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Food for Thought on Passover

This year, amidst the pandemic, food has preoccupied most people’s psyches.  Will there be enough?  What if the food supply chains crash?  How can I keep enough food in the house for my kids?  How will my elderly father get food to eat?  Understandably, food and the search for certain foods becomes a dream, a desire, a balm and an emotional comfort for many.  I am a therapist, and in these weeks before Passover, I noticed an uptick in the anxiety about food, especially food for Passover

For some, despite the many leniencies extended by rabbis of all denominations, the anxiety centered around getting the house koshered and getting the exact foods traditionally needed for the Seder plate and Seder night rituals, or the foods that in memory, made the Seder complete.  I listen and understand the desire to make this as much like every other Passover as possible.  Ruminating about food can be a distraction from worrying about life itself.

And the loss that comes from not having familiar (think of the word family) foods for this family-centered holiday is tangible.

It is soothing to hear from people like chef Susan Barocas, who offers us ideas in using scraps from our refrigerator to create holiday recipes.  At the same time, I am filled with angst when I hear about people making multiple trips to grocery stores or engaging in somewhat risky behaviors in order to get food for Passover.

I think of all the profound readings from the Haggadah that we have read over the years, as we admired the ways that other Jews, living in difficult times, celebrated Passover.  During the American Civil War, the Union soldiers used a brick for Charoset, symbolizing the mortar that went into building the pyramids.  And who doesn’t shed a tear when reading the prayer of Jews in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, who beg God to understand that in this time of crisis and starvation they must eat bread in place of Matzah. “Our hearts are pained….We are here, ready to observe the positive commandment of ‘living by your laws’—not dying by them.”   A family of survivors uses only potato skins for karpas, a memory of their parents’ time of near starvation. And the response of refusenik Josef Mendelevich, deep in a Russian prison in the gulag, when asked about what to use for maror (bitter herbs).  “We do not need a symbol of our suffering.  We have real suffering,” he replied.

We are not in the Gulag, in the Holocaust, or in the Civil War.  But we are facing a global pandemic and we must respond in the spirit of those who came before us. For some families, those with loved ones who have perished or who are still sick, the Seder meal will taste only of salt water.   But for those of us who are able, we can dream of our Seders past.  For some that will feature the foods of those Seders.  But it is also our time to create new rituals and weave our acknowledgement of our food deprivations, whatever they might be, into our holistic understanding of what this Seder is and what it represents.

We were a nation of slaves, living in a time of plague and darkness.  We did not leave Egypt with soup and knaidels and kugels and sponge cakes.  We left with just some matzah, a dried cracker with little taste.  It reminded us of our oppression and our hope for freedom.

We are living in a time of great chesed (lovingkindness) of community sharing and caring.  Most of us are living in homes with running water and heat.  We can communicate by phone and by Zoom and are free to continue our spiritual lives in extraordinary ways.  And if our table has a piece of matzah and  perhaps, a hard-boiled egg, we will be in sync with many of previous generations, fulfilling the mitzvah to see ourselves as though we were leaving Egypt.

May we approach the food at this year’s Seder with a sense of gratitude for all that we have.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice and the author of numerous articles and books on the Jewish life cycle.