Pesach is a big deal. It may in fact be the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. (Sorry, my non-Jewish friends. Hanukah really isn't much of a holiday.) For those who are religious in any traditional sense, it not only celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, it celebrates the covenant between the Jewish people and God. Even those of us - like me - who are somewhat dubious on the God concept - can celebrate the holiday as a renewal of the human spirit, as a celebration of human potential, of Jewish heritage, and as a reminder of how lucky we are to be free. This makes it an important time to remember all of those who are not free and who are struggling to be free, especially poignant this year, as we watch the Ukrainians' inspirational battle against an enemy that wants to take away their freedom and kill anyone who resists.
I grew up in a Reform/Conservative home. By that, I mean we belonged to a Conservative synagogue, but were more Reform in practice. My mother kept vaguely kosher - we didn't have ham or pork products in the house - but she bought non-kosher meat and she wasn't that strict about not mixing dairy and meat. For Pesach, we got rid of bread and ate matzoh for the eight days of the holiday, but we still ate cereal and other foods that were not kosher for Passover. (I've done other blogs on kosher rules. Not the place for it here, but will answer questions in the comments if you're interested.)
So what is the celebration like for those who are observant? Before the holiday begins, there is a rush to clean the house of any hametz - food forbidden for the duration of Pesach that includes, but is not exclusively, leavened bread products. Matzoh, the flat unleavened bread made from flour and water, is the only grain product allowed, and it can't be any old matzoh either. It has to be matzoh that is kosher for Passover. To make cookies or cakes - the only flour allowed is matzoh meal.There are five grains - wheat, rye, oats, barley spelt - that are forbidden during Pesach. For Ashkenazi Jews, it gets a little complicated with rice, corn, lentils, beans not exactly forbidden and not exactly allowed. Rice, corn and beans have been prohibited since the 13th century, but in 2015, that was lifted for Conservative Jews. (For orthodox, not so much.) (In fact, if you're observant, you only consume food that has been marked kosher for Passover, including Cola products, by the way. I used to stock up on kosher for Passover coke because it was the one time in the year that I could get sugar sweetened coke instead of corn syrup sweetened coke. Look for Coke bottles with a yellow cap.)
The first two nights of Pesach are celebrated with a seder - the famous ceremonial meal where the exodus from Egypt is retold, four glasses of wine are consumed, various ritual items are eaten. Ritual items include a matzoh of course, boiled eggs, parsley dipped in salt water, a weird sort of sandwich made of an apple nut wine concoction, horseradish and placed between two pieces of matzoh.
The length of the seder depends on the level of observance of the household. As an adult with children, my husband and I used to have seders that lasted maybe 45 minutes to an hour, but then we just hit the highlights, especially the four glasses of wine. When I was a kid, we would often go to my Uncle Arthur's house. Seders at my Uncle Arthur's orthodox home could last for hours, with a reading of the story in Hebrew, a reading in English, and then a discussion of what various rabbis thought various passages meant. It was a wonderful family gathering, but I did get a little hungry as the evening went on. We'd eat around ten o'clock. After the meal, the readings were supposed to continue, but my Dad would always stand and proclaim - time for the book of Exodus - and off we'd go.
For the religious, the first two days have the same strictures on work and use of electronics etc that are forbidden on Shabbat. Same with the last two days. Food preparation is allowed, but the stove or oven has to be left on for the duration. The four intermediate days essential work is allowed, but not non-essential work. For a definition of essential work - ask someone else.
Jews, however, differ in observance from the very strict to the hey- okay - I'll eat a piece of matzoh. I'm closer to that end of the spectrum. But I do enjoy the gatherings, the fellowship, the rituals that remind me of my childhood and of my parents, the food, and the wine, even if I remain skeptical on the theological part of the holiday. With our kids grown, Jim and I have attended seders with friends or at the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe. This has been lost with covid - temporality I hope -I haven't felt comfortable having or attending a large gathering since 2020. But I've continued to celebrate in my own way, with matzoh ball soup, matzoh, gefilte fish, horseradish, and overcooked chicken for dinner. (Don't forget almond macaroons for desert.) And every year of the pandemic, I rewatched the Prince of Egypt, thereby fulfilling my duty to rehear the story of the Exodus.
This year, the first two days of Pesach coincide with Easter Sunday. In medieval times, the close positioning wasn't all that good for Jewish people. Both holidays became occasions to kill Jews - when religious crazies in the Christian world accused Jews of using Christian baby blood to make matzohs and of killing Jesus and then went on rampages to hunt and kill us. But we live in different times now, at least most of us do. And celebrations of both holidays have something to do with boiled eggs. So celebrate what we all have in common and enjoy whatever you celebrate. Chag Sameach.