With Thanksgiving a matter of days away, I started prepping for the holiday by idly scrolling through recipes on the New York Times Cooking app. My family took advantage of my year in Israel by ridding our table of the turkey they hated so much and replacing it with Cornish hens. I wasn’t expected to cook the main dish, and no one wanted me to make a side either. It was just to insert myself back into the fold and to be annoying that I said I would maybe bake some cornbread. But looking at the recipe, I had second thoughts. If an item’s estimated cooking time is one hour, it will take me three times that, minimum. I closed the Cooking app with a sigh and reflexively opened up my cell’s photo gallery and flicked through some of my pictures of Tel Aviv in quick succession so that the images flashed by like a dream. One photo that stood out now was of a grand table set with creamy porcelain and glassy silverware and small books on the border and with stacked platters, flowers, and bottles of wine filling the rest of the space. I had to smile. Here was another feast celebrating religious freedom and togetherness. This was a dinner for Passover, or as I’d come to call it, Pesach.
My friend Ori from the university had invited me to spend the first night of Pesach with his family in Neve Tzedek, a neighborhood in Tel Aviv. I had been to Passover Seders in America before, but they were largely secular affairs, where gefilte fish wasn’t served to picky American children. Ori’s Seder did have gefilte fish, and I reacted identically to how Na’im, the Palestinian teenager in A.B. Yehoshua’s 1977 novel The Lover (beautiful, highly recommended), did when he tasted the shocking seafood mash in the home of his Israeli employer. “To start with it was sort of grey meatballs, so sweet they made me feel sick. Looks like this woman doesn’t know how to cook, she puts in sugar instead of salt… I’ve never eaten anything like them before and I hope I never will again.” Truly inedible unless the apocalypse has struck and there’s nothing else left for dessert. Everything else was delicious though, and I happily ate second helpings of matzo ball soup (kneidel in Hebrew) and roasted lamb, as well as four or so glasses of red wine, for religious purposes only, of course.
Everything we ate had an important role to play in the commemoration of Moses and the Jews successfully leaving the Egyptian kingdom that had enslaved them, and it was thrilling, in a quiet way, that families all over the country were sitting down to eat the same foods, in the same order, at the same time (more or less). Ori’s kind parents presented me with an illustrated English translation of the Haggadah and assigned me to read a portion about the Ten Plagues, a story I knew well from multiple viewings of the Passover episode of Rugrats and the animated film The Prince of Egypt (1998). Being there, so close to where the story had happened, along with the alcohol, made the night feel a bit like dizzy time travel. I don’t mean that I literally felt like I was in Egypt, about to walk in a dry inroad in the Red Sea. There was just something about the daring and the resolve to survive with dignity from that emancipation that had managed to translate into a tangible triumphant sense of joy in 2015.
When eating with my family on Thanksgiving, I feel a similar wave of pride and contentment. The escaping-religious-persecution part doesn’t apply to my Hindu parents from India, but themes of flourishing in a new homeland and building from scratch a support system of friends who would become like family very much resonated with my parents and the other Bengalis who flocked to New York in the 1980s. As a first-generation American kid in elementary school, I thought I had a special kinship with the pilgrims who had landed at Plymouth Rock. It was like winning a contest against my unsuspecting classmates, and my competitive silent conclusion was that since my parents were relatively recent arrivals to the States, I had a bigger claim on Thanksgiving than they did. I had already lost one battle of authenticity, when my third-grade teacher asked about our particular Thanksgiving meals. “That’s not real stuffing!” my seat-mate laughed when I said we put rice with curried ground goat meat inside our turkey, which was also treated with turmeric and cumin. Luckily, I was never shy about being a bit different, and as I grew older I realized that my family’s stuffing is infinitely more tasty than any concoction of cubed white bread that was cooked in chicken broth and then topped with disgusting cranberry sauce.
A tradition my mother, my sister, and I could not be bothered with was camping outside of a store at four AM, waiting for the Black Friday madness to commence (my dad is another story- he loves to shop). I like clothes as much as the next girl but I’m not going to lose any sleep or limbs over them. It grossed me out to see the front page of Saturday’s newspaper covered with photos of rabid crowds storming down the doors of Best Buy and Toys “R” Us, and headlines like “Worker dies at Long Island Wal-Mart after stampede” worsened my nausea. The dichotomy between gratefulness and greed within a span of forty-eight hours never fails to surprise me, even if it’s been highlighted a million times before.
While Americans start hoarding for a month in preparation for the birth of Christ, Israelis living in the Holy Land have adopted a radically different approach to consumerism during Pesach week. I knew that abstaining from basically anything with yeast was an important part of Pesach (in seventh grade my friend Stephanie and I went to Panera Bread and she was furious that on the sixth day of Pesach she forgot herself and accidentally ate a mini-baguette), but I had no idea that it was a custom protected by the law in Israel. I guess you can take as many classes as you want on the Middle East, you really don’t know the place until you go there (and even then, the learning never stops). Anyway, when my roommate Lital initially warned me of the imminent bread blackout in early March, I thought she was joking. Bakeries in Israel are closed? For a week? No Roladin for a week?! Yes, this when bakers go on vacation, Lital explained, and I stared at her doubtfully. Seems crazy that so many bakers and such would be willing to lose seven days worth of earnings. I stocked up on pita and babka nonetheless, and sure enough, the doors of my favorite bakeries (yes, I went to more than one bakery in a week) were shuttered once Pesach rolled around.
Hametz (any food that is leavened or contains gluten or yeast) is verboten in Israel during Pesach, and businesses that continue to sell hametz during Pesach have to pay a fine. Supermarkets cover their dried pasta, cookies, crackers, etc. with heavy white tarp, because the Pesach-Hametz Law decrees that baked goods cannot even be displayed at this time. I walked around the grocery store’s aisles in hilarious amazement, lifting the tarp to peek at the products that had been sequestered in plain sight the way X-rated films were in former Blockbuster franchises. Why did it matter if we saw something that everyone already knew?
Enforcement of the Hametz regulation could sometimes border on the insane, such as when families were barred from Afula Park in Israel for packing pita in their picnic baskets. More than half of all Israeli citizens, however, support the law; 56% of all Israelis believe that the Hametz law is necessary for both the “Jewish character of the State and in order to maintain the status quo between the religious and secular citizens of Israel,” according to a 2012 study conducted by Ynet-Gesher. I don’t think any Israelis were seriously inconvenienced by the not being able to buy bagels for a week, and I actually didn’t care about the ban either. It’s not that I suddenly became pious, because I was still eating chocolate-chip cookies at home during the holiday. Regardless, as an American who was used to incessant gratification and endless choices, a week of matzo as the only grain being sold was really interesting. The Israeli government was taking a noble effort to inject spirituality into the everyday lives of its citizens, even at the expense of nationwide profits derived from the sale of baked goods. Secular Israelis may grumble about the government’s intrusion (I lean left myself politically and support the separation of church and state in America), yet halakha (Jewish religious laws extracted from the Torah) has, in my opinion at least, helped contain the tide of consumerism that has overwhelmed the U.S. with coupons and doorbusters.
As Israelis, religious and not, and students and foreigners, Jewish and not, went about their routines, the veiled shelves were a haunted and friendly reminder of the country we were in. It would not slip entirely from our minds that this week was Pesach, that we were in a Jewish state, where religion and modernization will never be separated. I don’t think sacrifice can be commercialized in the manner acquisition is. I think refraining from something clarifies how much we will always have, and what’s still missing to make us complete arises when we think about what to put on long shopping lists. Following rituals, can create a solidarity that is noticed long after the fact. In my case it was seven months later that I realized that needed a Pesach in Israel to appreciate a Thanksgiving at home.