Thursday, April 21, 2005

How to enjoy a holiday?

Pesach is here, and everyone is wishing each other their distinctive holiday greeting: Gut Yuntiff! Pesach Kasher v'Sameach! Happy Pesach! Chag Sameach!

My particular phrasing usually depends on who I'm saying it to, but whichever greeting I use, I know that really I'm not going to be particularly sincere with my words. It's not that it depresses me at all. I just don't really enjoy Pesach. Actually, I don't really enjoy most chagim. This does actually bother me a bit. I would like to be cheerful and festive, and excited about it all, but I know that my natural impulse is not to feel that way. Additionally, when I try to think about the issue and consider why I should be happy about it all, I just get even more turned off to the whole enterprise.

Why do I not enjoy it? A variety of reasons.

Most people's positive feelings about the holidays probably stem from the pleasant experiences they enjoyed with their families growing up. Unfortunately, I can't draw on any very favorable memories in this regard. Due to certain unusual circumstances, my family was forced to travel away from home every Pesach and Sukkos, usually to a relative, and while the hosts were very nice and there was nothing especially horrible about the time spent there, I couldn't really enjoy it too much. It's not easy for a kid to be a guest by someone. You just can't be yourself. You're always being told by your parents to stop doing all the things that come naturally to you that you'd be allowed to do in your own home. Whether it's run around the house, leave your stuff around, or just behave less than perfectly at the table, your parents are on top of you to behave properly, to make them proud, blah, blah. You can't escape to the sanctuary of your own room. You don't have your familiar friends to play with. You have to eat things you don't like. You can't get upset about things because it will only make your parents look bad and then they'll be upset at you. Every kid probably suffers through this at some time or another. But I had to go through it practically every yom tov, for the entire duration of the chag. Like I said, there was nothing terrible or horrific about it all, but it definitely didn't engender within me positive feelings towards these days.

Putting all that aside (or maybe it's actually interwoven with the above), I really didn't enjoy all the extra religious annoyances that the chag brought with it. What kid wants to have to spend an extra hour or so in shul? I sure didn't. I couldn't stand having to sit and listen to even more than the usual divrei torah prattle. Even worse, I loathed being forced to say my own divrei torah, (which was compulsory at the seder - everyone has to say something), and I especially hated having to do the whole ma nishtana performance in front of loads of people (I was very shy, and by the end of it all would often end up in tears, something everyone else found terribly amusing, which obviously only compounded my pain). Of course, as with all frum families, there was also the pressure-filled weeks leading up the chag when I and my siblings were conscripted into cleaning duty and had our lives made miserable by having Pesach be used as an excuse to do all sorts of ridiculous and unnecessary tasks. (One year we had to go through all the books in the house, page by page, sweeping them out.)

As I got older and I was expected to take my frumkeit more seriously, more and more religious hassles came into the picture on the chagim: Making sure to eat the proper shiurim of matza and wine (I hate wine). Chol Hamoed became a time when I was expected to spend a good part of the day learning instead of taking fun trips. (And of course, when one was allowed to go on a trip, make sure to dress "yontiffdik"! Have you ever gone roller skating in a suit!?) One year my brother insisted that I couldn't go to sleep after the seder. He had some source that one was required to learn about Pesach until he fell asleep in the middle of the learning. Sukkos brought its own unique aggravations. From the stupidity of endless arba minim hunting, to having to be squeezed into a way-too-small sukka, to not being allowed to have a simple snack or drink without having to first go somewhere else, to being forced to sleep in a public sukka, there was more than enough aggravation with that holiday to tick me off too.

Put it all together and it just doesn't add up to much "good times". Yes, there were fun and enjoyable experiences throughout it all, but the overall sentiment was one of dislike.

So, like I said, my natural impulse at this time is not one of joyful excitement.

But I figure that even if I don't have a natural affinity to the chag, I can at least appreciate it on an intellectual level. Examining the religious themes that are emphasized on the chag might let me gain some enjoyment from these days.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work for me either. Partly because I'm sick of the same old formulaic divrei torah that everyone churns out every year (which hardly ever stand up to any serious intellectual scrutiny). Partly because I'm just not so interested in religious stuff anyway. And partly because as a result of my wonderful yeshiva influence, most of the religious themes of the day were somehow transmogrified into a message of "its all about learning Torah." In any case, it's a very rare person who can say that their excitement about the chag really stems from an appreciation of what the holiday is supposed to be celebrating.

As a last resort, I try to look at it from a non-religious perspective. How do irreligious Jews or even non-Jews approach their holidays? From what I know (and admittedly, I haven't gotten too close of a look at these situations) for such people the holiday is mainly about family. Family reunions, family trips, family dinners, etc. Sounds like a nice approach, except that it can't work for me. You see, being that my family is all chareidi, their style of celebrating yom tov is as I described above: extra davening, lots of divrei torah, singing zemiros, discussing how what everyone is doing is all wrong, and other very ritualistic activities. Not an experience that I can enjoy very much. Also, being the ex-chareidi I am, I have to walk on eggshells a lot around my family, always being super careful not to say anything which they would be offended by. (Last chag, I totally screwed things up when I blurted out at one point, "I don't care if I hear kiddush or not!"). I hate being somewhere that I can't just be myself. And not being able to be myself around my family just bothers me even more.

So what am I going to be doing this chag? I'm going to be trying hard to create the most positive holiday experience I can. Which is actually quite difficult, as so many of the traditional holiday experiences and activities have been almost irreparably ruined for me. I'm going to be spending the seder with a family that I really enjoy being with. I'm sure I'll have a great time. I always have a blast when I go to them. But besides my general feeling of enjoying their company, I'm going to try to consciously associate any good times I experience over the next few days with the holiday itself. Maybe, after doing this enough, I'll actually be able to say with genuine sincerity, Chag Kasher v'Sameach.


Anonymous said...

a lot of people don't enjoy chagim, esp pesach, and a lot don't enjoy xmas and thanksgiving either, LOL. Hang in there, and, uh, chag sameach.

debka_notion said...

My Pesakh associations are seeing lots of second cousins (good), and trying to persuade my relatives that saying the first line of kiddush in Hebrew wouldn't actually hurt them, and they knew how already. That sort of thing. I think the idea is to focus on whatever really positive associations that you have, and to push the lousy ones away. Best of luck to you in starting to make the holidays happier occurances for you.

rebelmo said...

Sympathize with your pesach childhood experiences, our sedars were not at all joyous or happy. As a result, 20 years later, I make doubly sure that my kids have fun at the sedar and not dread it with fear and tears.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Pesach and Seder Night immensly as a child. Now I really don't at all. The one thing I do enjoy though is seeing how much my child now enjoys it. I think this is how Judasim works. As soon as you get old enough not to enjoy parts of it, your children come and make you part of it again.

Avrum said...

It's indeed interesting to watch how the Orthodox get offended so easily.

Jack's Shack said...

I found your post to be very interesting. I think that the Chagim can be a challenge for many people.

Anonymous said...

Hag sameah (if you will,) DH! S'darim growing up were a mixed experience for me, OT1H; enjoyed the rhythm & the different foods (love matza) & chance to be a little theatrical & sing the stuff I learned in school. OTOH, being "on" can get old as does droning through every last word ("Dayenu" should be excised from the liturgy.) Growing older, I began to (and still) resent the "religious paranoia" that accompanies the hagim, particularly Pesah, though I sometimes catch myself falling into it, myself. I do not enjoy Shabbat and hagim unless I feel that I can "own" them and do them my way, or at least have a choice of how/where/with whom I observe them.
Ben Sorer Moreh (not logged in)

Anonymous said...


based on my seder experience, I found it quite inpleasant in the following ways:

a) long long wait till it is actually possible to eat.

b) lots of little sense shtikl toires said over the table, where the host likes to talk and doesn't really care about eating ( probably he ate a few hours before, however his guests might not )

c) at the end of the seder everybody is virtually asleep including the host, however they do know how to sleep in a sitting position. I don't.

BrooklynWolf said...

As a child (before I was frum), I used to spend Pesach with an aunt and uncle in Baltimore who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. They (and their children, my cousins) were frum and it was in that warm environment that I had my first exposure to a frum environment. The fact that both my aunt and uncle were a college professors (my uncle being the head of a department at UMBC) and real intellectuals probably saved me from becoming a "brain-dead, mind-numbed" yeshivish zombie when I did become frum.

After that, I've spent sedorim in a number of different settings and have seen many different sedorim and the family settings that they occured in. Sometimes, the family I was with was a model of a happy home, and other times there was endless bickering at the table.

I try to be very careful to make my sedorim as fun as possible for my children. That includes sometimes doing things that they don't expect. For example, in our family, it's the kids that steal the afikomen. This year, however, on the second day, I hid it while I distracted them. (Don't worry, they found it and re-hid it!) When it came time for the Mah Nishtana, I surprised them by reciting it in Spanish. I make sure that my kids read from the Hagaddah for everyone - even if it takes a bit longer, I think that they're involvment is worth missing a few minutes of dinner. We have a lot of fun with the songs at the end of Nirtzah as well, and my kids really look forward to making animal noises during Chad Gadya.

In short, the seder can be as fun or as serious (or as stressful) as you choose to make it. It all depends on which aspect you choose to emphasize. And one need not give up on the observance of the mitzvos in order to have a little fun by the seder.

The Wolf

& said...

I generally enjoy seders and have good memories. However, I'm getting a bit disturbed by how, as the memories build year by year, the text of Maggid gets more and more baffling. I understand leaving out Moses, but is this really the best they could find to put in?

Meyer said...

when we moved into our new house on Long Island the village was hethrogenious and now homegenious. When I would walk home from shul on the seder night, cars were tightly parked on both sides of the narrow roads as almost all the Jews had guests and family members for the seder (dinner). Same thing on Rosh Hashana night. Now it's who has a longer torahthon and who can out-dvar torha uncle Shimon. Which brings to mind these sheva braha shabbosot. How many fucking times can you allude to the sedra of the week! I am sorry but this is not Judasim- happy peseach

GoingGoingGone said...

While I was growing up, despite not being religious, we always had a big seder. We didn't live anywhere near family, so we always invited lots of friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, to our seder. I loved it. Holidays don't have to be about family - you can infuse them with whoever does make you happy :)