To boil or not to boil? Which customs shall we use? How stringent do we want to be this year? These are all relevant questions we face as we clean out cabinets and work to gobble up all the chametz (leavened foods) in our house prior to Passover. We’re often on our own to try to find answers since Passover is quite likely the busiest time of the year for Rabbi’s and the answers are complicated in our case, even more than for most conversion candidates.
For most conversion candidates, there is a lot of choice when it comes to Passover traditions as well as what level to observe prior to conversion and your best guidance will come from your sponsoring Rabbi. This can be complicated by the fact that Rabbis are so very busy this time of the year, but you can’t really go too far wrong trying to follow the customs of your community when it comes to cleaning and such. A non-Jew’s dishes and such are already not really kosher, so any kashering you do is mainly for practice and to learn what you’ll want to do when it’s for real. There are varying opinions as to whether or not a conversion candidate should do something like attend a Jew’s seder or eat the afikomen, but generally a local Rav can sort those out for you.
And then there’s us.
My husband’s murky status often means we’re not quite sure exactly to what level we MUST observe and what we should and should not do. Early on, the assumption of most people around us seemed to be that we needed to observe as closely as possible to what we might observe after conversion. So, instead of perhaps trying a Sephardic Pesach to experience what sorting through rice multiple times could be like or slowly easing into the chaos that can be Pesach cleaning, we jumped in with both feet. We also have never really quite gotten an answer when it comes to customs. Unlike a lot of conversion candidates, my husband was raised with some and it seems like we could choose to inherit those of his Mother and Stepfather, who have been spiritual parents to us both as well as actual parents to him. But, when we ask the question of “Should we?” That becomes more complicated.
There’s a lot that conversion candidates practice without being able to fully do. Married conversion candidates practice Taharas Hamispacha without going to the mikvah. We practice kosher, even though nothing a non-Jew can cook by themselves can be kosher and our dishes are inherently un-kosher, not able to be toiveled. It’s not really a state that most Sages expected anyone to be in for long, but in modern times, it’s not unusual to take several years to convert. When we first began, because of my husband’s upbringing in Orthodox day schools and his unusual halakhic status, friends and family assumed our process would have to proceed quickly and advised us accordingly, hoping we’d work to prepare to be fully observant soon.
Our first Passover, this meant dishes and such in storage, bought bit by bit whenever sales came up for that day that seemed like it would happen at any moment. Like most conversion candidates, we knew most of our kitchen stuff would not be able to be saved and would need to be donated or given away after conversion, since it couldn’t be kashered or toiveled. We would often hold off buying anything new. We’d practice kashering our non-kosher utensils just for practice. I’d cook food according to kosher laws that couldn’t be kosher because I’d turned on the oven. For Passover, we followed the Ashkenazic customs of the local community to help simplify things some, but I did practice some non-gebrokts recipes in case we’d take on Chabad customs one day.
Over the years, I relaxed some of this and practiced other parts more thoroughly. As it became more clear that this journey was going to be a long one, I started to think it might be more important to delve more deeply into a specific aspect of observance of holidays than try to do everything “right” but only on a surface level. After all, if we weren’t obligated, then now was the time to make mistakes and learn, not to just try to fake our way through things. As we unpacked the stuff we’d stored away and finally put it to use, I began to settle into living in this space between Jew and non-Jew rather than trying to rush past it. One Passover, this meant really digging into the details of the Seder, preparing for it, looking more at the “why’s” behind the “what’s” and maybe spending less time obsessing over aluminum foil. Another year, this meant really getting into the bedikas chametz even if it meant less time cleaning right before. One Passover, it meant turning the kitchen over completely early and experiencing that. Was that easier or did it make things harder? That year we really got into kashering, nearly killing an oven with a blowtorch in the process. The meals that came out of that kitchen were much simpler to compensate for all that in-depth effort.
This year, I’m finally circling back to those questions of customs and I’m trying out (bli neder) the customs of my in-laws. This means a lot of peeling, not many spices, no gebrokts until the last day, and a whole lot of making things from scratch. I’m looking to see what’s here for us, as I have any time we’ve practiced an aspect of Pesach or observance in general. Does this bring deeper meaning? Is there something hidden in doing this? Does this make the week of Passover more separate, more holy? Is this something I could handle next year or years beyond or something that’s too much for now? As a result of this focus and the fact we got invites for the Seders, I’m turning over the kitchen late this year, on Sunday. That has me a little anxious and I feel that pressure to turn it over a little early (I’m the type that is always worried about time, always afraid of being late or behind). I’m asking questions of that anxiety. What am I afraid of? Do I not trust that whatever needs to be done will get done? Where am I not having faith or not asking my family for help here?
They say practice makes perfect, but I think that the mitzvos are an area where demanding perfection probably misses the point. I think it’s more that perfection is a goal we can never fully reach, yet we become better people by the effort. I think reaching for unattainable goals can teach us a lot about humility and having compassion for others’ shortcomings.
But…I’m still practicing.