Relentless cook ponders freedom amid Passover chores

Why is this night different from all other nights?

This night is different because I, a person who equates working in the kitchen with working on a chain gang, cook most of the multi-course Passover meal. Single-handedly and from scratch, I might add.

I know that Passover is not the Jewish holiday for making amends to those we have harmed or offended. But I consider it my opportunity to compensate my family for all the fast food, frozen food and bowls of Cheerios that have constituted dinner over the past year.

Cereal, as well as pancakes and eggs, are supper staples, causing my 16-year-old son, Zack, to consistently and vehemently complain, "Mom, we're the only family in America that eats breakfast for dinner."

But Passover encompasses far more than one day. In fact, weeks earlier, I embark on the five stages of Passover preparation: denial, procrastination, resignation, recipe-hunting and relentless list-making. Then I begin the actual work of scrubbing, sorting, shopping and trying to remember if mustard seed is kosher for Pesach.

This annual process invariably leads me to a question of my own: How can this labor-intensive and rule-ridden holiday of Passover celebrate freedom? The concept is oxymoronic, if not perverse.

Perhaps it was some Midrash-era Freud, in the first known application of experiential transgenerational psychology, who commanded that we all regard ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt.

Me? I'd rather experience the real thing, risking the wrath of Pharaoh's soldiers and wandering in the wilderness, in return for the convenience of having manna delivered six days a week — on time, at no charge — for the next 40 years.

After all, the Bible (Numbers 11:9) describes the taste of manna as "the taste of a cake baked with oil." That beats any bowl of Cheerios any day of the week.

And if you think Moses had difficulty trying to control 603,550 whining Israelite men — and that's not counting the women and children — try preparing a seder that conforms to the various culinary persuasions and health concerns of my extended family.

I admit that I have my own vegetarian agenda, which I have been quietly foisting upon my family over the years.

The vegetarian matzah ball soup was the first to appear. More amazing than the parting of the Red Sea, this soup magically transforms the world's ugliest vegetables, with celery root pre-eminent among them, into a delicious and universally liked soup that truly "tastes like chicken."

A roasted beet has replaced the shank bone — but not without controversy.

"Yuck," says Danny, 8.

"What is that?" asks Jeremy, 10.

"We are not required to eat meat at Passover," I explain. "The shank bone is merely a symbol, commemorating the paschal lamb." And I can back that statement up. According to Rabbi Huna in the Babylonian Talmud's Tractate Pesachim 111b, a broiled beet can be substituted under halachah, or Jewish law.

Last year, in an attempt to transform the seder into a dairy-and-fish extravaganza, I barely escaped an insurrection when I suggested we pass on Grandma Norma's brisket.

"Mom, I thought you weren't evangelical."

"But we always have brisket."

"I'm calling Grandma."

So the brisket has been reinstated — indefinitely.

Also reinstated, in a continuous loop playing in my head, is Janis Joplin.

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," I find myself singing. Because after I've lost my chametz, stamina and sanity, as I do every Passover, what's left?

But the truth, and maybe this is the underlying lesson of Passover, is that we're blessed to have so much to complain about: From the crowds at our overstocked grocery stores to the mess in our overstocked cupboards. From the choices of haggadot — including environmental, egalitarian and even interactive online — to the numbers of model seders we attend at our children's day and religious schools. From the millions of verses of "Chad Gadya" to the millions of matzah crumbs we sweep off the floor.

The other truth is that most of us can't possibly comprehend the true horrors of slavery. I constantly carp that my freedom ends when afternoon carpool begins. Danny complains that he always has things to do: schoolwork, setting the table and taking out the garbage. Gabe, the 12-year-old philosopher, adds, "No matter what, you'll never be completely free."

But our complaints are pitiful in light of the indignities and difficulties that the Israelites endured — or the atrocities that the European Jews experienced in World War II or the discrimination that the Russian Jews suffered under any of their anti-Semitic governments.

The Bible commands us no less than four times to tell the story of Passover to our children. To put ourselves in the Israelites' sandals, no matter how unrealistic or uncomfortable. To put ourselves in the shoes of oppressed Jews through the millennia. To remember our collective history, hostilities and victories.

The Exodus from Egypt, the escape from more than 400 years of slavery under Pharaoh, marks an event no less monumental than the birth of the Jewish nation. Perhaps this is why Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday worldwide.

But with freedom comes responsibilities, regulations and restrictions.

With freedom also comes the opportunity to practice our religion without repercussions or reprisals. To moan meaninglessly about all our chores. And, even, to replace the shank bone with a roasted beet.