The Goyim Guide to Passover

Passover is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Jews in Egypt from 400 years of slavery back in Biblical times. The name comes from the Angel of Death, who killed all of the Egyptians’ first born sons, passing over the houses of the Jews, which were smeared with lamb’s blood for identification purposes. Not being a religious scholar, though, I can mostly discuss Passover in terms of my family. Much like jalapeno cheesecake, they’re interesting, but not for everyone (is there a family that doesn’t match that description?). So I’ll start things off with a simple litmus test. Several years ago, I was pouring the first of the night’s four cups of wine (ceremonial, honest). Since I was in college at the time, I poured rather heavily. My brother Jordan pointed at the glass and yelled, “Lush!” “Well,” I said, “I may be a lush, but,” I indicated my 80-plus-year-old grandmother, who had her numerous medications spread out before her, “She’s a pill popper!” Someone I once told this to was horrified. If the same applies to you, I invite you to consult an encyclopedia for further knowledge about Passover. If, like my family, you laughed, read on. Passover is by and large a celebration of the events of Exodus, the second book of the Torah (the Jewish name for the books that comprise the Old Testament which, in Judaism, is the only Testament). Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we beg our parents for airfare to New Jersey, since we’re writers and have no money. Once we get there, we’re such good Jews that we immediately head across the river to Philadelphia for a cheesesteak (you might want to consult Kosher law if that joke escaped you. –ed. note). Why Matzos? But such pleasures are short lived, for the Passover legend includes that bit about how the Jews left Egypt in one big hurry once Pharaoh finally caved, which only took the death of his first-born son. They were understandably worried that Pharaoh, like most men who are frequently portrayed wearing funky eye make-up and snakes on their heads, would change his mind, and he did, proving that the predictable plot twists in The Ten Commandments are not solely the invention of Hollywood. Anyway, the point is they left in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to let the dough for their bread rise. Because of this, for the eight days of Passover, Jews don’t eat bread, or any product that involves the leavening of grain. (As a child, this was a big problem for me because of macaroni and cheese. These days, it’s beer, proving that the impact religion has in our lives really does deepen with age.) Instead of bread, we have matzo. For anyone who has seen matzo in the grocery store and noticed its resemblance to a large cracker but never actually tasted it, let me fill you in: it tastes like cardboard. For this reason, there is a market in flavored matzos, such as garlic matzo, which tastes like cardboard dunked in garlic salt, and chocolate matzo, which tastes like chocolate-covered cardboard. I eat a lot of soup during the last six days of Passover. “Eat! It’s an Order!” But what of those other two days? Well, the first two nights of Passover are the most ceremonial in nature. Each night, we have a seder (pronounced say-der). Seder literally means order, which seems an odd concept to apply to a large Jewish family, but hey, I’m not in charge. The seder is guided by a special Passover prayer book called a Haggadah. The Haggadah is packed with prayers, songs, commentary, blessings, and other writings. In theory, all of this will be read/sung/chanted in the course of the evening, along with a long, large dinner in the middle of it all. An Orthodox seder will last into the following morning. My family, which is ostensibly Conservative, has adjusted the length and content of the seder over the years to accommodate fluctuations in how late everyone can stay up and which parts we feel like doing. The seder begins at sundown, as all Jewish holidays do. We all sit down at the table, with a Haggadah at each place, and a seder plate in the middle of the table. The seder plate is probably the third most visible aspect of Passover, behind matzo and Charlton Heston. It is home to bitter herbs (usually horseradish), which symbolize the Jews’ suffering as slaves in Egypt, charoset (a mixture of nuts, wine, cinnamon, apples, and other stuff that escapes me at the moment), for the mortar they had to use in construction, matzo, for the aforementioned reasons, a shank bone, for the lamb that was slaughtered for the blood to mark the doors, and a green vegetable and an egg to symbolize rebirth and spring. For those of you who are Milwaukee natives, spring is a season between winter and summer that, in more temperate climates, usually occurs between March and June, and is characterized by weather that actually makes you feel like being outside. Many, many blessings, songs, and readings are chanted, sung, and read, and various ceremonial things are done. One of these is the Four Questions; four questions about Passover asked by the youngest person at the seder. Growing up, the identity of this person was in constant flux as the family kept growing, but it has fallen to my sister Leah for a number of years now. Leah enjoys the Four Questions so much that, despite a melody that involves frequent repetition, she is now able to knock the entire thing off in less than two minutes. The first half of the seder also involves two of the four glasses of wine, or grape juice in the case of Leah, who’s too young, my grandmother, who’s diabetic, and my mom and older sister, who turn red and pass out if they consume alcohol. After dinner, it’s time for dessert. There is actual dessert, and the Afikoman. The Afikoman is a piece of one of the ceremonial matzos, which is hidden by one of the adults at some point in the evening. After dinner, the kids all go looking for it. Once, when my brothers and sisters and I were much younger, my dad hid it under a couch cushion. This led to several years of us immediately tearing the couch apart, which eventually led to an agreement: we wouldn’t touch the couch, and my dad wouldn’t hide the Afikoman in it, preferring to stealthily slip it under the tablecloth and grin smugly while we searched the house in vain. Wine for Elijah With the Afikoman found and eaten, the blessing after the meal is said. At this point, it’s around 11:00 or midnight, and everyone’s just eaten a massive dinner. The next logical step then, is to have another hour or two of prayers and songs, with two more glasses of wine thrown in. There’s also opening the door for Elijah the Prophet, so that he can come in and drink from his glass of wine, which is specially set out on the table. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, you could drive around a housing development (a uniquely suburban creation that is roughly analogous to a neighborhood in a city. Very roughly.) and see where various seders were at by when the front door opened and closed. Finally, it’s all over. We do it again the next night, then settle in for six days of innovative matzo use and the truly staggering and occasionally ill-advised number of bread-related items Manischevitz has made breadless versions of (skip the donuts). For eight days, we remember that once we were slaves, and were it not for the Lord, we would be slaves still. Every time we eat during Passover, we relive our history, every meal until sundown on the last day. Then we call Pizza Shuttle. Passover this year begins at sundown on April 23, and ends at nightfall on May 1. Jeremy Berg is a practicing Jew who lives in Riverwest. But he’s just practicing.