“Passover,” Arthur Szyk, 1948. Yeshiva University Museum.
There is no holiday that brings out the screaming in my head as much as Passover.
There are two sets of noise that take hold of my brain at this time of year: the pre-Pesach (Passover) trauma and the Seder night trauma. Or as I have come to experience it, the trauma created by women’s stuff, and the trauma created by men’s stuff.
Growing up, the pre-Pesach anxiety began as soon as Purim was over. We were only allowed to eat from a pre-determined collection in the kitchen, we were on a schedule around what rooms were already sterilized, and my mother’s mood went from the usual cold and cranky to the downright hostile. Nothing was ever right, we walked on eggshells, and life was insane and frenetic. Although I often wonder how many of my traumas are from religion and how many are from my particular family, in this particular case I have come to learn that this kind of thing was going on not only my own house but also in many Jewish homes around the world. Even women of privilege engage in the panic. (I’ll never forget the time, years ago, when a mother frantically came to pick up her daughter from a play date around a week before Pesach, saying, “Hurry, I have to rush home and watch my cleaning lady do the kitchen.”) Pre-Pesach insanity, it seemed, was the Women’s Way, no matter how you celebrated the holiday.
I’ve been living in Israel for over 20 years, and it is still astounding for me to watch how this culture takes over Jewish women’s lives, no matter what kind of religious observance they adhere to during the year. Conversations in shops, on the street, and online, revolve around Jewish women of all backgrounds managing the minutia of obsessive cleaning, shopping, and cooking. There seems to be an uncontrolled lust for women comparing themselves to one another—who started cleaning and cooking earlier, who is having more guests, who is more efficient, who is more creative, and ironically also who has more time-saving hacks. Facebook doesn’t help, by the way.
Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, I found this pre-Pesach cleaning-cooking-hosting-mania was compounded by the other assault on women’s bodies: clothing shopping. Our job, as religious girls, was not only to manage the kitchen, but also to look gorgeous as we did it. We prepared our shul and Seder outfits meticulously and expensively, down to the last perfectly-matching accessory. But let me tell you something: there is nothing quite as dysfunctional within the female experience as surrounding yourself with copious amounts of food and then forbidding yourself from eating it. Women’s and girls’ table conversation, once we finished serving, invariably revolved around calories, points, fat content, carbs, gluten, GI, cellulite, whatever. (Each year, the measures for what we should or shouldn’t eat changed, led by trends announced by The New York Times. This added to women’s competition not only over who was thinnest, but also over who was the most in-the-know about how to effectively lose weight.)
Women actively and eagerly participate in this competition. It is what I think of as the Queen Complex. So many Jewish women ultimately want to be Queen. You want to show the world that you have the loveliest table, the largest number of guests, the best organization, the cleanest house, the nicest-looking family, the longest Seder—in short, that you are Mistress of the Universe. You are the best, the most special. I participated in this need-to-be-Queen for more years than I care to admit. In a world that is so gendered, where women are rewarded for the most successful act of performing femininity, you can’t really blame women for wanting to be Queen. It’s all we have to go by sometimes. And doing femininity well has its social rewards. Public adoration is nothing to scoff at.
Meanwhile, the actual Seder night experience created a whole other set of traumas for me. Growing up in a family of all daughters, if we were schooled in how to be Queen, my father was undoubtedly King. This was a whole other thing. Being King meant Running the Show. The King dictates what happens when, how long each part of the event should take, and who gets to talk and for how long and about what. If being Queen means women are masters over all things food-body-service-oriented, being King means men are masters over all things Legacy-Ideas-Throne. The Seder table is where women show off their kitchen skills and men show off their mental prowess, power and general mastery over all things Jewish and otherwise.
Memories of my father’s Seder are among the most trigger-inducing for me. If I wanted to participate in a conversation, it was always exclusively on my father’s controlling terms. If I said the wrong thing, anything that made someone’s eyes roll, my father directed the conversation elsewhere. If I spoke too long, that was a terrible sin on society, and my father would summarily cut me off and continue his schedule. If I dared disagree on a point, I was summarily punished, reminded that girls and wives are not allowed to disrespect the men in our lives. Most family Seders I ended up crying alone in my bedroom. Sometimes my mother would come upstairs, not to comfort me but to seal my fate. “You will not ruin my shalom bayit,” the “peace in the home,” she would often say.
I was never a correct girl. After all, it was always too hard for me to hold back my ideas. When I deviated from the script and asked genuine questions that were on my mind, I was being a pain. When I challenged the way things were done, asking about the supposedly educational idea that we do things “differently” at the Seder so that kids will ask questions (“The kids asked,” I would say. “What is the actual answer beyond ‘so you would ask’?”), I was considered a defiant annoyance. During one of the meals, I challenged my brother-in-law about the policy of his family law practice not to hire women lawyers because “women are too emotional to be good lawyers”—and as a result I became the problem of the family, eye-rolling and all. (That was in the early 1990s, not in 1970). “Here she goes again,” someone at the table would say every time I had an opinion. And then there was the body-control over the mind-control: When I wanted to eat more than a bite of potato during maggid because it was late and I was hungry, I was looked at as piggish and selfish. The dining room table so often felt like a trap for me, one that I tried to escape with via food. I defied femininity early and often, and it never ended well.
During my early years as a parent, I made some definitive changes to our Seder. For one thing, I am not in charge of cleaning. Either we all do it together, or it just doesn’t happen. I have come to terms with an imperfect measure of cleanliness in my house. It is the price of my sanity.
Over the years, my rebellion has evolved into a new vision for my own life. Our family does Seder very differently from the way I was brought up. First of all, my husband and I not only share the cooking but also sit together at the head of the table. There are no Kings and no Queens. We also don’t let anyone starve.
Many years ago, we adopted a practice of eating lots and lots of vegetable dips and crudités for karpas, so that nobody sits at the table hungry, ever. We also do not do much rote recitation, and skip parts that we think are boring. When my kids were small, I spent days before Passover making puppets and writing plays and songs, finding ways to make the Seder active and fun. And everyone can talk, for as long as they want. No idea is rejected, nobody is ever told that they are talking for too long, and nobody will ever, ever sit alone crying in their room, ever. If one person in the family is hurting, we all hurt with them. That is a year-round rule. And some years, we do something completely radical and have a Seder with no guests, just our kids. I realize that is very anti-Jewish. But it is also genuine. We don’t like putting on a show. And we don’t like competing. We like being true to ourselves and following practices that feel right to us.
I realize that some of my salves seem out of bounds for those still adhering to the most limiting stringencies of man-made halakhic practices. But I no longer feel loyalty to a set of rules that assume female servitude. I mean, Passover is really the height of gender irony in Judaism. The way this particular celebration of freedom has evolved over two millennia depends on someone standing in the kitchen for weeks in advance—and by someone, we mean women. We mark a nation’s slavery by imposing a kind of slavery on the women. The kitchen and house were women’s exclusive job for so long, and despite many social changes, it still remains this way in many Jewish households. (No, I do not have hard data on this; just many supermarket-line conversations and Facebook feeds.)
I cannot help wonder how our Jewish traditions would have evolved differently without the assumption of female servitude. Would elaborate meals for 30 be such a central part of communal and religious practice if the Jewish community valued women’s full participation in all parts of public ritual? Or would we have perhaps found other ways to connect and to bring the sacred into our lives? Frankly, anything that depends on stark gender inequality has lost its sacredness for me. I cannot abide by a set of rules created by men who truly see me as their instrument for their own needs, and not really a full person of my own.
I can feel all the different forms of pushback already: Men help. Religious feminism is a thing. Gender is not binary. Families evolve. Halakha is binding.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org