There are so many differences in the way Jews live their lives in various countries and cultures, and I think Pesach is the time of year which emphasises this best. Let’s take a little tour around the world and have a fascinating peek into how different Pesach preparations can be.
I am Sephardi from home – my husband is Ashkenazi. I am from Spain and grew up with the rich Mediterranean diet – my husband comes from Switzerland and is used to the much blander Western European menu.
Starting with my own experiences, the preparations for Pesach involved thoroughly cleaning every single thing in the house, and whitewashing the walls when we were done. There was nothing that was overlooked; you can imagine how clean the house looked when we were done!
I have very fond memories of my own pre-Pesach job. After school was finished for Pesach, we would sit in the garden with mounds of beans to shell and pop out, and after the beans, we had loads of nuts to crack! It was beautiful weather at that time of year and we loved sitting outside doing our chores.
My family ate kitniot, hence my beans job, but although we ate peas, beans and chickpeas, we didn’t eat rice or corn on Pesach. My brother in law, however, comes from an Egyptian family and they do eat rice – in fact it is one of their staple Pesach foods. Another of my brothers-in-law is Teimani (we really are a diverse multi-cultural family!) and they eat their matza like laffa, dipped in water to soften it first. Interesting how even among the Sefardi kitniot eaters, there are still differences. Because everyone in my community had the same minhagim, I actually never even knew of the concept of not eating kitniot until I went to in Israel.
Talking about cleaning, while my mother and grandmother, cleaned every single thing, there are many women, me included after getting married, who are careful to focus only on cleaning where there is Chametz.
Based on the approach that it is vital to keep ones energy for the most important things, it is perhaps better not to use up your energies with spring cleaning. No-one wants to come to Pesach without ko’ach for the Yom Tov itself!
Another fascinating cleaning attitude came from one Hungarian lady who claimed that her mother kept their home so spotless all year, there was really nothing to clean for Pesach! She says she never remembers seeing crumbs anywhere, all year!
And you must speak to an older Yerushalmi lady if you really want to get a guilt trip about how to clean for Pesach! Every single surface, horizontal and vertical, gets thoroughly scrubbed, and then washed down with bleach to ensure any remaining crumbs are totally obliterated. The surfaces are then covered with multiple layers of foil. The beds get scrubbed and the mattresses taken out to the porch for a thorough beating. Water is prepared before Yom Tov for the whole Pesach as no water from the taps is used for any cooking or eating purposes. And many Yerushalmim have the custom that if anything falls on the floor – whether it is a spoon, a towel or any food, it is not used for the rest of Pesach that year.
Gebrochts is another area where Jews have such different opinions. I never heard of the concept of ‘brokking’ until I got married.
Everyone I knew cooked and baked with matzo meal. The Hungarian woman mentioned earlier says their standard Pesach breakfast was matza coffee (pieces of matza broken up into the morning coffee – or sweetened milk for the younger ones) and she quoted a very chashuv Rav who said he too had never heard of brokking until his oldest daughter got married and his new son-in-law introduced him to the minhag. Another of my brothers-in-law is Teimani (we really are a diverse multi-cultural family!) and they eat their matza like laffa, dipped in water to soften it first
But some people are so makpid about not letting any matza get wet that they will remove all matza from the table when the soup is served. Another woman from England remembers how her mother made matza bags for each family member, embroidered with their initials, to hold the matzo in as it is being eaten, to avoid any crumbs falling on the table and possibly getting wet.
Isn’t it interesting how, despite all the many differences of minhagim of Jews throughout the world? At the end of the day we are all really the same. We are all keeping the same Torah and celebrating the same event of being taken out of Egypt to receive the Torah.
So, back to our Mah Nishtana question. I think perhaps the reason we Jews are all so different from one another is to remind us of exactly this point – that the differences are all on the surface but where it really counts we are all doing the same holy purpose, and to learn to love all Jews, despite their differences.