We may have only just enjoyed Purim but the tyranny that is Pesach already looms over the minds, muscles - and budgets - of observant women. As it is written in Exodus, "there shall be no leaven found in your houses; for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel."
The eradication of that darned leaven has begun, in every corner of the house, the garage, outhouses and cars. This soul-destroying substance can apparently find its way into our medication, washing-up liquid, milk and paper plates. Yes, there are "kosher for Pesach" paper plates, stamped with a hechsher.
We were slaves in Egypt and Pesach is supposed to celebrate our freedom. Yet its rigours serve to enslave women.
But not me! I have cast off the shackles and recall my Orthodox childhood without regret, and only a smidgen of guilt. In our home, the strictures of Pesach complemented our father's disciplinary armoury. To make the task more "challenging", the Pesach dishes were stored in the far corner of the cellar. Dad would stand at the top barking orders as we negotiated the uneven stairs carrying the newspaper-wrapped pots, pans and paraphernalia. Our mother's soul must be resting serene as she, commanding her offspring in gentler fashion, would then scrub, scrape and wheedle all the suspect chametz from every corner and object in the house.
Father's next - and only - role in the preparations was to perform the ritual search for chametz the night before Pesach, when we would trot obediently behind him as he "searched" with the prescribed candle and feather for the pre-planted nugget of chametz.
Dad had to prepare for his big number - as Seder master
Burning the oven kosher-clean, koshering glassware, covering all kitchen surfaces and, of course, the massive cook-in, were all Mum's territory. For Dad had to prepare for his next big number… presiding at the Seder.
The shulchan aruch stipulates the Master should "lean to the left" (women are exempt; presumably they're too busy serving). But I can't find any reference to the top hat, armchair and vast number of pillows our father favoured because, he explained (no sources given), the Master of the Seder was King.
Nor can I find a source for his next ritual: the inspection of children's necks. (A speck of chametz could be lurking behind an ear). Necks and ears never passed the test and Seder was always delayed while each in turn was commanded to wash and then be re-inspected.
Ma Nishtanah was a fearful hurdle for the youngest, with forceful patriarchal "corrections" at each hesitation; the fun of finding the Afikomen was always obliterated by the disappointment of never being granted the traditional wish. My sister, now a grandma, still recalls her colouring book "prize" when her dearest - modest - wish was permission to attend B'nei Akiva camp.
The songs brought release. Having been captive for all those hours, enjoined to enunciate every word of the Haggadah - even those boring bits that Dad led in a racing mumble -we let rip, drunk, we pretended, on Palwin. We belted out Ki Lo No'eh and Chad Gadya with a joy bordering on hysteria
Yes, I know things are different nowadays and not every father is a Pesach Control Freak. Women I've spoken to find ways of alleviating the stress, particularly the financial kind. One buys her children's festive clothes at the previous year's sale and, as we spoke, was about to dash off to Tesco's for BOGOF matzah. (To be carried in a "pesachdik" bag and, of course, stored in a chametz-cleansed cupboard). Her husband ("very black… black hat, black coat, black beard" she says proudly) takes the kids to the park while she cleans and insists she has two hours' sleep before the Seder. Pesach cleaning began weeks ago, "My husband said all the other wives had started, so I wanted to be a good wife." And she will be constantly re-cleaning "in case the youngest has smuggled a pretzel behind the couch".
Now, my Pesach is truly a festival of freedom. Belonging to a wonderful Reform community, I have been liberated into a world where the emphasis is on the spiritual and the gathering of men and women in unity.
Women who survive the pre-Pesach traumas invariably claim to feel wonderful once Pesach arrives. Just like a prisoner released from his chains.When Moses pleaded "Let My People Go", perhaps he should have added "…especially the women".