Monday, April 14, 2003

Passover the Sushi

“Maybe this Pesach will be the year,” I hint to Jody.

“Year for what?” she asks innocently, knowing exactly what the cat is about to drag in. We have this conversation every spring at just about this time.

“That we practice what we preach,” I reply, taking the high ground. “Social integration. Breaking down class and racial differences.”

Who couldn’t resist such a pitch? Except that what I’m really talking about is serving sushi. On Pesach.

Now such a discussion would never even have come up in North America. On Passover, you simply don’t eat wheat and various other grains – including the rice that’s at the center of the sushi experience.

That’s because most Jews in North America are of Ashkenazi extraction, that is they are of Eastern European descent who, in addition to not eating wheat products, hold by the post-biblical prohibition against eating kitniyot on Passover.

Kitniyot, often translated as “legumes,” are those grains that are similar in appearance to wheat, or that were stored in the same bags as wheat in years past. “Just in case” some prohibited wheat should accidentally still be in a rice or corn bag, the kitniyot products are banned too.

Now, for the seven days of Pesach (eight outside of Israel), this was never a major deal. The kosher-for-Pesach section of the supermarket or your local kosher deli would be conspicuously free of kitniyot.

But in Israel, the majority culture is not Ashkenazi, but that of the Sephardi Jews who hail primarily from Arab lands. And their custom is the more kitniyot the merrier.

And so, officially certified kosher-for-Pesach products in Israel are full of the Ashkenazically-offensive kitniyot. We’re not talking about outright grains, but derivatives like corn oil. All the snack foods – the chips and the candy bars – are made with the stuff. Which takes them off the list for the Ashkenazi observant.

One of the most liberating things about moving to Israel for those who keep kosher is not having to read labels and look for small letters in circles and triangles on the backs and sides of packages. But come Pesach, it’s back to the Disaspora.

This distinction between different types of Jews, though, is in my opinion artificial and unnecessary. Do we really need to have different customs depending on where you came from? We’re all here now. And Israel is clearly in the Sephardi part of the world. To mix a metaphor, when in Rome, let them eat rice cakes!

And then there’s these “just in case” prohibitions. Last time I checked, we don’t really re-use burlap grain bags thrown over the backs of donkeys anymore. Everything is very neatly separated and kept quite clean, thank you. The chances of a tiny grain of wheat getting into my cream of corn soup is pretty marginal.

“But our family tradition is Ashkenazi,” Jody protests.

“Our family tradition was nothing,” I remind her.

That’s true: neither of us come from observant backgrounds, so why shouldn’t we pick and choose what works the best?

Besides which I already have a tradition of eating kitniyot. In 1987, I spent Passover in Tokyo, Japan. I joined a large group Seder at the Tokyo JCC under the leadership of then Tokyo Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

During the intermediate days of Pesach, members of the Tokyo Jewish Community went on a group hike up a nearby mountaintop.

It was a beautiful spring day; the cherry blossoms were in full bloom as we sat down to eat our lunches. The assorted families on the trip tore the tin foil off of their carefully packed kosher meals from home. But I was a traveler, on the road, staying in a cheap hotel. So I had picked something up along the way. And what else do you eat in Japan?

That’s right. Sushi.

“You can’t eat that,” the Rabbi’s wife said to me, aghast.

“Yes I can,” I replied as I picked up the chopsticks and enjoyed my kitniyot under a warm Japanese sun.

“It’s only a matter of time,” I say to Jody, trying to stare down her resolve.

“I’ll think about it,” she replies.

This is also part of our annual dance. But Jody’s been known to think about things a long time.

It looks like we’ll have to pass over the sushi again this year.

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