In one of my earliest childhood memories, my family and I have just returned from a summer in the country.
It was common then for Jewish families to escape the urban heat of New York City by going to so-called bungalow colonies – clusters of fairly basic cabins located amid farms and lakes, several hours north of the city in the Catskill Mountains. The men would spend the workweek alone in the city and join their wives and children each weekend.
I had just turned three and I remember staring at the floor of the foyer of our apartment building, mesmerized by the oddness of the pattern that had been part of my daily experience until two months earlier. I was struck by the strangeness of home, which felt uncannily familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
This memory vignette surfaces each year as Pesach comes to an end and my kitchen, cabinets and food supplies return to normal. Like many Jewish families, our food spaces change for Passover. Some families have an elaborate practice of “turning over” their kitchen for the holiday: scouring, covering, heating and otherwise making surfaces ritually acceptable; switching dishes and cookware; and introducing new foodstuffs. Some families simply dispense with bread in favour of matzah. Other families close up their kitchen and use a second one – a Pesach kitchen, constructed for using just one week of the year.
Much has been written about this process of making one’s home ready for Pesach, including how-to manuals, as well as mystical, ethical and homiletic interpretations of the process. Yet no one writes about the return to the ordinary. Understandably so – just as folks share their vacation plans and travel photos, but no one shares the details of unpacking and doing laundry, or photographs the settling back into their routines.
But the post-Pesach turning back of the kitchen always grabs me. Tucking away the stuff we trot out only for a week, removing special foods from rotation, we put things back in their usual state and take pleasure in the normal. But the normal feels a bit off – not odd enough to disturb, but odd enough to notice. It’s like coming home from the bungalow colony when I was three – or returning in adulthood after a sabbatical or extended research trip in a different city. Things are the same, but somehow different.
The turning over and turning back associated with the spring festival defamiliarizes familiar spaces. It is as though we’ve arrived at a place that is both exotic and intimately known. Fleetingly, we become mindful. If traditional sources see symbolic meaning in the hunt for leavened crumbs, I suggest we also metaphorize this resumption of the normal. We’ve come home, but we see it afresh. We notice. Our senses awaken: the gleam of porcelain, the roughness of pottery, the aroma of yeast, the crustiness of fresh bread. The heightened awareness reminds us to notice the fabric of what constitutes our everyday – the people we love, the careers we craft, the communities we build – and to experience the privilege and wonder of sheer being.
Of course, that intensity of feeling can’t be sustained. Soon enough, our surroundings fade back into their everydayness and we just go about our business. Dishes are dishes, food is food, home is home. But the memory of that brief, uncanny moment of transition can sustain us through the ordinary.
Ashkenazim ignore those fraught moments of unravelling the holiday, but Sephardim build it into ritual. Raised in an Ashkenazic family, I did not grow up with the Sephardic custom of Mimouna, an elaborate celebration that marks the return to leavened foods. But it strikes me as being intuitively in touch with the specialness of the transition back. Just as our festivals anchor our collective memory of revelation and miracle, our return to routine celebrates the miraculousness of the quotidian.