Life & Culture

From Moses to mayonnaise: my Pesach trauma

Susan Reuben's been Pesach shopping. The prices! The people!


I’m sitting down to write this in a state of trauma. It is Sunday morning, the week before Pesach, and I have just finished my Pesach shop in Golders Green.

I have a deep-rooted aversion to crowds and chaos. I even find kiddush on Shabbat morning a bit much to take. What better decision could I have made, therefore, than to join most of the Jewish community of north London in one small supermarket, in order to give away a substantial proportion of my annual salary in exchange for a trolley-load of sub-standard food (“Special offer: choc ices — only £9.50!”) while being rammed in the back by badly-steered shopping trolleys?

I may need to undertake a course of intensive therapy to help me to get over it.

The one upside of the experience was the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of the other shoppers. As I walked round picking what I needed from the shelves, (a multi-pack of yogurt for the price of a three-week cruise in the Bahamas; a box of juice costing the same as an MA at Harvard), I had to keep stopping to note down the snippets I was overhearing:

“What kind of jam shall we get for Grandma?”

“Now, who can spot the matzah first?”

“Don’t buy mayonnaise. We always get it and we always hate it.”

For some reason, people seem to feel that Pesach shopping as an entire family is the way forward. This leaves quite a lot of scope for disagreement and intense discussion:

“I’ll take five of these boxes.”

“Oh, please don’t take five. Four will do.”

“I’ll take five.”

The husbands appear to bear the brunt of it. They are instructed…

“Cyril! Get another bag of ground almonds — we don’t want to run out”


“Do you want some bars of chocolate for yourself?”


“What about the ones with the cow on? Down there. Go on — treat yourself”

… and corrected…

“Get one pack of crisps.”

“What? For 12 people? We need two. They sit and they stuff.”

To be fair, if I hadn’t kept stopping to make notes, I might have got through my own shop more quickly.

When I was 16 or so, I kept rigidly kosher for Pesach while seeing little joy or meaning in doing so, or even realising there was meant to be any. These days, I make sure I eat no bread, plenty of matzah and a nauseating quantity of eggs, potatoes, and baked goods containing almonds (even though I don’t much like almonds) — but for me, the significance of Pesach is no longer bound up in rigid kashrut.

The Seder, too, is an area whether I’ve decided quality is more important than strict observance. I used to sit down on the second night with a feeling of desperation and disbelief that we were going to start the whole thing all over again. Then, one year, it hit me. I didn’t have to go to the second Seder. It’s surely better, I thought, to look forward to doing it once than to dread doing it twice. Nowadays, I stay at home peacefully with my little one, while the rest of the family go off to spend the evening seeing themselves as though they, personally, came forth from Egypt — yet again.

Seder night is a complex phenomenon. Is there any other event in the Jewish calendar that is expected to be so many things at once?

It is the ultimate family get together, with easily as much potential for broiges as any Christmas dinner. And it is the evening when the absence of those no longer with us is thrown into sharp focus.

We must make sure we welcome those who are not lucky enough to have family nearby to argue with, making room at the table for them to sit and listen to our family arguments instead.

We are required to tell the archetypal story of our people — and in a way that makes sense to the children in the room, but gives depth to the adults’ understanding as well.

At the same time, we must think about the state of the world today and of those who are not free — otherwise, what is the point?

And it has to be all these things, simultaneously, to everyone in the room, according to their particular interpretation of what that actually means. Little wonder that a huge number of people find themselves at a Seder that does not suit their personal vision.

The Seder I go to is a jolly one, with grandparents and numerous children present, lots of singing and general meshugas. It’s a bit too chaotic for my temperament, but in every other way it coincides with the kind of Seder that I actually want. This is purely a matter of good fortune — and grateful I truly am. Chag sameach!

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