I am married to a wonderful woman. We decided to keep kosher in and out of the house.
This Passover we are invited to her parents' house. Their standards of kosher are much more lax than ours. During the year we can manage, but on Passover there are so many more issues. Keeping the peace (and keeping my marriage) is very important to me, but so is keeping kosher and keeping Passover. What do I do?
It's not just you. In our age of lifestyle hyper-mobility, kosher wars are raging in many families. Kids go off to yeshiva and return home for Passover to drive their mother nuts. Husbands become holy rollers making demands for higher standards in the kitchen in which they never lift a finger. Yet other wives turn their kitchens into high security chametz free zones—and their husbands are the menacing mice. Some mothers have determined that dust is chametz—and their children are the Passover sacrifice. The list goes on.
Passover is a festival for goodness sakes! Festival=time to bring families together in harmony, love and goodtime fun. What's desperately needed here is some education, sensible priorities and common sense.
So let me tell you a story of the holy rabbi of Opatow, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel. Before Passover, he was careful to bake his own matzahs. He harvested the wheat on a dry, breezy day at the beginning of the harvest. He supervised the threshing, winnowing...all the way to the grinding of the flour, which he guarded from moisture in his own home. He drew the water himself from a spring the evening before baking his matzah. And then, on the afternoon before the seder, he personally supervised the baking of his matzah. At every step along the way, he and all involved pronounced the words, "For the sake of the mitzvah of matzah!" so that these matzahs were baked specifically for the seder night.
Then he brought the matzah home and left it in a brown paper wrapping high above a bookshelf. Then, he went to wash and immerse in the mikvah.
Now, in every Jewish town in those days there were people appointed to take care of the needs of the poor of the town. On the eve of Passover, they would come to each house to collect matzahs for the poor. And so they came to the house of the rabbi while he was away and his wife, the rebbetzin, was engaged in the preparations for the seder.
"Mommy!" the children called, "The men are here for the matzahs!"
"I'm busy! Just give them the matzahs I left at the door!" she shouted back.
And so the children, not finding any matzahs at the door, but also not wanting to disturb their mother, grabbed the brown package from on top of the bookshelf and gave that to the matzah collectors. That was probably what their mother meant, right?
It was only after the men had long left that the mother discovered she had not left the matzahs at the door, and, after careful interrogation, realized what had occurred. Blood rushed to her face, her hands trembled. That the precious matzah was gone was one tragedy—at least someone else would get to eat those. That her husband should be angry with her or with the children at the entry of the festival, that she could not bear. Quickly, she took the regular matzahs, wrapped them in a similar brown paper wrapping, and placed them carefully in precisely the spot where the rabbi's precious matzahs had once stood.
And so, the seder nights and the festival of Passover went by with joy, with celebration and with domestic harmony. It was only after the eight days of Passover had past that a young couple came to the house to ask the rabbi to resolve their dispute.
"This wife of mine," the young man raged, stabbing his finger downward towards an equally enraged little woman, "cooked in pots that had been used for matzah balls!"
"Hmmm, I see," noted the rabbi. "And that's not a good thing?"
"Rabbi, the matzah balls! The rabbi himself has taught us that our matzah is baked so fast, there is often still unmixed flour upon it. That flour goes into the pot in the form of matzah balls and there's a chance it could become CHAMETZ! Then the whole pot becomes CHAMETZ!! I told this woman that I'm a scholar and a pious Jew and I don't take such risks. And she cooked in those pots nevertheless!"
"And now?" asked the rabbi.
"And now," the man shouted, "I want a divorce!"
"Hmmm, I see," noted the rabbi. And then he gently called for the rebbetzin.
"Dear," he said, "could you please tell the young man what happened with my matzah this Passover?"
Once again, the blood flushed back into the rebbetzin's face. Yet her husbands gentle tone of voice and kind eyes encouraged her. She told the entire story.
"So," the rabbi turned to the young man, "if I could make my seder without my own precious matzahs, and keep my mouth tightly shut for the sake of my own marital harmony, I believe it's okay for you to do the same for yours."
Now, to your situation. It sounds like you have your priorities right. A harmonious marriage is a primary value, as Maimonides writes, "The Torah was given only to make peace in the world." Yet from that statement itself, it is clear that peace cannot come by breaking the Torah. If Torah is the source of all peace, how can peace come from going against the Torah, G‑d forbid?
The unfortunate fact, however, is that Passover presents a huge strain to many marriages. Not so much due to keeping the halacha, but due to all the extra stringencies that people take upon themselves, beyond that which they are ready for. We call it a hiddur mitzvah—meaning that the mitzvah is made yet more beautiful. But it's only beautiful if it is peaceful as well.
That was all a preface of things you probably already knew, but just to put us both on the same page. That out of the way, here are some simple things you can do unobtrusively and quietly:
As you tell your in-laws all the laws of Passover of which their parents never told them, you may notice the kind smile drawn over their lips, as they think, "Where can we find a therapist for this guy?" They may even label you ultra-orthodox, heaven forbid. If, however, they read these rules from a book with an attractive cover and a real publisher, they will be ready to accept almost anything. There are some nice offerings online with real gift appeal. Some books could even make you look lenient.
Talking about books, you too should learn the rules of Passover well, so that you will know what is halacha and what goes beyond halacha. It's no big deal to know what's forbidden, you also need to know what is permitted. There is plenty of good reading material, but you should also attend a class and ask plenty of questions.
Get the phone number of a rabbi who will be available to answer your questions on Passover. This is something everyone should have, all year round. In your situation, it could be a lifesaver—or a marriage-saver. Don't rely on us. You need your own personal rabbi. And try to stick to just one.
Talking about rabbis, it is incumbent upon every Jew to drive their rabbi nuts before Pesach. Best to get this over, as much as possible, in one fell swoop. Make an appointment. Write out all your questions, then think of more and write them down too, and then come fully armed to the meeting. Make sure he explains everything clearly, down to the fundamentals. Tell him, "Rabbi, I'm not here to find out all the customs and stringencies your family has. I need to know the fundamentals of Passover as clearly as possible, so that I can deal with whatever flies in my face this Passover."
Perhaps your in-laws won't mind if you order your Passover food from a kosher caterer—if there's one there that you can rely on. Wrap your food once in aluminum foil, and then wrap it again. Then heat or cook in the oven. On the other hand, you will may be denying your Jewish mother-in-law's primal need to express her love for her son-in-law through food. Consider both sides.
With different standards in the same house, things go a lot easier when you use disposables. There are some very elegant styles available—you can really imagine they are real porcelain and silver (until you toss them out). Of course, there are environmental concerns, especially where recycling is not available.
I don't know the family dynamics, but is it possible that your wife could offer to come over and help with the Passover preparations a few days in advance? Her mother may just be proud to see what a responsible daughter she has. As for you, how's your potato peeling skills? She might take pride in that as well.
There's two sides to this as well. You might be a nuisance in her kitchen-sanctum-sanctorum. And sometimes it's better not to see what goes on in there. Talk it over with that rabbi we mentioned above.
Now the hard part—but most important: If you see your wife, or anyone for that matter, doing or cooking something you do not believe appropriate for Passover, you did not see it. You don't have to eat it, you can have a stomach ache conveniently at that point instead. The world endures, the wise men of the Talmud say, on the merit of those who know how to keep their mouth shut. Next year, before Passover, you can discuss the halachot with her, without blame or pressure.
Passover is a Yom Tov—a festival. It is a time to celebrate. Keep that in focus, keep in good spirits, respect everyone, and you will have a wonderful "festival of our liberation"—and a beautiful marriage as well.