Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Secret Life of Legumes: How Passover in Israel is an Entirely Different Bag of Beans

Moving to Israel was supposed to make our lives easier. Well, at least around Pesach time. But that's not exactly how it's turned out.

I'll admit it: the Passover holidays "back home" were always a bit of a hassle. Let's start with the food.

Unless you live in certain neighborhoods of New York or Los Angeles, the regular supermarkets don't do a clean sweep of anything not-kosher-for-Pesach the way they do in Israel. So buying food free of hametz (the breads and other grain products prohibited during the seven days of Passover) invariably necessitated a trip to the kosher market.

Which in our case was a good half hour drive away. Jostling with the other customers in the narrow aisles of Oakland Kosher was never a particularly spiritually uplifting experience.

But at least everything inside was kosher, a pleasant change from the need to scrutinize the labels at the Safeway, searching for that tiny O-U, Star-K or some other symbol of kashrut that meant we could buy it.

In Israel, everything is backwards. During most of the year, we can go to any old supermarket and buy whatever we want since everything is kosher. On Pesach, though, it's back to label-checking. That is, if you don't eat kitniyot.

Kitniyot are defined as "legumes" and are a food that is prohibited only to Jews of Ashkenazi (i.e., European) origin during Pesach. Kitniyot are not forbidden foods themselves, not like wheat or barley. Rather they're substances that either appeared similar to true hametz or were once transported in the same sacks and containers: foods like rice, corn and peanuts.

The problem is, a majority of Israel's population is not Ashkenazi but is of Sephardi (non-European) origin, and the rabinnical leaders in those countries have long been more lenient, ruling that Sephardi Jews can eat all the kitniyot they want. And so while in North America the Ashkenazi-oriented kosher markets at Pesach time are pretty much kitniyot-free, in Israel those same kosher stores are filled with 100% kosher-for-Pesach food - all of it fit for just about everyone...but us.

Now you might say "when in Rome" and you'd be right. More and more North American immigrants to Israel are adopting the custom of the land. My wife Jody and I resisted for many years, but last year, we finally gave in. In the end, it wasn't a major philosophical decision. We simply couldn't find any kitniyot-free mayonnaise.

Still, checking labels for ingredients is a small price to pay compared with the major benefit of Passover in Israel: only having to sit through one seder. But this too is a mixed blessing.

Traditional Jewish practice holds that certain holidays - including Pesach - are celebrated for one day in Israel and two days outside the country. The origin of this custom had to do with how word got out from the authorities in Jerusalem on the official start of the new month, which in turn was used to calculate the start-date of the holidays.

In olden times, transmission of the message went via fires, torches and signals on the tops of hillsides (so that's where Lord of the Rings: Return of the King got the idea). As a result, there was a concern that far-flung communities might receive the news late and mess up on the day. And so, despite the fact we now have written calendars with fixed months, atomic clocks and round-the-clock cable TV news, Diaspora Jews still celebrate for two days.

That means two Pesach seders.

Now, don't get me wrong. We love a good seder. But what are you supposed to do for an encore on the second night? Read it all again? The story doesn't change, guys. OK, fine, we'll do the four questions and the four sons one more time, but all the rest? It takes hours you know. Dayenu already.

During our years in North America before moving to Israel, we tried to make the best of it. We'd usually host a long drawn out intellectual seder with friends on the first night, and then do a shorter to-the-point seder with the extended family on the night number two. It worked pretty well, especially since I was always afraid my parents would find it a bit of a tircha to wait until close to 11:00 PM before we even got to the matza ball soup.

My mother put my fears aside one Pesach when she pulled me aside into the kitchen and said, "You don't have to rush this time. Your father had a big bagel and cream cheese from Noah's before seder."

I didn't bother to ask if it was legume-free.

And so, when we got to Israel, we could barely contain our excitement to finally be having only one seder. We put extra energy into making sure everything was perfect for our single annual shot. Everyone had his or her own Hagadah and had been asked to prepare something stimulating to discuss. We'd scoured the house for even the slightest bread crumb and Jody had cooked up a storm. We'd sung loud and hard at shul.

In short, when we got to the table we were all completely exhausted. The two younger kids fell asleep before the gefilte fish. I started nodding out after the second glass of wine. Jody did her best to keep her head up at least until the afikomen.

And suddenly, the wisdom of the Rabbis began to make a bit more sense. Maybe there's something to having two seders after all!

But I'm still eating the kitniyot...

Saul Singer agrees with my take on kitniyot and even gives it a feel-good nation-building spin. Check his column by clicking here.

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