I remember sitting with my high school friends for lunch during Passover and having philosophical debates about what constitutes “keeping kosher.” One friend had a Ziploc bag full of “Crispy O’s” kosher for Passover cereal and another had a ham and cheese sandwich on matzo. My friend with the baggy of imitation cereal maintained that because the ingredients were all kosher and it was produced in a certified kosher facility, Crispy O’s were entirely legit; she said ham and cheese on matzo was probably the most blasphemous combination imaginable.
But the ham-and-cheese-eater claimed it was disingenuous to start following the rules more conservative Jews abide by year-round—like not eating pig or mixing milk with meat—during Passover. Passover is about giving up bread and bread products, so imitation cakes and cereals—like Crispy O’s—she said defeat the purpose.
“Passover speaks to different people differently, and how they observe the holiday reflects that,” said Rabbi Barry Kenter, of in Dobbs Ferry. “Both of your friends are acknowledging this is a special time of year.”
“Matzo”—cracker-like, unleavened bread—is widely accepted as the symbol of Passover. As recounted in the Biblical book Exodus, the Passover story is about the Hebrews’ harrowing escape from servitude in Egypt. Before leaving, they had just enough time to make the bread for their journey, but not enough time to let it rise before the Egyptians began to pursue them. Contemporary Jews celebrate Passover by eating only unleavened bread in honor of their ancestors’ crossing-over from slavery to freedom.
“But matzo is only one part of Passover,” Kenter said. “The story is also about celebrating freedom and having the leisure to spend a long time over a meal—something our ancestors could not do when they were enslaved.” And something we—leading our busy and over-scheduled lives—rarely take time to do.
Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue agrees.
"Matzo is both the symbolic 'bread of affliction' but also a symbol of our liberation," he said. "Reflecting on that, we can be more mindful of how every aspect of our lives has a double valence. The brighter and darker aspects of life are caught up with each other. Seeing this we're encouraged to be ever more discerning - and tolerant."
During the Passover Seder—or meal—participants are reminded to recline in their seats and ask questions. Everyone reads along, following the story in a book called the Haggadah.
“Every year, I ask each person who comes to my Seder to bring either a question or a piece of information about the history and traditions of Passover,” Kenter said. “Even though the book is the same year after year, the experience is always new and different.”
And, like my family, Kenter said he has added items to his Seder plate to incorporate a more worldly and contemporary awareness. “We now put an orange on the Seder plate,” he said, which has come to symbolize rights for Jewish women and homosexuals. (There is a story about a man commenting to a famous female Jewish professor in the 1980’s that: “Women belong on the Bimah—[in leadership positions in the Synagogue]—like oranges belong on the Seder plate.” Though the story’s veracity is questionable, the orange on the Seder plate has become a symbol of tolerance for many American Jews.)
Following the first night—or, for some, two nights—of Seders, Passover’s strict dietary restrictions are in place for another seven days. And even Rabbis admit the rules are confusing, and one even said he has altered his observance over the years.
“Because Jews are multicultural, Jews who trace their ancestors back to Germany (Ashkenazic) have a custom of not eating rice and legumes because they seem to ‘puff up’ as if they were leavened products,” said Sameth. “Jews who trace their ancestors back to Spain (Sephardic) have no such restrictions, because these products are, in fact, not leavened. The more lenient Sephardic approach is becoming the world-wide norm (as it is already in Israel), but many who grew up with this restriction find it difficult to let go.”
Sameth continued: “I'm a vegetarian, and I declared myself Sephardic a number of years ago based on the fact that we have cousins in Peru. Believe me, eating rice and beans takes nothing away from the holiday. After eight days of matzo I'm still just as miserable as I ever was; still Jonesing for a slice of pizza as soon as the holiday ends.”
I’ll never forget when my aunt—who held a huge Seder annually for many conservative friends and relatives—divulged her dark secret that she didn’t actually have a separate set of plates and utensils for Passover. Her New York City apartment’s kitchen was too cramped to store them, she said, so she just ran the regular ones through the dishwasher twice and declared them kosher.
And the funny part is nobody ever knew. Lightening didn’t strike her kitchen or anyone who ate from the un-kosher plates—in the same way that God didn’t smite either my friend with Crispy O’s or the one who eats ham and cheese matzo-wiches.
For the next eight days, I’ll do my best to abide by the rules of Passover. But come next Sunday, there’s a good chance you’ll catch me savoring a Cadbury Creme Egg—there’s nothing leavened about chocolate and sugar, right? —Guilt free.
Passover officially begins at sundown on Monday, April 18 and ends at sundown on Tuesday, April 26.
*Patch Editor Lisa Buchman also contributed to this article.