It’s almost Passover again, the Jewish holiday that is notionally about freedom and liberation but, as practiced, is more about cleaning maniacally, covering every surface in your home with tinfoil so it resembles the interior of a spaceship from a 1960’s television show, and refraining eating bread. Some people claim to love it—to love eating matzah instead of bread, even, which is a tacit way of saying “I love to be constipated”—but others, like me, claim that those people are liars.
I’ve written about my hate-hate relationship with the holiday before, particularly the OCD-adjacent cleaning rituals required of those who take a more “orthodox” approach to the holiday. One yeshiva teacher told us to unscrew the receiver on the telephone because we might’ve spit small food particles into it while we were talking; this is probably not necessary with your iPhone, but you should clean that anyway because we all take our phones into the bathroom and they’re disease vectors as a result. They are, to use a holiday-appropriate phrase, the harbingers of the next plague. Anyway: bleach everything. It’s, uh, in the Torah.
The cleaning used to drive me crazy, but then I stopped doing it and so my life is now OK on that front. But for some reason, I still insist on not eating bread and other leavened goods during this holiday, even though bread is quite literally the best thing since sliced bread.
I’m certainly not alone in loathing this holiday. Even rabbis, when they’re being honest, will admit that a holiday that eliminates leavened foods is the worst. One disgruntled rabbi I spoke with said, “There’s something so grotesquely Jewish about celebrating freedom by constipating yourself for a week.”
It is not novel, really, to criticize Passover cuisine for blocking up the faithful. There’s a whole subgenre of jokes dedicated to this tired premise. My stories about this are not jokes. They may not even be funny, depending on your own past trauma with this holiday. You might not laugh so much as think, That’s amusing. I am amused. Sort of like watching an episode of Frasier in that regard. But these stories are true:
Back when I was in high school, I used to go to my cousins’ for seder. These were marathon-length affairs where we’d recite every word in the haggadah and my cousin, a very devout Orthodox rabbi, would encourage all of the kids at the table—and there were a lot—to ask a lot of questions, many more than just the four famous ones in the haggadah. (The man had some notions about educating the youth.) This meant we’d be lucky to eat the meal before midnight. He would also insist on measuring out matzah servings according to rabbinic mandates. This meant that we were supposed to eat roughly one (1) sheet of machine-made matzah at three (3) different points during the seder. For a matzah-hater and proud owner of an Ashkenazi Jewish GI tract, this was entirely too much. I hid matzah fragments under the tablecloth so that I could pretend to have finished the entire serving and so be allowed to speak again. (We were supposed to munch quietly while we ate the entire thing. Both aspects—the consuming matzah and staying quiet parts—were the purest torture for me.)
One year, though, there was a dog at the seder, courtesy of one of my cousin’s seder guests. I don’t remember its name or exactly who it belonged, although do remember it being some sort of stumpy pug-style pooch. I saw an opportunity and I took it. I started to break off small pieces of unleavened bread and gave them to the sweet animal who was sitting quietly at my feet. He ate whatever I innocently dropped to the floor that night. He seemed happy about it, and I only had to eat about half my allotted serving and was able to speak while the rest of the table could only chew. The downside is that the dog probably didn’t shit for a week after the seder. He’s dead now, not because of anything I did but because more than 20 years has passed since I did it and he was already at least 10 when I encountered him. But I think about this dog every year at Passover and feel guilty. That’s because I feel guilty about almost everything, and why should this night be different from all of the others? But it is also because I know the discomfort I caused him. That night, I made the dog eat as poorly as I would for the week.
The enumerated penalty for eating bread on this holiday—one that purportedly celebrates liberation and freedom while cruelly denying us sandwiches—is quite severe. It is something called “karet.” This roughly translates to “to be cut off.” Some say it means you’ll die young; others say it means you’ll lose your portion in the world to come, or that you’ll be “cut off from the Jewish people,” whatever that means. Suddenly losing your ability to appreciate Jesse Eisenberg or your will to argue about smoked fish, maybe. Still others say it means you’ll die childless. Regardless of the adventure you choose, it seems to me an excessive punishment for eating a bagel with schmear on Passover.
(Fun “fact”: Jews can get karet for all kinds of things, for instance having sex with a menstruating woman. It is unclear whether a condom protects against it.)
This is not to say that there aren’t fun parts to the seder and the holiday. I did enjoy stealing and hiding the afikomen—this is the piece of matzah that’s hidden somewhere in the house, for the kids to find—when I was a child. I especially enjoyed holding the seder hostage unless my demands were met. My demands were always Barbie dolls, and my collection was pretty solid when all was said and done.
The afikomen, which is really just a piece of matzah, needs to be eaten at the end of the meal as a dessert of sorts. The tradition of children stealing and hiding it is not borne out of a Jewish law imperative; rather it’s a ploy to keep kids awake until at least the end of the meal with the promise of a reward. As for as ploys go, this one works pretty well. It would, of course, work better if the afikomen were something other than yet another piece of matzah.
When I got too old to steal the afikomen myself—this is around when adults stopped giving me presents for this theft—I started to teach the younguns on how to hold out for extreme demands. Given the community in which we were raised, this was not the most difficult thing in the world, but I helped coach up the next generation into miniature intransigent Republican congressmen.
But as much fun as it was teaching children how to hold their parents hostage, it’s not nearly enough to make up for the lack of sandwiches during those seven days. Sandwiches, I should note, account for roughly 80 percent of my normal diet. Without them, I’d wither into nothingness. (Please do not tell me about the part of the seder where you can make a “sandwich” out of two pieces of matzah with grated horseradish in the middle. Until I see it on a ‘Wichcraft menu, it’s not a real sandwich.)
To eat matzah for a week is to suffer, but there is something heartening about knowing that I will not suffer alone. When I posted on Facebook about how much I hate the holiday, others chimed in in agreement. (That seemed to be a popular take.) Others pointed out the holiday is a time to gather with family, which is both true and something that can that be said of other, more sandwich-positive holidays. Why is this one a particular favorite amongst Jews when it has so many obvious downsides—the food, the cleaning, the food.
It’s a holiday about freedom from slavery, about liberation, these people say. But for all of Passover’s grand ideals, the experience of it is more about rules and restrictions. No celebration of freedom should leave you constipated.