These weeks before Passover are in one coincidental way like the ancient Jews’ exodus from Egypt: everything is done in a hurry. There’s chametz to remove, boxes of dishes to shlep, food to buy, seder guests to invite, etc.
With time at a premium, who has the leisure to prepare for the spiritual purpose of Pesach — removing the chametz from us, imagining ourselves as part of the throng of ex-slaves entering an unknown wilderness? If your meals are ready for yom tov but you’re not, what have you accomplished?
On the eve of Nisan, time still remains to get ourselves in shape for Pesach — and New York City offers an unmatched number of places where we can do it.
Here, based on years as a guest and leader at many seders, is an entirely subjective list of suggestions for getting in the Passover mood before the first cup of wine is poured. Suggestions, not commandments. The Commandments come at Shavuot.
These suggestions are in no particular order. There’s no seder here.
# Speaking of commandments, watch the movie. On TV, on VHS, on DVD, “The Ten Commandments,” now 52 years old, remains a classic. Its special effects were state-of-the-art for its time. Sure, the romance storyline is a drag, and some of the narrative deviates from biblical verité, but the movie is still inspirational and still gets you in the mood for the seder story. A film of more recent vintage, and friendlier for a younger viewership: Dreamworks’ “The Prince of Egypt.”
# Now that you’ve seen the movie, read the book. Exodus, the second of the Five Books of Moses, contains the essential plot of the exodus. A review of Moses in Egypt, Moses in Midian, Moses back in Egypt, Moses in the desert, makes it easier to follow the Haggadah, which presents the facts in a symbolic, non-linear Cliff Notes fashion.
# Think slavery. If biblical and midrashic descriptions of conditions in ancient Egypt seem too distant, more recent sources on slavery are available. Diaries from America’s antebellum past are plentiful. Every year I read a few books about contemporary slavery, particularly memoirs about the horrendous situation in Sudan. Two of the best: Mende Nazer’s “Slave” and Francis Bok’s “Escape from Slavery.” They quickly puts you in the mood — often some Jewish organization or individual plays a key role in the freedom story of an ex-slave from Sudan.
# Brush up on your Hebrew. Is anything more frustrating than losing your place in the Haggadah when everyone else is reading right-to-left, or opting to pass when the leader asks you to read? Remedial Hebrew courses abound in the New York area. Check the ads and listings in this paper. One good bet: the National Jewish Outreach Program (njop.org).
# Spend some time in Brooklyn. The “Magic in Ancient Egypt” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (brooklynmuseum.org) presents a vivid picture of the lifestyle and the beliefs that the Israelites left behind. Everything was idols and gods. The museum’s excellent gift shop has Egyptian-related items that can enrich your seder. The exhibition closes in September.
# Spend more time in Brooklyn. If the Brooklyn Museum depicts life 3,300 years ago, Borough Park and Williamsburg are windows into the intensity of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe, where most of the world’s Jews lived. The haredi neighborhoods are also great places for shopping, for Passover books and kosher-for-Pesach foods.
# In most traditional households, the bulk of the pre-yom tov work — the cleaning and cooking and shopping — is in the women’s hands. Free your own slaves. If you are a husband, child or sibling, pitch in. Better yet, give the women a day — or days — off. You watch the kids while the women go to a movie, for a walk in the park or a long lunch with friends whose husbands and sons also decided to do their share.
# Think like an Egyptian. Do you make nametags for each guest’s setting at your seder? Why not do them in hieroglyphics? Several Web sites can render a name into the distinctive Egyptian language (quizland.com/hiero.htm, upennmuseum.com/hieroglyphsreal.cgi are two.) In case you’re interested, the name at right is Steve.
# Open up the Talmud. Tractate Pesachim is the source for many of our yom tov practices, including some that were discarded long ago. This book of the Gemara offers the reasons for our customs, the rabbinical debates and some colorful Aggadata, or stories. What were the original Four Questions? If your Aramaic is weak, the ArtScroll translation is masterful.
# Get out your tape recorder or video camera. Oral history never goes out of style. If you have elderly relatives or teachers or neighbors, talk to them about their old Passover memories. Ask, if they’re cooperative, about life under Nazism, under Communism, about holiday traditions in foreign cultures, about their favorite recipes. You may get stories for your own seder.
# The Joint Passover Association and many synagogues raise and distribute maot chitin funds to help indigent Jews pay their holiday expenses. Get out your checkbooks. Or get out of the house. Groups like Tomchei Shabbos, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, Project Ezra and DOROT deliver holiday food packages. They always need volunteers.
# Experiment in the kitchen. You make Bubbe’s matzah ball and charoset recipe every year, right? This year add some variety. Find some recipes you’ve never tried before, from another part of the Jewish world. Jewish cookbooks are almost as plentiful as Haggadahs, so finding intriguing new recipes should not be a challenge. “Passover By Design” (ArtScroll) by Susie Fishbein features over 160 kosher-for-Passover recipes, while Jayne Cohen’s “Jewish Holiday Cooking” (Wiley) includes over 100 pages of Passover recipes and information.
# Get baking. In Israel’s religious neighborhoods, many people bake their own shmura matzah to use at their seders. Many institutions here offer that opportunity too – Jewish community centers, Chabad Houses, kosher bakeries. Experienced hands will guide you. Even if your finished product is burnt, you’ll love the way it tastes.
# Think Sukkot. It is common to decorate your Sukkah. Do the same for your seder’s living room. Find some desert scenes for your walls. Hang some agricultural produce — the melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic the Israelites ate in Egypt; the grapes, figs, olives, pomegranates and dates that represented the Promised Land — from your ceiling.
# Make your own wine cup, whether it is for Elijah or Miriam or both. At a local crafts center you can decorate a ceramic cup in any fashion you like, with colors and letters. Once it’s glazed and heated in the kiln, it can last for decades. It’s not expensive and takes only a few hours. Guests will admire your creativity. Maybe Elijah will, too.