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Passover Perfect

More than any other Jewish holiday, Passover can turn mothers into obsessive control freaks. But if we’re to have a meaningful holiday, we have to resist the madness.

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A few days ago, Maxine came home from Hebrew school, her face a dark cloud. I found out later she’d spent much of the class sobbing, her face in her hands. Her class had been making matzoh plates from popsicle sticks, Elmer’s glue, and plastic gems. Maxie’s got some motor and sensory issues, and she couldn’t arrange or glue the popsicle sticks properly. She knew what she was supposed to do, and she wanted to do it, but she just couldn’t. Her teacher made her bring home her work, wrapped in aluminum foil, but Maxie wouldn’t let me open the package. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she told me. “I don’t want to look at it. Hide it.”

After she went to bed, I opened the package. I’d seen her friend Rachel’s plate at pickup, so I knew what she was supposed to be making. But instead of a plate, Maxie’s foil package held a jumble of gluey interlaced sticks. It looked like a teepee that had been hit by a tornado.

Maxie is generally the most resilient, least perfectionist member of our family. She’s inherently sunny, a people-pleaser, a kid who compensates for her physical difficulties with tons of goofy humor and sweetness. She loves going to occupational therapy, and she’s eager to keep trying when she has challenges. But this time she was stymied. There was a right answer, one proper way to do the project. She saw herself as a failure. And she was inconsolable.

I couldn’t help seeing a parallel. Passover turns a lot of us into tightly wound loons. There are so many rules, and you can wind up becoming a Jewish Alice, tumbling down a rabbit hole of increasingly twisted and exacting standards. Is the house really as clean as it could be? Is that cheddar cheese really kosher for Passover, or does it have a different designation from last year? Do we do peanuts, which, as Leah Koenig points out, are not actually kitniyot (a category of foodstuffs which Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden from eating on Passover) because they’re a New World food our ancients wouldn’t have known about, but no one will actually certify them kosher for Passover because of tradition? Can we (gasp) buy the freakin’ quinoa? And do I have to unscrew the telephone receiver and clean inside it? Shampoo the furniture? Cover up the artwork in the kitchen with a picture of bread in it? How arcane can we get? As a commenter on Leah’s piece said, “We need a frumkeit Olympics.”

I’m not Queen Machmir (a strict constructionist), but I do get very worked up about the Seder. Since my dad’s death, I’ve led it, and I try to add new songs, poems, and activities every year. I try to incorporate wisdom from my mom, a professor of Jewish education, about making it interactive and engaging for kids. I try to anticipate the children’s questions, even the ones they don’t know to ask. I try to prepare for guests of varying levels of Jewish ritual cluefulness, so everyone will feel welcome. And every Passover at some point I freak out and growl at everybody like Dick Cheney.

So, I was very taken with rabbi Joanna Samuels’ essay in the Forward a few days ago, sharing her own shpilkes. “I am sure there are two or three families out there who spend hours having rich discussions,” she writes ruefully, “who strike their own right balance of ritual and spontaneity, where there is not a bit of family tension about who is serving and clearing, and where the evening ends with singing all of the songs. That would constitute the Seder shel ma’alah–the heavenly Seder. But what most of us attend is the Seder shel matah—the (decidedly) earthly Seder. Among the features of this Seder are eye-rolling teenagers, exhausted children up way past their bedtimes, relatives whose religious observance or lack of religious observance is a source of tension to other family members.”

She confesses that even though every year she wants to focus less on cooking and cleaning and more on “undertaking projects that result in real freedom for real people,” every year she falls short of that mark. Been there, thought that. The Seder shel ma’alah is the Platonic ideal of a Seder: No child throws an afikomen-related tantrum, everyone engages in the host’s carefully thought-out freedom-and-slavery-related discussions, no one spills Cabernet on the Marimekko tablecloth. Since humans can never actually achieve a Platonic ideal, we have to live with imperfection all the time. And, as Neil Farber at the Medical College of Wisconsin points out, this can be hard. When we compare the real to the ideal we wind up unhappy, because, Farber says,“One, we are being mindless; not focusing or being actively aware of or appreciating the present. Two, We are never going to be as happy with what we have when we compare it to some mental idea of what is perfect.”

Chasing perfection—as Tal Ben-Shahar of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya writes in The Pursuit of Perfect—only leads to unhappiness. Ben-Shahar makes a distinction between what he calls perfectionists and optimalists. Both have high standards, but perfectionists think the perfect is reasonable, and immediately seek someone to blame when (surprise!) it remains elusive. Optimalists, on the other hand, live in the real world. They appreciate that limited success is still success. And when things don’t work out, well, they can sit with their own discomfort rather than immediately trying to assess blame. To an optimalist, failure is part of a learning process; the journey is as valuable as the destination.

It’s a similar idea to Samuels’ reflections on the chasm between shel ma’alah and shel matah, the ideal and the real. “My apartment,” Samuels writes, “will be a work in progress; our Seder there will be a blessing by virtue of everyone being around the table. I will breathe. I will take it all in. And hopefully, I can use some of the energy getting more serious about freedom—to try to see myself, in some limited way, as an agent of change in the world, casting my awareness and my resources on those whose needs for freedom remain unmet.” Amen.

Last night I had Maxie make the cover for our haggadah supplement. I worried she wouldn’t want to after her unsuccessful ritual art experience, so I told her to draw whatever she wanted. She made “a girl in a headband with a rose on it standing next to the Red Sea praying.” Very cute. Then I asked her to write “Our Seder, 2011” on it. Perhaps anxious about her unsteady writing messing up her picture, she refused. I let it go. Drawing the picture was enough—dayenu. We know what year it is and whose Seder it is. That’s optimal.

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Jennifer Mizrahi says:

Are your kids bad days and imperfections really for website consumtion? Don’t they deserve the privacy of growing up without such scrutiny? Why should I, a total stranger, know that your child goes to OT? Do you want all your child’s friends to know that your child goes to OT? True, there should be no stigma to such a thing, but the fact is that there is one. Shouldn’t it be up to your child when they are older to decide who knows what about their private concerns?

In this world where everything goes on the web, we still need boundaries for privacy and respect.

Jennifer Gruenhagen says:

Thank you much for the thoughtful and lovely article. I cannot imagine that your daughter could ever be offend by the article. OT is part of her life now, as it is for many children. And there is nothing wrong with that. Your article conveys your acceptance of your daughter. What could be more appropriate for a family life/parenting editorial?

The surest way to make a child ashamed of something is to hide it under a rock, or keep it as a shameful secret. There’s nothing wrong with OT. Albert Einstein was famously a mediocre (at best) student. Mark Zuckerberg was a college drop-out (as was Paul Allen, co-founded of Microsoft). Marjorie – I started reading your column with a lump in my throat, but the way you handled it made me – in point of fact – relax. OK, enough of that relaxing business, I have a seder to finish cooking!

Katie says:

I love the distinction between perfectionists and optimalists. As parents, I think we have a responsibility to teach failure as part of the learning process; I keep reminding my perfectionist son (wonder where he got it from!?) that mistakes are a chance to learn. But I know my response to my own mistakes reveals the truth of how judgmental I feel when things don’t go according to my detailed idealized vision. I will keep at it. Thank you for this beautiful, heart-felt piece of writing. I wish you a perfectly real Passover.

Wendy says:

Kol Ha’kavod Marjorie. Your column is always a wonderful read. Your experiences with your kids remind me that my work as a full time mom (to 2 girls, years ago) is still my best product to date! Keep up the great job both writing and mom-ing.

As you sit down tonight with family and friends may you be blessed with finding the balance between crazy and calm that this holiday screams for.

Naomi says:

This is JUST what I needed to read today. It is hard not to get caught up in getting caught up in wondering if the food is perfect and instead focusing on the meaning of the holiday. Not to mention making a kosher for Passover birthday cake for my youngest who turns 11 tomorrow. By the way, he goes to OT–no big deal!

TYVM for a GREAT article !! after reading this, I believe Passover should be ABOUT BEING THANKFUL FOR 1) FREEDOM 2) FAMILY 3) FRIENDS 4)FOOD, in that order of IMPORTANCE !! HAPPY PASSOVER EVERYONE !!!

Thank you….and chag sameach!

Binah says:

I needed this – thank you.

cindi says:

@Jennifer, I am thinking that maybe you were not a regular reader of Marjorie’s columns when she wrote for the Weekly Forward. We have followed the lives of both of Marjorie’s daughters since they were born! We’ve shared the fun and the challenges, and the self-questioning that all parents have at various points. We’ve felt the sorrow when Marjorie’s father (OBM) passed away. The key to the beauty of Marjorie’s columns is that we can all relate. How many times have we tried a project or recipe and felt frustrated that it did not look like the picture?
And my son was also in OT for small motor skills – he later became a state level tennis champion and is a rising senior at the University of Michigan. No biggie.

Chag Sameach to all.

I enjoyed your post as I’m currently celebrating pulling off a seder of any kind, low expectations make it more fun for me ;) I like your call to relaxation.

I didn’t enjoy the first comment by Jennifer Mizrahi. It seems everyone thinks they have a right, a duty, to comment on others’ parenting. There’s a difference between the 99.9% of parenting that’s within an allowable-but-different-than-my-approach spectrum, and the 0.1% (abuse, neglect) that require comment / intervention, but we seem to treat them both the same.

Margaret says:

What a lovely and thoughtful article. I too resent the comment by Jennifer Mizrahi. What a hostile and judgmental perspective she has. There is no stigma to getting a child the help she needs to navigate the world around her.

Cindi, your comment brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for reading me for so long, and for mentioning my dad — I miss him very much at Passover.

And your son sounds fab.

Believe it or not, I don’t share everything about my kids, especially now that they’re older. What I choose to share I share with their blessing. I am not at all ashamed of Maxie getting OT — I’m proud of her! As she is of herself, and rightly so.

Why should I, a total stranger, know that your mother is a professor of jewish education? Do you want all your mother’s friends to know that she is a professor of Jewish education? True, there should be no stigma to such a thing, but the fact is that there is one. Shouldn’t it be up to your mother to decide who knows what about her private concerns?

I see what you did there, homeshuling.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels says:

Marjorie, thanks for the shout-out and so glad you liked the article. I mean, given that I wrote you a FAN LETTER when you wrote for Sassy, I am beyond honored! Hope Pesach was good.

Helene (Lewis) Goldstein says:

Hey there, Margie,
Hope this won’t embarass you, but do you remember me, your sitter from, oh, say, 35 years ago? How crazy is that? You and your brother were definitely the best kids to watch, and a lot of fun to hang out with!
I loved your article, and can totally relate on many levels, from kids’ OT to Passover Perfection to missing one’s dad. I’ll definitely be looking for more of your writing.

HELENE! My favorite babysitter!!!! Email me!!

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Perfect timing for this post! I lead our Sedarim, too, so I feel it’s my responsibility to keep everyone engaged, especially as our growing family becomes more diverse. One help this year – I created a guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder.” Only yesterday did I realize the shopping list in it will help me! So, for this year, we’re planning a reenactment. Brilliant input from Bible Belt Balabusta about costumes: put everything in a pile — and let everyone choose what he/she wants to be! I’m a planner (had already been assigning roles) and that solution had not even occurred to me. Along with so many other Moms, I need to relax :)


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Passover Perfect

More than any other Jewish holiday, Passover can turn mothers into obsessive control freaks. But if we’re to have a meaningful holiday, we have to resist the madness.

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