Friday, March 27, 2015

I Love Making Pesach. Really. Yes, Really!

It’s not a very popular thing to say, and some might argue that it calls into question my grip on sanity. Yet here I go anyway: I love preparing for Pesach.

Now hear me out. Like everyone I know who is Jewish and Pesach-observant, does not go away to family or a fancy hotel for the holiday, and does not have a full-time housekeeper, I find the prep enormously taxing. The shopping is just more of the same.

But the pre-chag intensity gives me a chance at a fresh start, and that makes all the hard work worthwhile. While I relish the exterior changes the holiday brings, especially the pristine emptiness of a newly-cleaned refrigerator, what I love most is the interior transformation that comes with it– the way the chametz-filled closets of my mind and my soul get the same detailed overhaul as the pantry.

As I clean out the cabinets, I often strike up a conversation with G-d to talk through what’s been troubling me. I cast off old grudges here on earth while I’m at it. The result is a spiritual decluttering that parallels the physical removal of chametz from our home and it feels really, really good.

We are cautioned to distinguish between Pesach cleaning and spring cleaning, and to search for chametz, not schmutz. Even if we stick to those distinctions, the day is short and the work is plentiful. But I’m no longer reckless about it like I was when I was younger, staying up all night to clean for days at a stretch and then sleeping through the first seder.

And how do I manage now?

I delegate what I can and I don’t waste time on things that drag me down. I keep my expectations of family participation realistic, so there’s no resentment brewing alongside the chicken soup. My husband, G-d bless him, washes out the garbage can, a job that makes me gag. My sons surprised me last year by taking more initiative in the cleaning and by groaning less about it. I’m hoping for the same this time around, but I’m not hoping too hard.

I also ignore what I don’t want to see, like “Countdown to Pesach” emails, which seem to shout, not encourage. Instead, I embrace the ones that give me non-toxic methods for scouring my oven, an uplifting d’var Torah on the meaning of redemption, or a new, sure-to-wow recipe. Otherwise, my route to Pesach rarely wavers. I stick to the same plan and shopping list year after year. Though it doesn’t make things easier, it gets me where I’m going – on time, intact, and awake.

Thinking for myself despite generally held wisdom, like when I tackle the kitchen before setting out to de-chametz the rest of the house, makes all the difference because it’s what works for us. With bread products gone from the culinary command center, crumbs are less likely to show up in the den. (My sons, as old as they are, still walk around with cheese crackers on their person at all times, may my future daughters-in-law forgive me.)

After all of the heavy work is done, I haul out the cooking gadgets once used by my grandmother and great-grandmother. A hand-turned egg beater and a sifter keep me company while I mash and chop, reminding me that I’ve simply taken my place in a long line of women who made it through this daunting challenge and came out stronger for it.

And then, the final hurdle before candle-lighting: feeding three hungry boys on the eve of the chag, almost-men who could, if left unchecked, eat in a continuous loop throughout the day. For nearly an hour, time stops so I can fry 5 pounds of schnitzel and the same quantity of potatoes. I call my sons down for lunch so they can embrace our traditions with a full stomach and soak up my love.

A clean house, a cleansed soul. Family on their way to our home for seder. Candles glowing on the sideboard. Knaidlach afloat on a chicken soup sea.

Whatever it took to get here, it was worth it. And that’s good enough for me.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Hopscotch, Anyone?

One of the things I miss most about being a little girl is scampering around on the playground. I soared down that slide like nobody’s business and more than once – 3 times to be exact – fell off the monkey bars, tearing open my chin. I even have the scars from the stitches to prove it. But the freedom I felt there was unparalleled and, as I recall, well worth the wounds, though my mother might not agree.

Hopscotch was one of my favorite playground activities, in great part because it was something I was good at. Who knew then, in my innocence, that it would provide the perfect metaphor for my adult life? From this vantage point, it seems that grownup time is marked less by months and years than it is by the jump from one intense period to the next, with only rare chances to set both of my feet on the ground.

And just as it was on the playground, real life hopscotch is best played with others. To share the intensities in our lives – the big challenges, the blessed celebrations, and the lifecycle events that merit space in the shul bulletin – is to fortify our friendships. It gives us the platform upon which we perch everything else – the birthday gatherings, the Shabbos meals, the quick calls to see if the other needs something from the market.

In friendship, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours. We hop with an open heart between one another’s milestones. We dance arm in arm in celebration, send lasagnas back and forth in crisis, and mourn together in loss. We do the hard stuff for one another because we want to. It is way more than a tenet of the social contract. It is the gift of balance in an unbalanced world.

Wounds make their mark too frequently, not only on the news, but in our own communities and in our own lives. They come in all shades of black and blue, from the sad to the tragic, from the irrevocable to the sorts that will, over time, heal themselves. If we’re smart, we learn the lessons to dance harder at a simcha and to savor simple, everyday pleasures.

We aren’t on the playground anymore, and we know well enough that we’re rarely handed the chalk and given the chance to draw the squares on the pavement by ourselves. Instead, life unfolds on its own: our parents age, our children G-d willing grow up and move on to the next wonderful stage of their lives, wrinkles form, some of our parts begin to sag. All the while, we hop from the highs to the lows and back up, and then back down again, because that’s what there is.

When the rare period of calm comes, short-lived though it may be, we should grab on tight. It’s a good time, within those lulls, to be grateful for the comfort we get from the people we love, and in the simple knowledge that we’re not hopping around alone.