Izraelevitz: Passover, Glazed Donuts, And Graduate School
Passover, glazed donuts, and graduate school do not mix well. This is a fact that I encountered, for five consecutive years, when I was a graduate student working on my doctoral degree. Full appreciation of this physical law requires some background, so please bear with me for a paragraph or two.
Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is the Jewish week-long holiday celebrating the Biblical Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. This year it started this past Monday evening. There is a ceremonial dinner, called the Passover Seder, that begins the week of Passover and introduces the observance of the ritual laws surrounding this holiday, central among them a strict prohibition from eating leavened foods.
You may remember the story that the Israelites did not have time to let their dough rise before hitting the highway, and so Jews all around the world clear their homes of any bread for the week. In fact, it is prohibited to even have flour, grain alcohol, etc. and in some traditions even legumes and rice, at home. The only grain product allowable during this week is matzo, a cracker-like, flat unleavened bread especially made not to become light and fluffy regardless of what we do to it. While growing up our family hardly ever went to synagogue, but nevertheless, we were pretty strict about keeping to the Passover laws, and I still remember the vigorous spring-cleaning we were commanded to perform (by Mom, not God) each year during the week before Passover.
Even in college, away from the inspecting eyes of my parents, I “kept Pesach,” and ate my share of matzo sandwiches, matzo and eggs, matzo pizza, and matzo lasagna, the last item exactly as appetizing as it sounds. I still remember the end of Passover during my sophomore year, when my (soon-to-dump-me) girlfriend and I romantically waited for the sun to set over Troy, New York, so we could eat a most delicious (real) pizza.
Graduate school was no different, and here is where the glazed donuts come in. Every Wednesday afternoon, our research group would meet to listen to an invited speaker, and as the universal incentive for graduate students to attend, the group would serve coffee and glazed donuts. On the Wednesday during Passover, I would enter the room aware of the Dunkin Donut boxes opened temptingly with its awaiting danger, but I was resolute not to succumb to the obvious temptation. How can it be that five years in a row, while vigorously arguing with a colleague about some detail about non-linear spectral estimation, I would absentmindedly reach over the conference table and pop into my mouth a glazed donut? There is no worse torture to one’s inner soul than having a glazed donut melt in your mouth, while you know that up in heaven Moses is stroking his beard and shaking his head reprovingly, disappointed once again. Moreover, one cannot enjoy the morsel after having so diligently avoided such things all week, but neither can one run to the bathroom with a donut hanging from your lips. One must swallow the bite resignedly, and kiss another year’s strict “keeping Pesach” goodbye.
But overall, I have to admit, Passover has been very good to me. I met my wife at a Passover seder, and marriage itself has brought with it many advantages relative to the holiday; watching our three boys participate in the seder, whether decorating placemats for the table, reading part of the liturgy, or acting out the story of Passover for our guests. It has also meant a much better menu of Passover meals, someone to share the task of doing all that ritual spring-cleaning, and much, much less reliance on glazed donuts for basic nutrition.
The traditional Jewish life is filled with many, many commandments that at first seem orthogonal to living an ethical life; what to eat or not eat at different times, when to rest, what to wear; rituals that seem obsessive and antiquated, often irrelevant to our modern life. However, I don’t feel that way at all.
By no means do I keep to all the commandments instructed by my tradition. I pick and choose those ones that are relevant to me, and to some observant Jews I may be inconsistent or even hypocritical.
Yet, the ones that I do keep, like my observance of Passover, are very important to me. They are not a burden imposed by tradition or even by my God. To me, they are a reminder of the gift of free will that has been bestowed by our Creator, of our ability and responsibility to make proper choices, both large and small. Passover is, after all, the Holiday of Freedom, and there is no freedom without choices. Even if sometimes we forget about all this choices-and-free-will stuff, and wolf down a glazed donut without thinking.