Too Much on Your Plate
Passover Strategies for Women Who Do Too Much
by Robin Levinson
Blu Greenberg was a young mother in the 1970s, caring for five small children and working a part-time job near her Riverdale, N.Y., home. Though destined to become a leader in the Orthodox feminist movement, to serve on the boards of a host of Jewish organizations, and to write four books, back then she wasn't terribly organized when it came to Passover preparations.
She cringes at the memory of one especially trying year when, as usual, she'd waited until the last minute to shop, clean, cook, make up the Seder plate, and set the table. The problem arose with the Counting of the Omer, the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot when, save for Lag B'omer (day 33), traditionally observant Jews don't do certain things: get married, dance or cut hair. Greenberg had always given her kids haircuts and had recently done so for all of them except her eldest son. Age 10 at the time, he was sporting a "big mop of blond hair that hung all over his face," Greenberg recalls. "So, like five minutes before our Seder, I finally sat him down and gave him a haircut. It was such a bad haircut that he wouldn't come to the Seder. It was terrible. It was my most unhappy holiday ever."
It's ironic: Passover commemorates the Israelites' trek to freedom from Egyptian bondage, yet women can feel enslaved as they undertake the enormous task of preparing their homes for Passover. For Orthodox and many non-Orthodox women alike, duties typically include scrupulous housecleaning to eliminate every trace of cereal, pasta, cookie crumbs, corn oil and other chametz (leavened food). There's also shopping for Passover food; unpacking Passover dishes, glassware, cookware, and utensils; kashering kitchen appliances and countertops; and, of course, cooking and serving one festive meal—and often two—for a bevy of family and friends.
Getting ready for Passover left Greenberg so tired one year that she fell asleep at the Seder table (so did her husband). She later coined an expression for anytime she's exhausted or overwhelmed: "I feel like erev Pesach" (the first night of Passover).
For some women—especially supermoms who simultaneously run a household and pursue a career—working to exhaustion can detract from the spiritual and historical dimensions of this most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. How is it possible, they might wonder, to sense holiness when you're pulling Cheez-Its from your son's coat pocket?
"We are constantly living with our feet in two worlds," says author Penina Adelman, M.A., M.S.W., a visiting scholar at the Women's Study Research Center at Brandeis University. "In one world, you're running around like crazy, under pressure and deadlines, and the bottom line is the most important thing. The second is living a fully Jewish life in which every moment is sacred and unique," says Adelman, a mother of three. "To keep that in mind when going about your business is just really, really hard."
"I think it's a really big challenge," agrees Susan Berrin, editor of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas. She lives in the Boston area. "It's so easy to get caught up in the details of cleaning and the mandate for perfection."
As social worker Faye Wilber points out, making a perfect Passover or attempting to replicate the elaborate Seders your mother and grandmother made is not only unrealistic for many women, it's unnecessary. "There's the old saying that everybody sits down at the Seder at the same time, and everything will be done when those candles are lit," says Wilber, director of the Boro Park Counseling Center for the Jewish Board of New York City. "Even if it's not done, it's done. If I didn't do it, I can live without it."
Regardless of how strictly you observe Passover, your mindset generally dictates whether you experience Passover preparations as a burden or a blessing. "If you approach it as chore, then it's a chore," says Berrin, who instead views Passover as an "opportunity to scrupulously and significantly change the way my kitchen looks, the way my car looks. It's really a wonderful feeling."
For English professor Patricia Bizzell of Worcester, Mass., that wonderful Passover feeling sets in at the stove. "Cooking is a great pleasure to me," says Bizzell, who converted to Judaism in 1981. "I feel very proud of myself when I get this meal on the table."
In one sense, the elbow grease used to clean and cook before sitting down to enjoy the warmth of the Seder is a contemporary way of experiencing the journey from slavery into freedom, which the Haggadah says Jews are obliged to do. "If you can think about it that way, it is a way of turning the physical labor into part of the spiritual process," suggests Judith Kates, Ph.D., professor of Jewish Women's Studies at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass.
When Adelman reaches for sacredness in Passover cleaning, she often imagines her Russian-born grandmother, Bella Williams, who handled everything in her Ohio home as though it were a newborn baby or a piece of precious china—even if it was just a tablecloth, or a spoon to stir the soup. While visiting Japan, Adelman noticed the same mannerism in a Buddhist monk as he showed her around his monastery garden. "I didn't understand until much later that this was a sacred kind of touching," she says, "when your mind is on what you're doing in that moment instead of thinking about a million other things."
Another way of weaving the spiritual with the profane is finding a set of strategies that enable you to fulfill Passover obligations without having a nervous breakdown or falling asleep on your Haggadah. Prudent planning and follow-through can increase the level of psychic energy you'll have to feel connected to Jews around the world, to our ancestors and to God.
Before you start preparing your home for Passover, it's important to prepare your soul, says Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, mother of two and director of the Jewish Journey Project, a New York-based educational initiative for children in grades 3 to 8. Learn something new about Passover by attending a lecture, reading a book or essay, perusing Jewish websites, or attending a women's Seder, she recommends. If your schedule is already stretched to the limit, there are ways to get into the Passover mood that take no extra time, such as listening to Jewish music while rinsing wine glasses. Bizzell, who exposes herself to Jewish literature and courses throughout the year, continually keeps her antenna out for Passover inspiration. "If I come across something that's interesting, I'll save it," she says.
To help with the more tangible aspects of preparing, write a detailed to-do list—complete with menus and names of people to invite to your Seder—at least a month before Passover, suggests professional organizer Barry J. Izsak. After each item, provide a check-off box and target date for completion. Then stick to your plan as closely as possible, says Izsak, owner of Arranging It All in Austin, Texas, and former president of the National Association of Professional Organizers.
"What's important is having a big picture of all the different steps that must be taken, and some small idea of how each of those tasks is going to be addressed," explains Berrin.
Laura Swartz, who currently holds a high pressure job as special needs housing officer at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, removes chametz from her kitchen but is more relaxed about the rest of her house. Because she likes to do all the cooking, she limits her Seder gatherings to about eight people. Her mantra is: "Cook 'n' freeze, cook 'n' freeze," which she does two weekends before Passover. "The biggest revelation to me was the idea of making matzoh balls and freezing them on a cookie sheet, then putting them in a Ziploc," Schwartz says. "I can make enough matzoh balls for a year." She was also delighted to discover that the seafood manager in her local supermarket knew how to grind carp, pike and whitefish with onion and carrot, saving her considerable time preparing her gefilte fish.
For Professor Bizzell, the opposite approach works best. Housecleaning and kitchen kashering take place during a seven-hour marathon the night before Passover. All Seder food gets prepared the next morning and afternoon, she says: "Fortunately, I still can stand and cook for eight hours."
When she remodeled her kitchen a few years ago, Bizzell designated a bank of cabinets for Passover dishes and glassware, precluding the need to box and unbox dishes every year. She also installed an electric range with a smooth cook top. Kashering it involves a quick wipe and having the burners glow red for a few minutes. Even as she kashers her stove, Bizzell feels "a tremendous connection to the tribe" because "it's exciting to do something I know is going on all over world."
Although preparations can get hectic for Bassie Nadoff, an Orthodox mother of five who works outside the home part-time, she feels connected to her ancestors by keeping sight of what Passover means. "I think about this all the time; after our Seder we talk about that, even," Nadoff says. "We remember that God took us out of Egypt, and the reason we don't eat chametz is because the Jews left in such as hurry, with dough perched on their shoulders, and had just enough time to bake it in the hot sun into matzoh. We want to remember that miracle."
One way that a growing number of women make Passover work would seem miraculous to our ancestors—the catered Seder. Ronnie Dragoon, owner and founder of Ben's Kosher Restaurant, Delicatessen & Caterers in New York, says his business now exists "in large measure" to meet the needs of busy families. "When I first opened Ben's," he says, "customers would simply come to the retail takeout counter and purchase a side dish or two. Very rarely did one order a complete meal. But those days were less hectic; there typically was only one breadwinner in the family."
Dragoon's patrons are primarily Conservative and Reform Jews (he makes no secret that Ben's kitchens are not kosher for Passover). His most popular take-out entrees are brisket and chicken. A few families go so far as to rent a room near one of Ben's nine locations and conduct their Seder there, letting the cooks and servers do everything except lead the service. "The joy of being with family and friends counterbalances any guilt they may have" over not making a home Seder, Dragoon maintains.
Neuropsychologist Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D, who lives in the Boston area, and several of her friends, who also work full-time, reduce their Passover stress by staging highly orchestrated potluck Seders. Because she doesn't keep kosher, Stoler usually brings the wines or flowers. After the Seder, the husbands retire to the TV room, while the women laugh and talk their way through cleanup. "We've been doing this for years; otherwise we'd go crazy," says Stoler..
As crazy as it often got in Blu Greenberg's home at Passover time—and as erev Pesach as she felt—the author of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household and other publications has no regrets. "At that moment, I may not have appreciated it, but as I look back, I understand how the work had a profound impact on my family's life and my own spiritual life," Greenberg says. "At a deep level, I understand how worthwhile it all is."
Robin K. Levinson is an award-winning journalist, author, and freelance writer and editor. She lives in Hamilton, N.J.
(Originally published in spring 2003; updated in 2016)
Joan Kekst is a food writer, lecturer, kosher cooking instructor and passionate cook who lives in Cleveland. Her book Passover Cookery: In the Kitchen with Joan Kekst offers creative recipes and indispensable guidance for remaining calm despite the stress of Passover preparation. More information at fivestarpublications.com/books/passover.
Countdown to Passover
In her book Passover Cookery (Five Star Publications, Chandler, Arizona), Cleveland-based kosher cooking instructor and food writer Joan Kekst offers creative recipes and indispensable guidance for remaining calm despite the stress of Passover preparation. She includes this timetable that will help organize anyone making the Seders for the first time, and offer hints for those who have been doing it for years.
Six Weeks Ahead
- Make a master list and reserve time for major household chores; share tasks with family members.
- Repair or replace required electrical cords, appliances or other household items.
- Inventory chairs, tables, plates, glasses, utensils, pots, pans, linen, flatware. Buy new processor bowl, beaters and plastic storage containers as needed. (Square ones are refrigerator-efficient.)
- Defrost and clean freezer early.
- Check Haggadot and Kippot; check Seder plates, candles, wineglasses. Purchase or borrow, or consider disposable items.
Four Weeks Ahead
- Plan daily menus to use up chametz from pantry and freezer.
- Review the rituals about rendering some items "Kosher for Passover."
- Invite guests; remind family of work schedule.
- Attend Passover class or cooking class, if desired.
- Empty, clean and reserve some kitchen cabinets for Passover items.
- Plan Seder menus; select recipes and foods to cook ahead.
- Make an early list to shop for staples, paper goods and candles to ease the budget crunch. Order kosher wine.
- Arrange family practice of the Haggadah. Urge children to prepare artwork, questions or develop their simulations of the Passover story.
Two to Three Weeks Ahead
- Check recipes for specialty items; visit kosher markets for new Passover items.
- As time permits, kasher (ritually clean) pots and pans for advance cooking and store in clean cupboard. Kasher oven, stovetop and counter for early Passover cooking if possible.
- Purchase ingredients to advance-cook foods that freeze well: chicken soup, sorbet, kugels, brisket, sauced chicken breasts and some cakes.
- Tell guests who wish to help when they should arrive to cook, or what kosher items to bring.
- Check, clean or launder clothing and linens for Seder as necessary.
One Week Ahead
- Schedule and complete major cooking to freeze. Make extra ice.
- Purchase vegetable staples, potatoes, onions, carrots, dried fruits, nuts, soda pop.
- Line storage cabinets and counters; clean refrigerator; reserve area for chametz.
- Wash Passover pots/pans, dishes, flatware, candlesticks, Seder plate.
Five Days Ahead
- Consult your rabbi to sell your chametz.
- Purchase least perishable fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, Seder plate items.
- Make horseradish, bake cookies-freeze or store airtight; make fruit compote.
- Shift furniture to accommodate extra tables and chairs.
- Prepare rooms for out-of-town guests.
One to Three Days Ahead
- Use up all open chametz, except crumbs for ceremonial search.
- Let children place extra chairs, spread cloths on tables, set out dishes.
- Complete baking, partially prepare long-cooking items, chill to reheat, store airtight or freeze.
- Make gefilte or other fish; mix batter for matzoh balls, chill overnight.
- Purchase last-minute perishable vegetables and fruits.
- Fill and cork wine decanters; defrost frozen items in refrigerator.
On the Seder Day
- Burn chametz; none should be eaten after 10 a.m. the Seder day.
- Roast bone and egg for Seder plate, hard-boil eggs for salt water, make charoset.
- Prepare fresh vegetables and fruits, frost cakes, boil matzoh balls.
- Set food on platters, cover and refrigerate. Plan oven timing to heat food.
- Save one hour to bathe and rest!
- Keep an inventory for next year.
- Have a Sweet Happy Holiday!