When I was a kid, one of the early indications of the great importance of Pesach (Passover) was that a couple of weeks before the holiday my grandmother would go to the basement to take inventory of her Passover products and dishes/utensils. This was remarkable not for the work that was accomplished, but for the fact that she walked down the stairs.
From the time I was a small child, my Bubby suffered from crippling arthritis. Her mobility was very limited, and from the time I was about 8 years old, when she was in her mid-70s, she used a walker to get around.
Steps were a particular challenge for her. While she continued to sleep in a second-floor bedroom until the last year or so of her life (she died shortly after my 20th birthday), she almost never went to the basement. So, when she took her annual trip down the stairs, it left an impression. It meant that Pesach was serious business.
The selection of Passover foods has always been limited in Charleston, West Virginia, where I grew up, so for years my grandparents made an annual pilgrimage to Cincinnati during the month before Pesach to visit my aunt and go shopping. Meats and cheeses went in the basement fridge or back porch freezer, and non-perishable items were laid out on a ping pong table in the basement that Zayde set up before the holiday.
The Pesach dishes were also stored in a large cabinet with a barrel bolt lock in the basement (never to be touched during the year), and a week or two before the holiday, they were taken out to be washed over the laundry sink, a job that usually fell to my mother.
Even though she was no longer able to perform some of the labor associated with the holiday, Bubby was still in charge. Her foray into the cellar, which lasted an hour or so, enabled her to take stock of everything and let the family members know which utensils were needed first to begin food preparations. Eventually, the dishes would be brought upstairs and stored in the pantry on a counter top and in a free-standing cabinet that Zayde brought down from the attic each year.
As a kid, I had some modest responsibilities leading up to the holiday, such as dusting shelves of knick knacks, and setting the table on the seder nights, but the anticipation of the holiday, and watching as older family members brought out the Pesach dishes and foods, was very exciting. As my sister and I grew older, we helped bring items up or down stairs, and annually we were warned to be careful, and reminded of the time, long before we were born, when Zayde had accidentally dropped a whole stack of plates on the stairs, breaking them.
These memories flood back every year as I set up folding tables in my basement to hold the foods I have purchased and the dishes, pots, pans, and utensils that will soon be brought out of plastic bins and cardboard boxes. The Pesach cabinet that Zayde brought down from the attic is now stored in my basement, more than 200 miles away from their old Quarrier Street house. I don’t really have space for it in my kitchen, and I haven’t used it much in recent years, but it is standing at the ready, a stalwart of Pesachs gone by.
Pesach celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt, which enabled us to solidify our national identity and begin the journey to receive the Torah and, more than 40 years later, enter the land of Israel. It is the critical story of our people hood. The story of Yetzias Mitzraim (the Exodus) is one that captures our imaginations not just once a year, but throughout the year, and in our daily prayers.
And so, I guess it makes sense that it takes, on average, about a month of gradual preparations to get one’s home and one’s heart ready to spiritually experience the Exodus again.
The rabbi of my shul, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, gives an annual sermon a few weeks before Pesach in which he reminds everyone of the importance of removing chametz (loosely translated as leaven) from our homes, which involves extensive cleaning and checking. While this process can be arduous, he reminds us that we should find it “ennobling.”
I doubt that Bubby would have described her Pesach preparations as ennobling — she did not mince words in noting that Pesach places extraordinary burdens on women — but she also took these responsibilities upon herself without complaint. Despite her physical limitations, she continued to do the majority of her household cleaning by herself.
She took great pride in having a home that was clean and orderly, and preparing delicious meals that were more than just physically nourishing. On the seder nights, she was exhausted, but full of laughter and pride.
At the seders, my grandparents would often tell stories about their parents’ observance of Pesach — the songs they sang, the foods their mothers prepared, how or where they obtained matzah, wine, and kosher meat in the towns where they lived. (Bubby’s parents made their own wine, including during Prohibition.) As we retold the national narrative of the Jewish people, they were also transmitting our family narrative, an informal practice that is part and parcel of the seder experience for many, if not most, Jewish families.
As the days unfold leading up to this year’s Pesach, I am tired, absent-minded and anxious about forgetting important details. Every time I check things off my long to-do lists, I think of several more things that must get done. It’s overwhelming, but it’s also deeply meaningful.
Returning to the rabbi’s drasha (sermon) about the cleaning being “ennobling,” I have come to realize that it satisfying to work for a holiday whose practice is festive and even magical. Educators these days talk about “experiential learning,” which is learning through doing. In a lot of ways, the seder itself is experiential learning, but I’ve come to realize that the cleaning is too. It’s the physical application of a spiritual task. Without days or weeks of effort, planning and exertion, the holiday would not have the same level of anticipation and excitement. The holiday is the goal, but the process of preparing is half the journey.
And, of course, Pesach is inescapably about family: family members working together to create a special holiday atmosphere, and passing down family recipes, memories, and jokes.
With unleavened bread and simple ingredients, we create a little bit of magic, just at the time that spring is magically transforming our world from brown to vibrant color.
This year, while I was in the basement, cleaning and reorganizing to make space for all of my Passover products, my kids came down out of curiosity to see what was going on. Instead of complaining they were bored or begging for screen time, they stayed close by, playing with their art supplies and talking about the foods they look forward to eating on Pesach.
In the coming days, I’ll give them small jobs to do, and in future years, their responsibilities will increase. For now, though, it is heartening just to see them curious about what is going on. Bubby and Zayde would be proud.