By some measures, it’s double.
Over the course of the year we will be running a series of surveys, readers stories and commissioned essays exploring this dynamic in our homes. We will be dividing this into four sections: Passover, Shabbat, the High Holidays and Hannukah. One week we will publish the survey alongside two commissioned essays and the following week we will run the survey results and selected reader stories. The goal is to see to what degree domestic observance of Judaism still relies on the efforts of women.
This month we are focusing on Passover and invite you all, yes men and women, to take the survey below. We also invite you to read the reflections from Yehuda Kurtzer and Elisa Albert on the topic and encourage you to share your stories as well, either directly in the survey or in the comments section below. From there we will choose reader stories that will be published next week.
We decided to include reader stories and essays in order to convey the nuance that a survey could never capture. Because Judaism is a tradition, and part of the beauty of tradition lies in the replication of the past, many of us have affection for, if not a deep attachment to, the idea of women in the kitchen preparing the holiday feast — women included. We want to honor those instincts while also examining their implications today.
Lastly, we are aware that the scope of this project excludes same-sex, single-parent and other non-traditional families. This was not out of an intent to leave anyone out, but rather that the objective here is to discover how domestic work breaks down among heterosexual partnerships — those direct inheritors of the patriarchy. We invite those in non-traditional families to share their stories in the comments section below and will consider them for publication alongside the results.
Take Our Passover Survey Below
A Happy Mother, Goddamn It
When the Observance Gets in the Way, Let it Go
Elisa Albert: The seder looms. Much to be done. Clean the house. No hunting crumbs with a candle and feather, but I do like a clean house. Maybe plant some bulbs, is it too late for that? Or too early? Clean up what the melting snow reveals: trash blown into the yard, last year’s abandoned houseplants. Get the guest room ready! Make a grocery list! So much to be done. One thing at a time.
The trick is not to make a perfect home. The trick is to make a happy home. Set the tone. A shared responsibility, to be sure, but you know what my mama used to say?
“If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s funny she used to say that, because she was so, so unhappy. (Mama, why? He would have done anything to make you happy. We all would have. You had so much.)
A small seder this year. Not like last year, the whole neighborhood crammed in around borrowed folding tables and chairs. Who doesn’t love a seder, this rich and fascinating ritual? Springtime, renewal, the earth coming alive again. We are reborn, we are released. We’d hunt for eggs on Easter if we were Christians, but we happen to be Jews. We are the exception around here. A neighbor lady keeps inviting me to church. Anyway, it’s spring: Pay attention! Feel the metaphorical implications in your bones.
We didn’t have that in southern California, seasons you feel in your bones. We had seder. We had two. We told the required story of redemption. We told it thoroughly. We turned to the correct page in the Haggadah and we read aloud. We helped set and clear the table. I sang the four questions, year in, year out, proud/embarrassed youngest child. But it wasn’t joyful. She was ba’al teshuva, meaning “returned” (“born again,” I always simplify for the uninitiated), and she wanted to do everything to the letter. It was tense and dark, stressful. Heavy. We weren’t happy. What was the point of ritual? Why didn’t some rabbi take her aside and say hey, lady, cherish your family, be happy, chill out about the religious observance, have fun, we’ll all be dead soon enough?
My mother-in-law and brother-in-law are coming to help cook. It’s nice to be in the kitchen with people who like to cook. Some believe that the nourishing quality of food is determined by the energy of the people preparing it. There will be no banging furiously around my kitchen, muttering about how ungrateful everyone is. I’m making seder because I want to make seder. The people who like being in the kitchen can work in the kitchen. Those who don’t like being in the kitchen can go run around in the park, throw rocks at what’s left of the ice in the pond. They’ll wash the dishes later, probably. Or they won’t. I’m not keeping score.
Kids are exquisitely calibrated to their parents’ emotional state. I am the mother now. “Are you getting stressed out?” my little one asks when he hears me take an especially deep breath. “Yes,” I tell him, and exhale, and meet his eyes, and smile so we can both relax. We happen to be Jews, and so we inhabit the rituals of this holiday. But only to a point, and only as ourselves, not at the expense of our joy, our peace. If the observance gets in our way, if the observance drains or hijacks us, if the observance browbeats or discounts us, if the observance becomes a burden we can hardly stand to bear, the observance can take a hike.
My house is a mess but my children are happy, my friend likes to say. The seder is a lot of work. Maybe I’ll improvise at the last minute and forget the saltwater or parsley. Maybe I’ll take a nap instead of dust. Maybe I’ll meet this deadline instead of Xeroxing and stapling all my favorite bits from ten different Haggadahs. Perfect hostess, perfect Jewess, running the show, force my kid to sing the four questions, hand-felt frogs for an original skit about the plagues, innovate some new way to make matzoh taste good, don my silk caftan like the high priestess badass bitch postmodern homemaker I was born to be, not a hair out of place, the table gleaming? No. I demand my freedom. Here is the ultimate slave rebellion, an uprising worthy of the telling: a happy mother, goddamn it. Reclining. Every hair out of place.
Elisa Albert is the author of “How This Night is Different,” “The Book of Dahlia” and, most recently, “After Birth.”
The Ancestral Homeland is Moving to Our House
On Taking Over Passover from My Mom
Yehuda Kurtzer: This year, Stephanie and I are hosting my family’s Pesach in our home. And unlike a few years in our 20s when we hosted seders when my parents lived overseas — makeshift affairs in which we did the best we could with our small kitchens and random assortment of utensils — this year feels like a seismic shift in the familial center of gravity. The ancestral homestead has moved to Riverdale.
And so we upgraded the guest mattresses to accommodate my parents and siblings more comfortably, and bought a Pesahdik food processor to cook in industrial quantities for our massive seders and to last for years to come. I introduced draconian anti-hametz purchasing measures weeks in advance, and have devoted my long commute in extensive menu planning. I am taking three days off next week to handle the exciting task of tackling scratch-made gefilte fish in addition to the standard charoset-blitzing (Ashkenazic and Sephardic to honor our dual heritages), horseradish-peeling, and liver-broiling.
This feels like a big deal, and a turning point. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the transitions of time and the ways in which I reflect and embody my parents and their values, even as I struggle with whether I am doing right by them. I think that the great irony of adulthood – that we leave our parents’ home, cleave to a spouse, and create a household of our own — is that all of us eventually become our parents in one way or another. I have caught myself a few times lately in a mirror and have done a double take upon seeing my father looking back. In how we look, how we talk, and our overlapping career interests, I take a lot (proudly, I might add) from my father.
But this seizure of Pesach — my need to ask my mother if I could start hosting the seder — signaled to me that it might not be my father who I am becoming. I am a little older, but not by much, than my mother was when she took over the seders from her mother – a transition that was expedited in part by my grandfather’s premature passing. I tried to probe why it was so important to me for my children to feel the drama of the build-up in our household, the clatter and chatter of a hopping kitchen for several days beforehand, the feeling of at-home-ness sitting on their bedroom pillows while reclining around the seder, the warmth as the host of nesting our family and friends in a raucous, endless evening around our long table…and I realized that all of this mattered to me because in more respects than I realized, I was my mother’s son. These feelings of managing domesticity were and still are the aspects of the holiday that most mattered to her and gave her the best sense of ownership and pride. Now they matter most to me as well.
My life as the parent in charge of the kitchen is totally unremarkable to my children, for whom gender categories when it comes to cooking are incomprehensible. I went on an extended work trip a few years back and my son looked at Stephanie in horror when I left and asked “But what are we going to eat?!?” (Secret: Stephanie is actually a great cook, even if she doesn’t love doing it.) I think it is all still a little weird to my parents, who raised me in a relatively traditional household when it came to gender norms. It is going to be especially interesting to figure out how to share in running the “content” side of the seder together with Stephanie – which interests me seeing as, in my day job, I dabble in Jewish education – while also taking on managing the soup, the incessant setting and clearing, and the serving a wildly ambitious take on “karpas.” And honestly, sometimes it feels that the absence of clear gender roles in our household (and in synagogue) is more challenging than the good old days of our upbringings, though I like and appreciate that we both do what we enjoy and are good at, and are living up to our values. I feel that I am trying to embrace becoming my parents, while at the same time challenging some of how they managed some of their specific choices. Becoming my parents doesn’t mean imitating them.
So I hope this year’s seder — and maybe many more in years to come — is a love note to my mother. Even as this embrace of my inner ballabusta displaces my mother as the brisket-platter carrying hostess, it is an embrace of my upbringing, a tribute to what I have learned. This Passover, I am celebrating the passing of time, in this festival of memory that fuses the past from which we come with the people we are becoming.
Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the author of “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.”