A personal essay by Ellie Rockoff
Every Spring, Jewish family and friends gather around each symbolic item on the Seder plate and exchange prayers, music, and stories that commemorate the enslavement and escape of the Jews in Egypt. After decades of oppression, Moses demanded that the Pharaoh release his people from bondage, and unleashed ten brutal plagues until Pharaoh relented. On the last night, the Jews were instructed to place the blood of a lamb on their doorway, so God would “pass over” their homes and spare their firstborn sons. The following day, Pharaoh found his son dead and exasperatedly freed the Jews – only to change his mind and chase them to the Red Sea. The Jews were hurried out of their homes in fear of being recaptured, therefore there was no time to let their bread rise and bake normally. Hence, matzah was created from the cooked unleavened dough.
When Jews spend one week in April abstaining from leavened bread and consuming matzah in all its forms – soup, crackers, baked goods, etc – it is as a sacrifice for their ancestors who had no choice but to eat this plain packaged cracker that now sits on the endcaps of most chain grocery stores.
Leavened bread, or “Chametz” in Hebrew, include wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt, which encompass many foods in a modern American diet. There are also a few contested categories, such as rice and legumes, that are kosher in some branches. In theory, it seems easy to simply avoid this concrete list of foods, but having to adapt staples in your diet to fit the holiday can make one question why they’re even participating.
As someone who went to Hebrew school from age four and was raised in an observant household, it is difficult to avoid the social pressures of following this rigid diet. I heard the constant words from my parents, teachers, and rabbis encouraging me to comply. Like all things I pursue in my life, I had the urge to practice it meticulously, or I’d be wrought with guilt. But there was no reason to feel such guilt. As my mom always told me, “God gets it,” when I would cry over that bag of chips I ate on the first day because I realized it wasn’t Kosher. I’d beat myself up for ruining my “streak,” and wonder what it was all for. Years later, I will admit that I wanted to outdo the other kids in my Hebrew school class by proving I could stay Kosher for longer, perhaps to receive praise and satisfaction from external approval.
In all these moments, I fear I lost the true meaning of observance to a selfish and competitive mentality. My rigid attitude towards eating Kosher doomed me, as I put too much pressure on doing it and ultimately forgot why. Now, I try to be gentler on myself whenever I approach Jewish holidays with food “restrictions.” When I remind myself from the beginning that success lies in effort and not perfection, I save myself the upset when perfection is not achieved.
This year I will experience my first week of Passover in a dorm room, without a kitchen to accommodate Kosher needs and matzah-based alternatives. This year I am choosing satiety and balanced meals over a diet that may leave me hungry or nauseous, yet I will try to incorporate Passover as best as possible. I will pursue the week of remembrance with the principles of the holiday in mind, via a practice that is most suitable for me.