Passover Eating: Why is Tonight Different From All Others?

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Passover is one of the many Jewish Holidays that is celebrated with a ritual feast. A feast filled with symbolic foods and a prescribed schedule for when to eat which foods.  Depending upon how observant the participants are, there is a wide range of recipes for the ritual readings at a Passover Seder. Some read from ancient texts, other from more progressive versions. Some are tailored for passionate political discussion, others for children with short attention spans.  Despite the diversity of the Seder itself, there are at least three specific commonalities adhered to by the most liberal and orthodox Jewish celebrants.

There is no leavening used in any of the meals, there are at least four cups of wine, and when it is time to eat, there are no restrictions on how much you can eat.

As a kid growing up, dieting and caloric restrictions were an everyday part of my life. I was surrounded by dieters. The youngest of three girls, my two older sisters always dieted and both of my parents did as well.  The diets never really seemed to work, none of us were thin.  My mother often chortled, “Imagine how fat we would all be if we didn’t diet?”  And of course I believed her and followed suit.

Many young girls that diet wind up becoming sneak eaters and I was no different. Because we are forced to satisfy our hunger and cravings privately, we develop the notion that we are beasts with insatiable appetites.  Our appetite for food is freakish and our need to satiate this hunger is so strong we must adopt furtive methods of feeding that monster.  It is a double bind.  We feel weak in our inability to resist the urges to eat the “bad” food and yet the part of us that is demanding the food is a formidable foe of great strength and power.  We are split and fractured around food.

Passover and other food centric holidays present a double bind for people already struggling with feelings about how and what they eat, how and what they don’t eat and how and what they would like to eat if they were allowed to eat how and what they wanted to eat.


The Double Bind of Feasts as Rituals

The week before The Seder, we obsessed over what to wear. An unsanctioned but equally predictable ritual of Passover was: 

The Body Scan; everyone checking you out to see how you “measured up” to the last time you were all together.  In my family, despite the fact that very few of us were thin, there was still a hierarchy within the ranks that clearly labeled the “Always Thin” relatives as the better ones. The praise and attention was lavished on them. The jealousy dripped like honey.

Then there were the “Always Fats.”  They were already “fats de complis.” They would always be fat and that was that, those poor people.

Newly Thins” were the ones I envied the most.  The attention they received, the fawning, the exclamations of, “How did you do it? You look amazing!” They were the stars of the night. Somehow they had conquered the beast, they had become successful.

Conversely, the lowest caste of the crew was reserved for the “YO YO’s,” those who had lost but gained their weight back plus more. The tsks tsks and cluck clucks of the tongues, the subtle shakes of the heads, the implied message of, “If I had lost that weight I would have kept it off,”… or more blatantly, “I knew she or he couldn’t do it.” They were the ones my heart ached for and the club I dreaded ever joining. (Of course I was in and out of that club numerous times until I realized that it was the dieting that was creating the largest part of my problem).

So I would go to Seders ready for my “close ups Mr. De Mille,” and often encased in tight body control panty hose literally binding my belly. But the second bind of the double bind was not far away.  After the reading of the ritual story of Passover, the feast would commence. Places everyone!  But wait!  It was as if they had replaced the cast with all new people and all new scripts.

All of a sudden size or weight was inconsequential.  There was a resounding chorus of, “Eat eat!” And, “Have more, what you don’t like my matzo balls?  This is no time to diet, this is Passover, forget about it for just one night, you look fine!”  And for the next couple of hours I felt normal. I felt happy. I felt I could eat with abandon and enjoyment. I could savor the pleasure of food, slowly, languidly and not worry whether I was leaving crumbs behind like a guilty Gretel who subconsciously wanted to get caught eating Ring Dings in her bedroom.

I didn’t feel insatiable, or monstrous.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Because on this night I’m allowed to eat my fill in public, without guilt, with enjoyment and with self-acceptance.