Passover is one of the most joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar, not only because of what we’re celebrating – our freedom as a people – but also because of when it occurs. The fact that it falls in the spring imbues the festival with an extra dash of hope, and that’s why it’s always been my favorite Jewish holiday.
Growing up, I’d start looking forward to Passover right after Groundhog Day, because the holiday’s approach, along with the longer days, served as a barometer for the eventual departure of winter.
My positive feelings for Passover were enhanced by its proximity to the start of the baseball season, which would give me another reason to be happy. In fact, in years when Passover fell in mid-April, it would coincide with the spring school vacation in Massachusetts, meaning that my father and I could escape to an afternoon Red Sox game at Fenway Park. This was always a treat, even if I couldn’t eat anything at the game due to the holiday’s dietary restrictions.
As an adult, I eagerly anticipate Passover because the holiday induces a wave of nostalgia, thanks to the seders, which inevitably transform me into what I call a “Proustian Jew.”
The term refers to the French writer Marcel Proust, specifically to his signature novel, “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu,” or “In Search of Lost Time,” which was published in English under the title “Remembrance of Things Past.” In the book, Proust, based on a real-life experience in which he was able to relive a cherished childhood memory after sipping tea and eating a biscuit (a madeleine cake in his novel), explores how smells and sounds can evoke memories.
Passover’s wonderfully unique tastes and aromas allow me to understand perfectly what Proust wrote. That’s because the seders act as a powerful time portal, transporting me back to the seders of my youth through smells and memories.
For example, eating gefilte fish brings me back to my bubbe’s gefilte fish, which she’d spend all night making from scratch, while eating matzah ball soup brings me back to the seders of the 1950s and early ’60s, when my grandmother would make borscht and my mother would make her signature chicken soup.
Such Proustian nostalgia has worked in other ways, too.
When my oldest daughter was young, I used to make a habit of hunting for the hametz, which would trigger memories of the days when my dad and I would burn a bag of bread in our backyard on the morning before the first seder. And, while putting the items on the seder plate in recent years, I’m reminded of the days when my mother would painstakingly replace her year-round dinnerware with her Passover dishes and silverware.
This year, my seders will be smaller, since my older daughter is teaching abroad and unable to return home, but those meals will nonetheless be a time to rejoice in the arrival of spring, and to be thankful for the freedoms that we still have, even in this turbulent, and at times, frightening, era, when Big Brother’s hold over society exceeds even what George Orwell imagined in his landmark novel “1984.”
The seders remain a special time because, despite today’s polarized society and myriad problems, seders remind us of Passover’s promise. Through the seders, we should come to realize that, unlike our ancestors who escaped slavery in Egypt, Americans remain very blessed.
Explained in a Passover context, our lives today are a lot like the lyrics of my favorite Pesach song, “Dayenu.” A modern-day version might state that even if we aren’t lucky enough to win Powerball or Megabucks, we’re blessed just by being able to put food on the table, hold down jobs and put our children through college.
That updated version might also say that even if we can’t afford vacations, we’re blessed by being able to take an occasional break, spend time with friends, attend the synagogue of our choice and pray as we see fit. We’re also blessed when we make time to help the less fortunate by supporting food pantries, food banks and other charities.
Last – but not least – those whose loved ones are still alive are blessed by being able to gather for the seders with them. If you’re in this position, take full advantage of sitting around the table with your grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, because there will come a day when you’ll have to keep their memories alive at Passover by embracing its Proustian smells and tastes.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.