Eighteen Minutes (A Passover Story)

Making your own unleavened bread for Pesach forces you to really pay attention to time. Alex sets out the bowls of flour and broth, the dried fruits and nuts for his pan de semita, an unleavened Passover bread eaten by Jewish families in Mexico for centuries, and checks the time. He carefully organizes the ingredients so that he can reach them, because as soon as he mixes the flour and water, the countdown begins. One extra second means the whole lot of dough is rendered chameitz: unfit for consumption during Passover.

Perhaps that’s what this holiday is about: as we reflect on the story of the Exodus from Egypt, whether through retellings of the tale that recall literal slavery in a foreign land or through an interpretation that calls to mind slaveries both real and metaphorical, time is a central consideration. The Hebrews acted quickly. They made bread in haste, they set out for a destination they had never known, they traveled to the edge of a sea they had never seen without stopping to consider if their path even had a destination at all.

Today while my husband rolled out the pan de semita that adorns our table every Pesach, we talked about our own fascination with time-bound laws. Setting the timer for the halachicly-permitted 18 minutes between the time the flour meets water until it must enter the heated oven is stressful, he said, “but then you realize 18 minutes is a lot.”

As Jews in Jerusalem (and next year in New York City) we have it pretty easy as far as our Passover restrictions are concerned. Sure, we make our traditional Mexican Passover bread that Alex kneads by hand and mixes carefully until the last minute that Jewish law permits, but we also can walk to restaurants with Kosher for Passover options, find storefronts with treats made especially with our seasonal dietary restrictions in mind, and even visit neighbors whose homes are free of chameitz and brimming with food options should we need a meal.

But is 18 minutes really that much time? This year in Jerusalem, Alex and I have had to make our way with only two thirds of the money around which we formed our year’s budget. Without going into specifics, after rent and utilities, we have lived off of a little more than $100 a month for food. To put that into perspective, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, what used to be known as “food stamps,” sets the minimum food cost for two adults in the United States at $357 a month. Even this is low, as it reflects just what the government pitches in as “assistance” to your food budget, meaning that the typical American food allowance is a bit higher than $200 per person in a country where food prices are among the lowest in the world. We are living on a quarter of that (in Jerusalem no less!) and we have done so masterfully this year.

However proud I am of our kitchen creativity and thrifty ways, I have not been able to shake an awful feeling of anxiety this year. I didn’t know where it was coming from until one night when I was stressed out about having to throw out a tupperware of soup that had gone bad.

“We just don’t have the money to waste food!” I said through tears.

I realized that every day I spend at least three hours planning, preparing, or cooking meals for the two of us. Three hours. That does not take into account the daily worry about if I am saving enough here and there for the end of the month, let alone money for emergencies if (G-d forbid) something should go wrong. No matter where I am, I shop out of the corner of my eye for the best price on staples like eggs, flour, vegetable oil, and salt—things that I completely took for granted when prices were better in Texas.

When you’re mixing dough for 18 minutes before popping it into a hot oven, you feel each agonizing second in the tensing muscles of your arms. When you’re running across a desert to a sea that may or may not be the end of the line for your entire nation, you feel each agonizing second from the sun against your neck and the fatigue in your legs.

The Hebrews did not have three hours in their day to plan delicious meals on a budget. They couldn’t afford to go to bed late to make sure that their privileged, food-blogger tastes were satisfied through alchemy with beans and grains in the kitchen.  They couldn’t spend hours each week walking to shops and markets to get the best prices on chick peas and pita. Preparing for Pesach reminds me that pieces of what I have relied on this year have to be removed from my kitchen for just over a week. The barley, pita, oats, and pasta that we have used to fortify our meals are being wiped out for the sake of remembering our historical narrative. While we are certainly not going to go hungry, we have had to keep our budget in mind and plan ahead for the days to come while living in a country where our options for additional income are limited at best.

Next year in New York I will have steady employment in addition to my student loans. So will Alex. We will still cook frugally and maintain our thrifty lifestyle, but we will not have to spend as much time preparing each meal. This Pesach I reflect on just what exactly time means to me. This year in particular, time has meant survival. How appropriate as we begin to set our tables for the retelling of our ancestors’ survival in days past.

May your Passover be full of family and blessing, and may we hope for a future when 18 minutes really does seem like a lot of time, no matter our circumstances.

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