I am aware that most people have nightmares every once in a while, and some even have recurring ones. Over the years I have encountered a specific anxiety and bad dreams in my clients especially around the holidays. This phenomenon occurs in every culture around their major holidays. In my practice in Canada, Christmas and Thanksgiving used to be the main ones. Those are holidays which are associated with family gatherings, and usually carry a lot of baggage around family obligations. Tensions are heightened, and people who find themselves without the ability to join their family or who are alone without a family feel lonely and depressed.
In Jewish tradition the two main holidays for family gatherings are Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and Passover. Observant Jews spend the weeks before Passover in a flurry of thorough housecleaning, to remove every morsel of chametz (forbidden food stuff) from every part of the home. Jewish law requires the elimination of olive-sized or larger quantities of leaven from one’s possession, but most housecleaning goes beyond this. Even the seams of kitchen counters are thoroughly cleaned to remove traces of flour and yeast, however small. Any containers or implements that have touched chametz are stored and not used during Passover. Nowadays, in addition to the biblical prohibition of owning leavened foods for the duration of the holiday, the Passover Seder is one of the most widely observed rituals in Judaism. Pesach is especially nerve wracking actually for some weeks ahead of the holiday. When I tried to describe the preparatory activity to non-Jewish friends, they thought I was talking about spring cleaning. Let me tell you, spring cleaning is not even the half of it. So, the madness begins. Furniture is moved to make sure no crumbs accumulated behind it, providing an opportunity to clean and polish and perhaps paint and wash all surfaces. Carpets are beaten or sent to the cleaners, the noise of vacuum-cleaners creates a great cacophony, and windows are polished only to be dirtied again by the inevitable dust storm or rain. What fun. And then comes the kitchen. For years I had a recurring nightmare around a week or two before the holiday. It was always around the kitchen. The cleaning was not finished, I did not have all the regular dishes pots and pans stashed away, and the Passover dishes were still in boxes. Needless to say, there was no food cooked, and it was getting close to candle lighting time. The guests would be arriving and nothing was yet ready. I was always somehow sitting on the floor, trying to put away some boxes, and get out the Passover ones to start cooking. The soup, the chicken, but what about the Seder plate? I would wake up in a cold sweat. The irony is that in reality my Passover preparation is usually completed almost a week before the Seder night. Even when I was working full time the house was ready and the food cooked a few days ahead of time, and I never failed to have home baked goodies and a variety of traditional as well as invented dishes. Perhaps the nightmare helped to wake me up to action and planning so as never to be caught in such a horrible situation. The nightmares stopped when I woke up to their meaning.
This year it feels like we truly gained our freedom. My husband and I are both long since vaccinated, the pool is open, and I am able to swim again every day. Most stores are open, and I was able to get my hair cut and my nails done. It is going to be a different Seder. It falls this year on a Saturday night, so all the food needs to be cooked and ready by Friday. Normally the traditional search for Chametz is performed on the eve of the holiday, but since this would be Friday night, it has been moved back to Thursday evening. The Talmud in Pesahim (p. 2a) derives from the Torah that the search for chametz must be conducted by the light of a candle and therefore done at night, and although the final destruction of the chametz (usually by burning it in a small bonfire) is done on the next morning, the blessing is made at night because the search is both in preparation for and part of the commandments to remove and destroy all chametz from one’s possession. We have a tradition that I prepare ahead of time 10 small bits of bread wrapped in paper, and hide them all over the house. When the children were small, we used to hide it together, and then have fun “helping” my husband search for and find them. While they were having a Chametz hunt, their friends across the street had an Easter Egg hunt. Each tradition has its own hunt game. This year the difficulty is that we have to make sure that no leaven is found in our possession after we burn the bits of bread we gathered at night. The house is now free of all Chametz, but we need to make a blessing on bread on the evening Shabbat meal and the morning one. A creative solution was arrived at: instead of the traditional Challah we can use egg Matzah. The problem is, go find some egg matzah. I found it after some running around, so now I am able to relax.
Even though we will not be able to have any of our family at our table, we will have guests this year, and one of them actually feels like family. He was at our table 40 year ago when he was in medical school, and many times after that with his wife and children.
I have changed over the kitchen, and covered the counters with aluminum foil as I do every year. I now have a special Pesach cupboard, so no more boxes, and the nightmare is totally gone. My strawberry frozen mousse is ready, and the traditional compote from prunes, dried apricots and apple, is cooked and cooling. This is the perfect antidote to Matzah constipation. I hope all of you will be able to celebrate your special holidays this year with family and friends, and that Covid will already be only a bad dream. In the meantime, you can watch the Pesach story in 2 versions – the whole Haggadah (click the image of the Haggadah on the right), and Passover songs by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.