Between the Pantry and My Soul

Posted on Updated on

Published in the Jewish Weekly News, March 24 1994.

“What kind of name is Jane? –I’ll call you Judy!”

So, my future mother-in-law called me Judy. I was a dry sponge thirsty for yiddishkeit. Although she didn’t like my name, Lilly, appreciated my eagerness. She saw me as more European than American, and at the time she was right. From her, this was a compliment, of course. I learned all about keeping a Kosher home, tried out Lilly’s recipes for apple pie, for matzah brei, for Pessach, spongecake. She made the best gefilte fish and taught me how. I learned Russo-Yiddish idioms, insults, and endearments that my Russian grandmother never got a chance to teach me. I have Lilly to thank for so many intangibles that help me feel at home at last, as a Jew.

Of course, I didn’t trust her to know everything! I devoured books on Jewish customs, traditions, and arts. Nothing about me changed outwardly… but out of sight, my soul was being quenched. Several years went by. I felt confident enough seder. No more disinterested guests who came late and left early; no more deadly flanken and leftover vegetables. My seder would be “perfect”: the guests would make it interesting and fun; and the food would be dairy or parve, no meat. I had, by then, become a fish-eating vegetarian and my home was kosher.

What ensued was a major campaign. Plans were made, guests were invited. Passover dishes and utensils purchased, and a menu evolved. Cleaning the house and making it Pessachdik was a challenge beyond my expectations. The transition period when you are creating Kosher-for-Passover areas, yet still cooking and eating hametz (leaven goods) is very tricky.

As Passover nears, and the hametz area gets smaller and smaller until it disappears. And then, there is the legalism, that allows you to have non-Passover items in the house somewhere, but covered and packed away. They are there, but no longer mine. I have “given” them to the Rabbi, and he has sold them to a non-Jew for the period of Passover. It feels silly. Can I suspend my “disbelief” and make this sleight of hand work for me?

I cleaned and scrubbed and covered sections with towels, and surfaces with tin foil as I had seen my mother-in-law do. Periodically, I would call Carolyn, my friend and local orthodox expert, to check on a problem. She decided on all of the cases I brought before her. For a short while, for an important stage in my life, Carolyn was an unofficial Jewish mother to me.

Somewhere in the pantry, while I perched on a stepladder, clearing out a top shelf, a new sensation overwhelmed me. What was happening in my kitchen was also happening to me. I had reached a quiet place, where nothing I was doing seemed a chore. As in a waking dream, I watched myself in directed activity. What I was cleaning and sorting… was my soul. I was refreshed and re-energized.

Although, I wasn’t able to keep this aura throughout the eight days of Passover, I strive to reach it each year as I recommit myself to the task of Passover preparations.

It’s so easy to make a perfect seder and never experience Passover. The exercise that I call “spring cleaning of the soul” is available to all, Jew or Gentile. As Jews, we have the rituals of Passover preparation to help us attain that state of mind that is pure and ready for renewal. It is a special gift, a special privilege. This year I am honored to have been invited to two Seders. I will dutifully bring my wine or dessert contributions to my host, but it is back that the truly wondrous part of Passover will have happened – somewhere between the pantry and my soul.