Passover Story abuot Haggadahs and Chametz

    April 2001 Passover Edition            
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On Chametz and Haggadahs:
A Passover Story

Copyright 2001 Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D.

"What plague am I dressed like?" my six year old grand daughter, Sasha, asked, her eyes bright with anticipation. I noted her plaid jumper and white tights, but it was her red sweater that held the clue. "Could it be Blood?" I replied. "That's right!" she chirped, pleased that I recognized the symbolism. It was an auspicious beginning.

Last year we held our seder out of order (pun intended since seder means order). We are a secular family and celebrate the spirit, not necessarily the letter, of the holiday. So when the seder days fell mid-week, and it was not possible to gather the clan, we assembled the following weekend.

We ate, chatted, and were about to set up for the festivities, when Sasha inquired: "Did you throw out all the crumbs and bread?" Since no one in the family rids their home of chametz, leavened foods forbidden at Passover, her question surprised me. "No," I said, and then added defensively: "I'm not going to throw out a perfectly good loaf of bread considering we just had pizza." But Sasha knew about banned foods from the many books that were read to her, and looked away, as if in silent reproach.

Still, she soon bustled about, expressing delight in how much more she could do this year. We put out a special cup for Elijah, along with all the ingredients central to experiencing the seder as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. Sasha merrily hummed that quintessential Passover song, Dayenu -- It Would Have Been Sufficient -- as she started on the final task: Placing a newly minted Haggadah on each seat.

Until a few years ago we used Haggadahs that were familiar to me since childhood; small pamphlets put out by the Maxwell House coffee company and generously given away to any homemaker with an outstretched hand. These guidebooks, mottled with layers of wine from the inevitable splashes that occur during a seder, were as much a part of the holiday as the Passover dishes or silver wine cups. My daughter Ora, son Jason, and I would affectionately comment on the blotches of sweet brew as if they were the inheritors of, and links to, seders past.

But more recently, once the moment of nostalgia passed, objections immediately surfaced. Jason said that with its many long, obscure passages, the old guidebooks lacked a contemporary sensibility. Ora, who now had a daughter, felt its outmoded language reflected dated attitudes, especially toward women. The little pamphlets fate was sealed; I had to conclude they wouldn't speak to the next generation. After the seder I put the Haggadahs away in the same special drawer, but didn't take them out again the following year.

We switched to more contemporary Haggadahs, but none stayed around long enough to be splattered with layers of wine; when the newer guidebooks replaced the Biblical text with straightforward narrative, the awe seemed to go out of the story, too. We changed guidebooks every year as if we were trading partners in some sort of Passover square dance. Then Ora, and her husband, Jonathan, introduced a Haggadah put together by one of their friends. I was taken aback. An ordinary person could do that? I had no formal Jewish education. Did I have the chutzpah, (or was it hubris), to try?

With fear and trembling, I threw myself into the task by reading commentary in several traditional and newer guidebooks. I waited for the lightening to strike, but it didn't. Instead, I quickly realized my home-grown Haggadah must have been percolating for a long time; I knew exactly how I wanted to blend the old with the new so as to (hopefully) convey a sense of mystery while, at the same time, addressing present-day concerns.

As if in a frenzy, I cut, pasted, and reworked language. Still, I wondered if I was a so-called "smorgasbord Jew," picking and choosing small morsels from a large, rich history, when Rabbi Gamliel came to the rescue. Rabbi Gamliel, who lived in Roman times, said that in order to fulfill the obligations of the ceremony, it was necessary to explain three symbols: the Passover offering, matzoh, and maror (bitter herbs). The guidebook I constructed did that, and more. But would it be accessible? I e-mailed a draft for everyone to preview. Happily, their feedback told me it was on the mark.

I watched with delight as Sasha carefully placed a brand new Haggadah on each chair. Meanwhile, my daughter put the finishing touches on our festive meal, and my son-in-law read a child's Haggadah to Sasha's not quite two year old sister, Zoe. Yet something was not right with this idyllic family portrait.

The chametz was in the room: it seemed to hang in the air like a cloud of bread crumbs ready to rain on the table. Then, my son had a splendid idea: The pizza box was still in the kitchen, why didn't he and Sasha take it to the trash compacter and symbolically rid the house of bread crumbs? Sasha and her Uncle Jason left the apartment, pizza box in tow, with a solemnity befitting the occasion. They returned light-hearted and smiling as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders.

Sasha went back to her task. When she reached her chair, she put a child's guidebook on it, saying: "I'm learning to read. Maybe next year I can have an adult one." It's my hope that when she -- and Zoe -- are ready, the Haggadah I developed will add depth to their experience. But that's down the road. For today, the preparations were complete -- and it was sufficient.


PHYLLIS B. GRODSKY, who holds a Ph.D. in Social/ Personality psychology, has previously published in The Jewish Magazine. See: "In the Presence of the Rebbe" and "Making Amends".

A picture of Sasha and Zoe can be found on her award winning Web site, "PLAY IT AGAIN": , which shows grandparents how to engage in imaginative play with their grandchildren.


from the April 2001 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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