Diaspora Diaries: A guide to surviving Passover

When it comes to Seder night, it’s all about pacing yourself.

Passover seder in Krakow 370 (photo credit: Nissan Tzur)
Passover seder in Krakow 370
(photo credit: Nissan Tzur)
In every generation, so I am told, there are Jews who claim that Passover is their favorite festival; that they relish the taste of matza and that they enjoy a lengthy evening of exposition and bitter herbs so much that they choose to remain in the Diaspora in order for there to be a repeat performance the very next night. 
For the rest of us, Passover is more a test of endurance – and, like any such test, there are ways to survival techniques to make the experience more manageable. 
To start with, as you would with any fast in the Jewish calendar, feast first. Before Yom Kippur, helpful sages suggest surrendering coffee a week in advance, to avoid the inevitable Neilah headache.  Sound advice, perhaps, but Passover is a different beast, and you’ll miss your hametz regardless. So instead, the week before should be treated as an ‘all you can eat’ celebration a time to gorge on fresh halla, pastries, pasta and every other kind of leavened treat you can imagine. 
When it comes to Seder night, it’s all about pacing yourself. Why is this night different to all other nights? Because most of the time, Jewish boozing is not done on an empty stomach. But with a paltry piece of karpas to soak up the Palwin, those four glasses can make the Seder night guest feel like a binge-drinking teenager. Downing the first two as though they are tequila shots may be appealing, but being hungover by the time everyone is singing Chad Gadya is less so.
And of course, you will want to have your wits about you for the Afikoman. There’s nothing like a game of hide and seek-the-matza to bring out the inner child in all of us, and a bit of friendly competition is surely within the spirit of the festivities. Still, there are limits.  Hiding it in the bread bin might seem like a genius plan, but unless you’re the one who has spent the last fortnight Passover-cleaning the kitchen, it probably isn’t wise.
As the meal continues, so too do the questions. “But tell me the science behind the plagues?” “How, exactly, did He shift the tectonic plates in order to split the Red Sea?” “Was Moses really an effective leader?” As tempting as it is to pick holes in the Exodus story, a festival on which you drink salt water as a symbol for the tears of slavery and deprive yourself of leavened goodies because your ancestors didn’t have access to a local bakery, is not about common sense. It’s Judaism. It’s often illogical. And you're really not the next Maimonides. Accept it.
After the initial excitement of Seder fades, you’re faced with the prospect of several more days of sameness; the same menu, the same complaints, the same cardboardy, almondy taste lingering long after the meal. Unless you're one of those people who genuinely doesn’t enjoy carbs – which begs the question how you fare at any Jewish event, ever? – Passover is tough. Too often, we compensate with endless biscuits, cakes and fried goods. But if you lay off the macaroons and cinnamon balls, and treat the week like a detox, consuming a cleansing diet of fruit and vegetables, you’ll at least be able to feel smug when it concludes, and have no compunction whatsoever about sprinting to the nearest bakery.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, for those of us in the Diaspora, is explaining it all to the uninitiated. No bread? Just crackers? Why not spaghetti? It is a universal fact that those outside of Israel will never ever be able to comprehensively explain the logic behind Passover to their co-workers, even those with whom it is discussed year-in, year-out.  
The concept of recalling past tragedies of our people’s history by spending a week every year depriving ourselves of a good number of delicacies, and going so far as to forfeit regular coffee and tea, will invariably baffle anyone who hasn’t grown up with it.  And unfortunately, describing it as the Jewish Easter, isn’t particularly effective. Once those quizzing you realize that Seder is about hard boiled eggs in salt water, not chocolate eggs in shiny wrappers, they’ll just pity you.
Last, but not least, heed Coca Cola’s advice, and accept no substitute. Yes, those clever science-types have invented all manner of replacement products for Passover. You can have kosher-for-Passover bread, and pasta, and cereal – just like a normal week, right? Wrong? Do not do your body the disservice of eating these cardboard horrors. See also ‘matza lasagne’, and ‘matza pizza’.
Ultimately, though, let’s remember what Passover is all about - retelling the story of the Exodus. Which, of course, was all about heading for the Promised Land. For those of us in the Diaspora, surely there’s no more fitting a tribute to our ancestors than to catch the next flight to Ben Gurion, and enjoy a festival where Passover-safe produce is in ample supply, where nobody asks any questions – and the whole shebang is a day shorter.
Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. http/Jenniferlipman.wordpress.com