By JOANNE SEIFF True Confessions: When I was a kid, I hated Passover. Many years, my maternal grandparents took a train from Brooklyn to visit us for the holiday. While the distance from New York to Virginia wasn’t far, the cultural and religious divide was huge.

My mother was raised in a “Conservadox” household. Her father attended an Orthodox shul when my mom was little. My mother loved going to services with her father and her grandfather. When somebody told my grandfather that my mother was “too big” to be sitting with her father on the men’s side of the mehitzah, my grandfather joined a Conservative shul instead. He wanted his daughters to daven with him. My grandparents kept a glatt kosher home - and expected my mother to do so when they visited Virginia.
Northern Virginia was not a big population center for Jewish families back in the 70s and 80s. I was one of the only Jewish kids in my public school class. Passover school bag lunches were an opportunity not only for my non-Jewish classmates to learn, but also to belittle me. Although we had a strong Reform Jewish community, that didn’t mean we were ready for my grandparents’ visit. Obtaining Glatt Kosher Passover food was so difficult as to be funny. My mother would begin weeks ahead, with shopping lists and scrubbing. She’d haul out the two sets “K for P” dishes and run them all through the dishwasher. Those special Kosher for Passover dishes were only two of our many sets of dishes. My mom had our every day and Shabbat dishes (+2); our Passover dishes for when my grandparents did not visit (+1); the kosher dishes for when my grandparents visited when it wasn’t Pesach (+2); and a set of my father’s mother’s gorgeous Art Deco china (+1). That’s eight dish sets altogether!
Getting food for the whole visit was an ordeal. First, one had to figure out what could be bought at the local grocery stores - either long in advance or right before the seders. That meant asking the store managers to order special things. Those managers were not in tune with religious diversity or ritual foods! The second part required a 45- minute trip (without traffic, but there was always traffic) each way around the D.C. Beltway to Maryland, to a kosher grocery store. Since this was an enormous half-day undertaking, I was taken along to help during my spring vacation.
If my grandparents were already visiting, we’d all go to Maryland. My grandfather would meticulously go through the list while looking forward to a big sandwich in the store’s deli. My grandmother would push a second cart, sometimes with a kid in it.
Once we returned home, the paper grocery bags would shift around. In the laundry room, we’d turn on the extra refrigerator and stash the Kosher for Passover foods. There’d be another room with “regular” kosher food to serve as provisions for before the holiday started.
Then, we’d make a trip to the rabbi’s house. ‘Uncle’ Larry is the rabbi I grew up with, and his basement transitioned from being a great play area to being the “chametz” station. My mom would sell her chametz to him, store it in his basement, and continue the scrubbing - and cooking. In the middle of the night, you could smell chicken soup. In the morning, you’d see all the matzah balls made. It was like elves came at night. In reality, it was all my mother’s and grandmother’s work.
When the Seders arrived, we had practised the four questions. We’d put on our new Pesach clothes. We’d moved chairs and cushions and tables. We were ready.
My grandfather would beam, saying “I LOVE PESACH!” My father would grit his teeth and get through it. As a Reform Jew from Virginia, his religious practice and culture were often so different that it felt like my grandparents were from a different country. My mother and grandmother looked exhausted, and struggled to simultaneously participate in the Seder and dole out the many courses.
My father would spring up, helping to serve. He’d be in charge of clean up, running the dishwasher and reducing chaos. I remember how hard it was to remember what the point of the Seder was through all the food, dishes, and procedures.
What I hated was watching my mother work so hard to please her parents and exhaust herself at the altar of Pesach perfection. While she loves making holidays special, this effort often robbed us of what Passover is about.
The food and the Seder are only a reminder of why we celebrate the holiday. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt, we need, as Jews, to celebrate freedom and to remember what it was to be slaves–strangers in the land of Egypt. We need to use that as a springboard to help others. Eventually, our seders broadened to include civil rights, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, and other social action issues. Through this lens, Pesach became more meaningful to me.
Every year, when I struggle to do only a small portion of what my mother achieved, I stop myself when I begin to feel desperate. What’s the point of Pesach? It’s about more than obsessing over chametz.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and works as a freelance writer, editor, designer and educator. See more of her work on her blog:
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