Tag Archives: tradition

Rice and beans for Ashkenazim on Passover? You could be lucky too.

Beans_Kidney_BlogWhile many Ashkenazim (Germanic or Eastern European Jews) have long considered Sephardim (Spanish/Mediterranean Jews) or Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews) lucky for being able to consume rice on Passover, this staple grain may soon be accepted for them as well. As the American diet continues to change (where individuals can choose to be gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, or vegetarian) there has also been an ongoing debate in the Ashkenazi community about whether to start accepting kitniyot into the weekly Passover diet. Kitniyot (from the Hebrew word for “little things”) is a general category for such foods as legumes, pulses, corn, soybeans, peas, poppy seeds, and even rice, that like chametz (cereal grains such as wheat, or processed foods containing cereal grains such as cake or pasta) have been forbidden by Ashkenazi rabbis for centuries. (While many in the Sephardic world do consume kitniyot, it really varies region to region, such as Moroccans who generally do not consume rice, but may have chickpeas and fresh green beans). Because of today’s stricter labeling and processing requirements, it’s difficult to defend the tradition based on the possibility that a food product could have been contaminated, and the rule against kitniyot is not written in the Torah.

While some are starting to change by embracing rice and beans during Passover, many still prefer sticking to what they were brought up with. (It’s hard to change tradition!)

Here are some interesting and recent articles about the topic,
and the changes that some rabbis in the conservative movements are making.

And another regarding the legality of quinoa.

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Will the single, marriageable girl please leave the room?

Serving_ShadowLately I’ve been interviewing individuals from the Levantine countries of Syria and Lebanon. An interesting custom that has been described to me (with slight variations) is the one where a young, single woman of marrying age would pick up the Seder tray at the very start of the Seder and leave with it to another room. During her absence those sitting at the table would sing a song or two, then call her back in when finished. Upon returning to the room with the tray, the young woman might be asked, “What is it that you have there?” (Indicating the tray), or she herself may ask them, “What is going on here?” (Indicating that they have gathered around the table and that something is about to happen.) Immediately after this brief inquiry, the leader would then begin with the first lines from the Haggadah, and with that the Seder (and Passover holiday) has officially begun. I find this custom interesting on many levels. For one it shows the importance of marriage in the community, and how it then takes the opportunity during the Seder to indicate “who is next in line.” It also elevates the act of carrying and presenting the Seder tray/plate to one of honor. Secondly, it highlights the importance of hospitality in the Middle Eastern culture, especially with regards to a woman serving a guest in her home. And thirdly, it connects the Seder, which symbolizes freedom (and therefore, the future of the Jewish people), renewal (spring season, cycle of life, fertility), with the woman’s future to getting married, raising a family, and therefore, continuing the lifeline of the Jewish community as a whole. When I first learned about this ritual my first reaction (as an American, Westerner, and New Yorker) was one of discomfort. I wondered how these young women felt to have the spotlight put on them, which basically said, “Hey, you’re single — it’s time to find a husband!” But when I asked many of these women individually how they had felt it about it, many of them instead said that they were happy to do it, and that when it was their turn, they in fact felt proud.

Matzolah and Gefilte Fish Gummies?

GefilteFishGummies_BlogI know that none of these Passover-friendly products are traditional in any way, much less Sephardic, but in the weeks leading up to Passover I thought it an interesting thing to point out since it shows how popular and commercially profitable the holiday has become. I just read a brief blurb in the New York Times mentioning yet a new Passover-friendly product on the market called Matzolah,” a Passover-friendly version of granola, and even at the very traditional Streit’s matzah factory on the Lower East Side can you find Gefilte Fish gummy candies. Overall I think that it is probably a good thing since it promotes a holiday that we don’t want to forget (and by its nature is meant to be retold, promoted, and even reenacted in some way), but I am always wondering if too many of these products detract from the true spirit of the holiday, which is to do “without” all of these things that we normally can eat all other days of the year. How do others feel about the addition of all of these products? Do you think that it helps individuals to observe the holiday more, or does it water it down too much from the message? I welcome your comments!

Purim is over and the countdown has begun: Time to start that spring cleaning!

Broom_MorgueFileNow that Purim has ended the official countdown to Passover has begun folks! This is the time when many Jews begin the step-by-step process of cleaning their house, or apartment (or even office) from top to bottom. Some might take this very seriously by cleaning one room at a time and then closing it off until the first Seder night, while others who have the possibility to go away for the whole week of Passover try to avoid the process entirely. While growing up in New York City in the late ’60s/early ’70s, my parents didn’t really adhere to any particular cleaning ritual. Instead we just tried to finish off whatever bread products we still had in the house by the time the first Seder began, and then allowed only matzah into the kitchen for the duration of the holiday week. But whether it is because I have always been somewhat of a compulsive cleaner, or because I just happen to find some kind of peace in tradition, I have always been fascinated by the ritual of cleaning for this holiday.

As I conducting interviews with Sephardic Jews about their overall memories of Passover while growing up, I was struck by how early their families had begun to prepare for the holiday, and how committed they were to every cleaning detail. Their childhood memories of Passover in the Old Country were vivid and nostalgic, and they appeared to literally light up as they described to me what they and their family did at home. But what was most interesting was that while they didn’t really want to continue the effort it would take to keep up these traditions, they recognized at the same time that something had been lost. They missed the feeling that they once got from the cleaning rituals that made the holiday more special. They also missed knowing that it was something that they shared with others who were doing the same thing in their community. By the time the first night of the Seder arrived, they were more than ready, perhaps as if they had earned it in some way. The Seder itself marked the separation between “old” and “new,” or more significantly, before the Exodus from Egypt and after. In fact the more I spoke to them I realized that the Passover holiday didn’t really begin with the first Seder at all, but rather with the first day of cleaning — the day after Purim — which culminated in the Passover holiday one month later. Without this period of cleaning, organizing, and planning for the Seder, the Passover holiday itself would have been less meaningful to them.

Here is some of what Renée, a Moroccan-born Jew living in Queens, shared with me regarding her memories for the preparations of the holiday:

“My mother used to start koshering the house a month before. We had three bedrooms, so she used to start always with our bedroom, then her bedroom, then the dining room, and the kitchen was the last thing that she used to kosher. A man would come to redo all the mattresses in the house, like the wool that was inside. We used to pay him and I remember the wool, it was like spring cleaning. He would sew them back together with a big needle. It was beautiful, everything was new. The dishes were new, the tablecloth was new — you felt the holiday. The last day, before the holiday, we almost ate outside — almost in the stairs because the bread was out of the house. We used to have a big hallway, and three bedrooms. The toilet was in front, and in back you had the kitchen and three bedrooms, so we were almost at the door or at the stairs by the last day. And every neighbor used to do the same, so you really felt the holiday. The cooking…”

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