Friday, April 3, 2009

How NOT to make yourself crazy (and malnourished) during Pesach

For many Ashkenazic Jews, figuring out what is okay to eat during Pesach is to negotiate a minefield of anxiety and judgment. 

One of my particular pet peeves centers around the issue of kitniyot, or legumes. Halachically speaking (according to Jewish law), there is nothing wrong with eating kitniyot, which includes beans, lentils and rice. However, many Ashkenazic Jews do not eat these foods because, about 600 years ago, Ashkenazic rabbis declared them forbidden. Their rationale goes something like this: legumes swell when they are cooked, making them too similar to leavened foods like bread, therefore we must ban them just to be extra careful we don't violate the Biblical laws of Pesach kashrut, which, for those of you unfamiliar with the food prohibitions associated with Passover, are even more stringent than regular kashrut. (For a great article about how some Orthodox Jews are reclaiming their right to eat kitniyot, check this out.)

I was raised in an assimilated Reform household, and the only Passover food restrictions we observed were not to eat bread and bread products for eight days. I had no idea there were so many other restrictions associated with Pesach until I became an adult, and I adjusted my observance to a certain extent. 

For many Jews, what (or what not) to eat during Pesach is as much a matter of minhag (custom) as it is a desire to follow Biblical law, or be "a good Jew," however you define that. Hence the reality that many Jews deny themselves the protein nourishment and the delicious flavors of beans and lentils, (not to mention rice), because they are operating from a place of minhag, a mindset that says, "This is how I've always done it, this is how my mother did it, it's not for me to change that, and if I did I'd be consumed with guilt."

Minhag can be a wonderful thing, providing continuity in one's personal observance of and connection with many Jewish practices. In this instance, however, I'm going to risk offending some of my Jewish friends when I say that refusing to eat legumes, and freaking out about having legumes even be present at any seder you may attend (most folks I know do potluck seders these days; it's just too much work to expect the host to do it all), is misguided and detracts from the whole point of Pesach, which is to celebrate our liberation from slavery in the company of friends and family.

I find myself going back to something Rabbi Arthur Waskow said in an interview I did with him for my "Jews, Food and Ethics" show on KBOO last Sunday. He made the point that changes to Jewish practice over time tend to be adopted based on whether they are life-affirming. In other words, does eating kitniyot enhance your enjoyment of Pesach? Does it decrease your anxiety about whether you are "doing it right?" If so, eating kitniyot is a life-affirming practice and should become part of your observance if you want it to be. Waskow also made a good analogy to feminist Judaism here: he said that when feminist Jewish practices first began surfacing, in the 1970s, many reacted by saying, "Not with my Torah, you don't!" But over time, it was found that including women's participation in rituals that had traditionally been limited to men was found to be life-affirming (I tend to think of it as simply more fair and practical, but I'll yield to Waskow's definition), so the practices were adopted. Today, even in some Orthodox communities, women's roles have expanded, and women's full participation is now de facto in the other branches of Judaism.

I respect the minhag of following minhag. But I also know that Judaism is an interpretive tradition that has evolved over the centuries, and so I believe it is equally Jewish to question or change one's minhag when it becomes burdensome, (especially when it is not based on halachah), and diminishes, rather than enhances, the joy of celebrating the Jewish holidays.

Chag sameach.


moraht said...

Oh heck yes. If I couldn't eat lentils and *especially* quinoa next week, I just might perish. I find Pesach is also an excellent time to really just concentrate on simple fruits and veggies, fish, and the aforementioned kitniyot. A faith-sanctioned 'system cleanse', if you will. It's a great way to transition out of the heavy foods of winter and into the lighter fare of spring and summer!

Magpie Ima said...

Another great post, Liz.

I've always eaten kitniyot on Pesach. It's hard to care about family minhag when there's been no dietary observance in many decades. If I choose to observe Passover then I can choose to do so in a way that makes sense to me. This shaped my thinking early on and makes more and more sense to me.

As I've learned more about food production and as my body has undergone huge changes, I've undergone a big shift in what "kosher" means for me, at Passover and otherwise.

איתי Itai said...

Lucky me, I've always followed minhag sfarad. I go crazy enough as it is keeping it kosher and vegan. Take kitniyot off the table and I'd starve.

Liz said...

Thanks, Magpie Ima.

I too don't have much in the way of family minhag to contend with regarding Pesach observance, which I suppose is an advantage in this case. I never knew about the hornet's nest that is the whole kitniyot debate until I moved here. It's always bothered me that some people's anxiety (dare I say neurosis) about this subject is so profound that it not only creates negative issues for them, but spills over onto me when I try to be outgoing and inclusive.

lynnef said...

Our Rabbi posts provocative articles about eating kitniyot on Pesach, but then he never follows through with a ruling. Two years ago, I made my OWN ruling. We eat kitniyot during Pesach. SO much less stressful, and SO much less expensive.

Liz said...

DIY responsa! Love it!

~The Rabbi's Lovely Wife said...

I'm with Reb Ed. Lentils are in as are tortillas, but sponge cake and pesach brownies couldn't be more leavened if they tried--sorry, but they'll have to wait. BTW, coconut macaroons don't rise. Almond macaroons, unfortunately, do :(

lynnef said...

and, I might point out, that genetic testing showed that we are Sephardic in origin through the maternal line :-) Not that I needed an excuse or anything. I just like not having to cook all meals up from their constituent molecules, especially when that KP margarine and cooking oil is NASTY. Cottonseed oil is NOT food.

Anonymous said...

I grew up not eating kitnyot and also not eating things like pesadik pasta or rolls. On the other hand, we had coffee cake.

I'm a vegetarian.

To me, pesadik coffee cake is a part of my Pesach joy, so I miss it since I can't get it here in the hinterlands. On the other hand, I enjoy the challenge and the contrast I get from eating non-restricted foods on Pesach. I have several recipes I only eat during Pesach, so they are like decorations that I only pull out for one week a year. That makes them special and precious to me -- and it ties them to my Pesach joy. This week of creative cooking and eating helps me appreciate corn, lentils and rice etc. throughout the rest of the year.

It alwo makes me think twice about what I am eating, to question my eating, to be more mindful of my eating for one week in the year. Yes, to some degree just cutting out bread and similar products does tht, but deleting kitanyot magnifies it.

Liz said...


Sounds like your practice is life-affirming and positive for you, which, imo, is what observing Pesach ideally should be.

I've found it interesting to add to my list of chametz foods over the years (having grown up with just eliminating bread and its derivatives). I've had to adopt a level of observance I wasn't raised with, to redefine my own minhag, which was what I was trying to encourage folks to do in my post. In reading it over, however, I'm not sure that point was clear...

Hope you and yours have fantabulous seder(s).