More Passover Memories

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The other day I blogged about celebrating Passover on my great aunt’s dairy farm outside of Baltimore. I sent the link to my aunt and uncle (on the other side of the family). They read the latest books on their Kindle and have digitized all their old LPs, but it didn’t occur to my 80-year-old aunt to write an online comment. The post did bring back memories for her, though, and she sent them along in an email.

“My real problem with Passover as far as women are concerned,” she said, “is all the work that they had to do if their house was kosher. Packing all the dishes, pots, pans, and dragging them to the cellar. Unloading all the barrels, bringing the dishes up, washing, washing, washing. Then cooking, cooking, cooking.”

When I was writing my blog post, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, what my great aunt’s tenant farmers – who came from one of the poorest counties in Virginia — made of the fact that this single, childless woman had four sets of dishes. I am pretty sure they hailed from a world where only the richest families had even one. It seems that someone who worked for my grandmother dealt with this inequity in her own way. My aunt remembers that “one year when Mother went down to bring up the [Passover] dishes, most were gone. A cleaning woman had taken a few each week.”

My aunt described going around the neighborhood with her brother Billy looking for fresh pebbles to boil the pots for Pesach. “Then Billy would go down to the basement looking for Hametz with a candle. I remember he almost set on fire a washrag that was hanging on the clothes line.” She reported that her Orthodox synagogue recently sent out the rules for the holiday this year. Apparently, “it is now correct to use a flashlight for the search. Too many fires, I guess. I called Bill with the good news. He didn't remember doing it, but I do.”

She had other Pesach stories to share, too. My cousins may have heard them around their Passover table — I certainly hope they had — but they were new to me. And I had no idea that my aunt, a fairly traditional woman who never worked outside the home, looked at Passover through what we at the Jewish Women's Archive call “a gender lens.”  Memories evoke memories; stories stimulate storytelling; storytelling teaches us to look at familiar people and things in new ways.

Ellen K. Rothman is Deputy Director of the Jewish Women's Archive.

Photo: Steinfeldt Photography Collection of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.

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