I’m gonna be real. If you’re Jewish in America (like me) and you grew up Jewish in America (like me), you probably hate Passover.
Passover is an utter grind of a holiday, especially if you’re a kid. All your friends are out doing Easter egg hunts and eating chocolate rabbits and running around in pastel dresses with pretty baskets full of toys,… and you’re trapped for four damn hours sitting at a table while your grandfather drones on about the plagues of Egypt.
There’s a seder plate with a lamb shank and one hardboiled egg and some parsley and some chopped walnuts with apples and a whole big root of horseradish! Yum!
Of course Passover is supposed to be a crummy holiday because it’s a holiday with one important message: Remember that you used to be hungry.
If there is one thread that runs through the entire Jewish experience across the globe, it is anxiety. We know that we came from poverty and we know we are one bad government election away from returning to poverty. We Jews know that we should NEVER get comfortable. Never assume a damn thing.
That Jewish phrase “This too shall pass” is not meant as reassurance. Yeah, it’s a comfort for the bad times but it’s also used during the good times. It means “Good times pass too. Be prepared.”
Passover is one long four hour slog about “Be prepared. Remember that you came from poverty and hunger. Remember that you can return to that state really easily.”
When my mother learned about the Great Depression in school during the 60s, she went home and asked her father what it was like to grow up during the Depression. My grandfather was the youngest of six kids and his family lived in the Jewish tenements in the Bronx during the 30s. “Did you go to bed hungry?” she asked her dad.
My grandfather mused on this question a bit. “No…. no I didn’t go to bed hungry. I wouldn’t say hungry. But I did go to bed unsatisfied,” he responded, “I’d say unsatisfied. Not hungry.”
When my mother told me this story I found it interesting. Only people who really have lived with hunger know that there are different levels to poverty and hunger. To people who are not poor, poor is just poor. Hungry is just hungry. To people who HAVE known real poverty and hunger, they know that there are levels. As Viola Davis once said, “We were ‘po.’” Davis describes “po” as “a lower level of poor.” As Davis wrote in her memoir “Finding Me,” We had to go to the laundromat to wash clothes. But having no money, six kids, and freezing cold weather meant that most of the time laundry would go unwashed for weeks. That, compounded with the bed-wetting, made for a home with a horrific smell. Closets and space underneath the beds would be stuffed with shoes, dust, miscellaneous items. We were afraid of even cleaning for fear rats would be lurking underneath all the “rubbish.” On the first day of the month food stamps would come and we would make a huge grocery run at BIG G market. In less than two weeks, the food would be gone.
My grandfather was not “hungry” in the way he defined “hungry” as a poor kid. He was poor but not “po.” He knew people on the lower levels of “hungry” and he was grateful for being on the upper levels of “hungry.”
He may have just had bread and tea for supper, but at least he had something to eat. Some people had nothing.
I recently checked out Roman Vishniac’s photography book “Vanished World” from the library. In Vishniac’s photos of Jewish people living in poverty in Poland, I could see why my grandfather was grateful for being merely “unsatisfied” in his dinner as a child.
One picture that stood out for me was of a young shopkeeper who had been locked out of his store. Anti-Semitic boycotts in Poland in the late 30s had caused Jewish businesses to fail. This shopkeeper could no longer afford the rent on his store so the landlord locked him out. The man could do nothing but stand outside, weeping.
What I find striking about the photograph is just how thin the man is. You can see his hip bone stick out through three layers of heavy wool. His pants are belted but still far too baggy on him. He’s clearly lost a lot of weight recently, and it probably wasn’t deliberately.
This man is hungry. And on the lower levels of hungry.
And that’s pic’s not old either. It’s less than 100 years old. People alive during that era are still alive.
Oh, and people are still hungry. Here, now, in 2023, there are people who are still hungry. Not “unsatisfied,” but hungry.
That’s what Passover is about. It’s about reminding you that hunger is still there. And it will grab you if you’re not on your guard.
It’s a dreary thing to be reminded of which is why we all hate Passover. The message of Passover is essential, however.
This too shall pass, so be on your guard.