Why Keep Passover When You Love Carbs?
“Ohhh. Are you Jewish?” Sporting a Hebrew name, a magen david necklace, and the curliest hair you ever did see, that was the question I got asked my first week of high school.
In preschool, I learned my aleph-bet along with my ABCs, and all through elementary and middle school, I took Tanakh, Toshba, and Hebrew alongside my secular classes. For years, I spent every Friday morning singing songs at a school-wide “Kab-Shab” (short for Kabbalat Shabbat), and having school off for every Jewish holiday. But for high school, I made the switch from my Jewish day school in the suburbs to Georgetown Day School (GDS), a secular private school in Washington, DC. I was scared, a bit lonely, and nervous about what my transition would mean for my Jewish identity.
The first big test came the spring of my freshman year. I hadn’t ever experienced Passover outside of Israel or my grandma’s house in Atlanta—where everything is chametz-free within a five-mile radius—and now, I had to observe the holiday at school.
Now, imagine a girl whose favorite food is pasta, and you can already tell that keeping kosher for Passover is a struggle for me under any circumstances. Then, place me in a labyrinth of carbs, and tell me I can’t eat the mouthwatering pizza or the tantalizing bagel that are practically mocking me. Make me explain to every peer and to every teacher why I can’t enjoy one of the muffins that they brought to class, or why I’m falling asleep because I was up super late at a Seder. In short, it wasn’t fun.
On day seven of eight, I was riding high on my accomplishment—I hadn’t eaten a bite of chametz yet. As I was giving the explanatory Passover shpiel to a peer in the hallway (I had gotten it down to a crisp forty seconds), he interrupted me: “Why?”
I paused, and shrugged. “Well when the Jews left Egypt,” I said, “their bread hadn’t risen yet, so we...” he interrupted me again: “Why do you do it? It seems like it kinda sucks.”
I paused. “Because I always have” didn’t seem like the right answer, but “because G-d said so” didn’t really click for me either. There weren’t any parents or family members policing my diet; there certainly wasn’t a shortage of chametz available to eat, and I most definitely hadn’t acquired a love for matzah. This experience of feeling an obligation that I couldn’t name suddenly made me feel like I had somehow failed in my Judaism, or at least failed to understand it.
That one-word question, “Why?” and the uncomfortable feeling that followed it, had brought me to a realization: My Judaism had been running on autopilot. At my Jewish day school I’d observed holidays because it was easy; I’d read Torah because it was mandatory; I’d studied Hebrew because it’d been placed on my schedule. I never actively chose to engage with my Judaism—it was just my routine.
Now that I’m out in the secular world, I have to decide what Judaism really means to me. I have to distinguish between the things that are actually important to me and the things I’ve just done out of habit. And because I spent so many years in the Jewish day school bubble, I’m still figuring it all out.
I’ve worked hard to keep up old traditions, like joining my family for a few Shabbat dinners each month, making hamantaschen for Purim, and yes, keeping kosher for Passover. As I engage in each of these customs, I try to think about the purpose driving each one instead of just going through the motions. In questioning things that I used to just do without thinking, I’ve become more intentionally and actively Jewish. I’ve also layered on dimensions to my Jewish practice as I’ve taken on new pursuits that are incredibly meaningful to me, from chanting Yonah at shul on Yom Kippur, to working as a docent at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I want to go back to that day in the hallway and talk to my past self, the confused girl who was uncomfortable with a pillar of her identity being questioned. I want to tell her that in recognizing her lack of an understanding for the “why” of the custom, she wasn’t faltering in her Judaism, but rather growing in it. I may not always have the answers, but I know that asking questions is a start— it’s the first step in taking my Judaism into my own hands.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Minsk, Shira. "Why Keep Passover When You Love Carbs? ." 22 October 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 29, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/why-keep-passover-when-you-love-carbs>.