Life & Culture

Diary of a semi shiksa: Fifty shades of grain

Zelda Leon is getting ready for Pesach in her usual cross-cultural fashion.


Shopping in Waitrose — my second home — with my son, we spot that the “Seasonal” section is devoted to cleaning products, with serried ranks of trigger-sprays and bottles of bleach before you reach the rather more tempting orgy of chocolate for Easter further along. The Boy asks if it’s for spring cleaning?

“Possibly, but round here it’s more likely to be because it’s Pesach soon.”

“Maybe it’s for both?” he speculates. At school, he is currently absorbed by a project on cross-cultural traditions.

“Maybe…..” Spring cleaning was something people still did when I was a child (just after the late Mesozoic): you turned out your cupboards and wiped down all the shelves. Or rather, it was something other children’s mothers did; our mother regarded cleaning as a bizarre waste of time. Why, she reasoned, would you use up a portion of your allotted span in shelf-wiping or table-polishing when you could be using those precious minutes for drawing (she was an artist), writing, talking, dancing, singing, etc? Luckily, we had a wonderful cleaner, whom we adored as an honorary auntie. Maggie was Irish Catholic, so fully up to speed on the Jewish Holy Trinity of Guilt, Doubt, and Cake; when our parents argued, Maggie would rush us children out to the bakery to choose cakes (my parents would need pastries too, once they had expended their energies shouting).

Ben — The Husband — comes back in from work, looking even more tired than usual.

“David and Rachel are going away for Pesach.” His tone indicates that this is a tragedy of epic proportions. David is Ben’s brother. “And they’re taking the girls too.” Now it sounds as if they are involved in an abduction racket, though “the girls” are in fact their own daughters, aged 17, 19, and 22 and presumably old enough to choose whether to join their parents on holiday or not.

Pesach in my husband’s family, like all Jewish holidays, involves a number of very specific rituals and customs over and above those that are more widely observed. Thus, a crucial part of the Seder is my husband and his brother competing to see who can sing Chad Gadya the fastest and almost coming to blows over who does it better. There must be chicken soup (of course) but with two batches of matzah balls made by two different members of the family (why? It once happened that, due to a breakdown in communication, two relatives both made them – so now, of course, it’s a Tradition. Tradition! Ya-da-da-da-da...) A whole salmon must be served for the main course and whoever has cooked it — my sister-in-law Rachel, her sister Esther, or me — must, as they set it down, say, “I’m sorry — it’s overcooked.” There must be too many serving dishes of vegetables so that they cannot possibly all fit onto the table at once: at any given moment, at least one dish must be in circulation, being passed from hand to hand in an endless loop. Someone must make the obligatory “I-can’t-possibly-lift-this” mime for the inexplicably heavy Polish water carafe. Someone must tell the anecdote about how Greenspans once refused to sell Rachel a boiler chicken because “we have to save them for our regular customers”.

The first year after we married, I thought I should show a bit of wifely enthusiasm and shun bread etc for the duration — not just at home, where we were doing the whole shebang, but no sneaky hot buttered toast at a café while out (toast and I have a very special relationship, which involves regular tête-a-têtes). By the eighth day, I was fantasising almost every waking moment about bread: 50 shades of grain – crusty sourdough, crumpets dripping with melted butter, chewy bagels slathered in cream cheese…

In the evening, when Ben came home from work, I confessed how hard I had found my abstinence. “Oh,” he said casually, “you could have had some yesterday. We only do seven days in Reform. Didn’t you know?”

All our friends either flee screaming for warmer climes so that they don’t have to clean out their cupboards, or will be hosting hordes of relatives so won’t be able to join us. Ben’s biggest fear is that there will just be the three of us eyeing each other mournfully as we dab our wine to represent the plagues and that he’ll have no competition for the Chad Gadya race.

I’m sure we’ll think of something. In the meantime, I’m wondering how to rope The Boy into a spot of pre-Pesach cleaning. Maybe I could encourage him to include a practical element in his cross-cultural project?


Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things…) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue. Zelda Leon is a pseudonym.

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