November 17, 2018

Nontraditional roles in a traditional home

In our house, a man’s place is in the kitchen.  That’s the way it’s been for all 18 years of our marriage.  I do the cooking, not because I have to, but because I like to. I actually worked as a chef and caterer for years before we met. My wife picks up the domestic slack doing those household chores I don’t enjoy, like everything else.  This is an arrangement that has worked out well from the start of our marriage.

Then came Passover.

My wife is a Conservative rabbi.  I grew up as a secular Jew. At our wedding, where a dozen rabbis occupied a single table, my father took me aside and said, “I thought I told you not to intermarry.”

It was a joke. My parents loved Naomi from the start. And Naomi and I learned, as every couple must, no matter what their faith or traditions, when to accommodate and how to negotiate.

And then came Passover.

My idea of Passover was to gather family and friends, cook a great meal with some of the traditional foods, and run through the haggadah service in order to eat.

Naomi had a different idea.  But I didn’t realize just how different until a few days before what was to be our first seder together. I was out getting last-minute groceries, anxious to get home, unload and start what would be hours of cooking wedged into a busy work week. I walked in to find Naomi in an unusual place: the kitchen. She was stretching humongous sheets of aluminum foil over every cupboard shelf and counter top, turning our kitchen — my kitchen — into the skin of Apollo 13.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Kashering the counters,” she said.

To observant Jews, the weeks before Passover are devoted to a frenzy of cleaning.  The holiday laws have been developed to demand that every precaution is taken to prevent Passover foods from coming in contact with any form of leavening, or chametz.  Naomi had gathered boxes of perfectly good food that she would donate to the homeless because it wasn’t kosher for Passover.  She had remodeled the kitchen in Reynolds Wrap. She had taped most of our kitchen cabinets shut.  Behind them lay about three-quarters of the cooking utensils I had counted on to prepare a feast for 30 guests.  But because we used these all year long, they had come in contact with chametz — they were not kosher for Passover.

Most bizarrely, Naomi had brought an enormous stockpot of water to a rolling boil. I watched like Malinowski among the Trobrianders as my beautiful, sophisticated, modern wife then set about boiling our silverware.

“What does that do?” I asked.

“It kashers them,” she said. I felt like I had gone from Trader Joe’s directly to the set of “Yentl.”

I had lived in Jerusalem for two years, and I’d seen the wading-pool-sized cauldrons set up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where housewives in wigs and long dresses boiled their pots and pans to make them kosher for Passover.  But in my kitchen?  On the Westside?  By a woman wearing Levi’s and a Christo T-shirt?

I was upset.  The whole thing seemed arcane,  excessive, superstitious.  I had a seder, the mother of all dinner parties, to cook for, and my kitchen had been commandeered by the third century. As Naomi dipped and boiled the silverware, I mumbled, in my most passive-aggressive voice, “Ooga booga.  Ooga booga.”

Fortunately, she didn’t take offense.  But she didn’t relent, either.

And I came face to face with one of Judaism’s harshest realities: The laws of Passover come down heaviest on the cook.  If I was going to learn to enjoy this holiday of freedom, I had better learn to do it within what seemed like some pretty severe constraints.