I grew up in a family that took Passover seriously. It never occurred to me that the eight days of not eating leavened foods might seem not only odd but painfully difficult to those who hadn’t grown up with the custom. As a teenager, I didn’t think twice about bringing my lunch to school during Passover, and it never made me feel disconnected from my friends to have to ask that we move our pizza night a week earlier or later when a suggested date coincided with Passover.
Given the broad variety of Passover recipes in my family, it never felt like I was reduced to eating nothing but dry crackers all week, as one of my college roommates put it, describing her vision of my Passover eating habits with incredible pity. After all, there were so many vegetable dishes and fresh fruits, so many soups and salads, and even foods that I really looked forward to all year.
My father’s family is Christian, but although I visited my grandparents during the Christmas season when I was a child, I was never at their house for Easter. And despite having helped many of my friends decorate their Christmas trees, I had never been invited to any Easter celebrations and didn’t even notice it until a few years ago.
I had just moved into Manhattan with one of my closest friends, Carrie. We had been friends for more than a decade: I’d been to her house for Christmas and she had come to my little brother’s bar mitzvah, but we had never lived together. We set up our tiny apartment in July. I was gone all day, every day during the High Holidays, and she went home to Connecticut for Christmas; somehow we were never actually together for a single one of our religious holidays.
And then came spring. Carrie’s family was expecting her to come home for Easter, but using public transportation to the far reaches of suburban Connecticut had taken several hours when she had gone home for Christmas, and she couldn’t imagine doing it again. Since her parents had a car, and driving into the city would take far less time, I suggested that she invite her parents to our place for Easter dinner.
She looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s during Passover,” she said, “so you won’t be able to eat anything!”
That’s what she thought. But I had spent one Passover travelling through rural England, another surrounded by fresh croissants in Paris, and several in a campus dorm full of Pop-Tarts and pasta. I know what I’m doing now — years of practice really do make perfect!
I started pulling out cookbooks. What does one usually eat for Easter dinner, and how can one make it kosher for Passover? For one thing, lamb chops. Totally traditional and easy to find kosher in Manhattan. Sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots. A delicious soup and a nice salad on the side. And for dessert, meringue cups filled with fresh fruit that had been soaked overnight in Gran Marnier.
And yes, I did have matzah, even though I didn’t expect Carrie’s family to join me.
The best part of dinner was the end: When no one was looking, I had hidden chocolate eggs around the living room for Carrie and her sister to search for. And it turned out that Carrie had had a similar idea, and had hidden a piece of matzah for me to find before dessert was served.
There are several explanations for why Jews keep kosher: some have claimed that it’s about hygiene and health, others have assigned negative moral attributes to the creatures we’re not supposed to eat. But the explanation that has always bothered me the most is that the dietary laws are meant to keep Jews separate from other people — that is, if we can’t eat together, then we won’t live together, and won’t share the important events in our lives.
But the Jewish ethical values I was raised with include recognizing that all of us are made in the divine image, and that it’s not only possible but desirable that we all learn how to live together in peace. When the dietary laws get in the way of an important relationship, it means I’m doing something wrong. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s part of my religious obligation to make sure that everyone has their place at the table for a family dinner.
Easter isn’t my holiday, just as Passover isn’t Carrie’s. And yet we celebrated together, we ate together, we laughed together. Keeping kosher for Passover didn’t make me feel that I was enslaved to a dietary Pharaoh or stuck in a narrow place where I couldn’t eat or celebrate with some of the people I love the most. Instead, our kosher-for-Passover, traditional Easter dinner made me feel how incredibly lucky we are to be so connected to our traditions and so deliciously able to come together and celebrate them all.