By Michal Shvimer
For those who celebrate, Chag Pesach (Happy Passover). This past Friday night, Jews everywhere gathered with their families to welcome Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays.
I myself attended a Seder — a traditional Passover dinner that involves reading about the Exodus and singing songs for two hours before you actually get to eat. Don’t worry though, we get to snack in the meantime on bitter herbs dipped in saltwater and a flavorless cracker called matzo. I could go on about the Seder — and so can the Seder itself.
If you’re curious about reading up about the Seder and all the intention behind it, you can do so here. But I’m here to talk more about Passover itself and the way we relate to it throughout its eight days.
After one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, when one is considered a Jewish adult, they are expected to observe Passover. This means different things for different ethnic groups of Jewish people. Our restrictions depend on where our Jewish ancestors originate.
The four ethnic groups of Jewry are Ashkenazi (European origin), Sephardic (Spanish origin), Mizrahi (Middle Eastern origin) and Ethiopian. The restrictions differ based on native diets. For instance, I, a basic Ashkenazi Jew, can’t eat rice or beans during Passover, but Sephardic Jews can.
The restrictions can mean different things for different branches of Judaism, too. Although it’s one religion, many Jews practice their faith differently based on ethnic tradition and religious belief. The three branches are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, whose practices can be pretty easily interpreted from their names.
Then there are Jews that are everywhere in between. They can range from “I don’t believe in God but I celebrate every holiday” to “I know I’m Jewish but it means nothing to me” to “I believe in God but I don’t celebrate anything” to “I’m only Jewish with my family,” or “I’m culturally Jewish” and the list goes on.
It’s a really fluid culture based more in years of tradition and resilience rather than a universal faith. This year, I’ve tried to embrace that fluidity more than I have in the past.
Here are all the restrictions to keep in mind throughout Passover. Many fellow reformed Jews I know spend the eight days not eating bread, some do not eat any leavened (risen) grain products and others may not follow the restrictions at all.
Since my Bat Mitzvah, I had kept kosher for Passover, which means I followed all of the restrictions. For eight days, I ate only fruits, veggies, meat, eggs, dairy and potatoes. It’s basically a Whole30 diet!
I was always hungry, but I prided myself in doing something to the fullest degree. The more I look back on it, however, I think I also prided myself on being hungry.
Every year in high school, I would go on a diet in the spring. At the time, I thought this was a normal experience in preparation for the summer. But I didn’t just try to eat a little healthier. I tried to not eat.
I limited myself to a protein smoothie in the morning, cold cuts and almonds for lunch, and a salad for dinner. On the weekends, I’d binge with deep dish pizza, Doritos and M&M’s. My senior year of high school, I began to work out every day, sometimes for hours at a time. I ate endorphins for dinner. I drank tea to suppress my appetite at night.
My friends envied my commitment to staying “fit and healthy.” My friends’ parents and my own prided in my weight loss progress, even my mom, who I remember yelling at for packing me 20 almonds instead of the 12 I asked for.
Passover was the peak of my “spring diet.” During the holiday’s eight days, Jews are expected to relive — in a sense — their ancestors’ suffering, both as slaves in Egypt and as escaped migrants in the desert. We eat bitter herbs at the Seder table and tasteless Matzah to remind ourselves of the bitterness we endured.
For eight days, we restrict our diet as a practice of self-control, sacrifice and remembrance. And as much as I value the endurance of my culture and as much as I want to honor that, I could not bring myself to practice self-control in that same capacity.
Nowadays, I practice a different kind of self-control. The summer I graduated high school, I became a vegetarian, transferring the need to control what I ate into a good environmental practice. I now pay more attention to how and where my food was produced rather than its caloric content.
Last year was the first year I kept Passover as a vegetarian. It wasn’t impossible, but it was hard. I was hungry. This year, I didn’t want to be hungry anymore.
After being diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder this past summer, I have tried to be more cognizant of what I try to irrationally control. My diet was one of those things. Not keeping Passover this year is a rebellion against that impulse to control. For me, not keeping Passover is arguably a greater practice of self-control for me — a practice of relinquishing control over what controls me.
Although these reasons are all overwhelmingly personal, there are a few more universal reasons to choose how we relate to Passover.
Every year on Pesach, we remind ourselves that our people suffered. We do not remind ourselves enough that our people were liberated, that our people are liberated. There is so much power in this liberation. Rather than honoring my ancestors for their suffering, I can honor the liberation their suffering granted me. That is what I chose to do this Passover.
This year, I hosted a vegan Seder. My community of friends set the table with traditional Seder dishes, all cruelty free and ethically produced. We also set the table with some non-traditional Seder dishes — bread, for instance, which is not permitted during Passover.
The Torah suggests that you should prioritize personal health over Torah law, and I think I did this year, for the first time ever. I told the story of the Exodus, said a few prayers, sang a few songs and then I ate some bread.
To those of you who keep Passover, way to go. I hope in the near future, I will feel healthy enough and ready to do the same.
Chag Pesach, however you celebrate.