We Jews, especially Reform Jews, have a complicated relationship with food. You might think in the Orthodox tradition it would be cut and dried—do this, don’t do that—but not so. At Passover, the holiday most fraught with food issues, even the most observant Jews don’t agree. (Surprise.) The Sephardim often allow themselves rice and beans, while the Ashkenazim go cold turkey on ANYthing that may ferment. Given that I am a kosher vegetarian, my Passover diet roughly matches that of a rabbi from 18th century Lithuania, only without the meat. It’s pretty grim.
This year, in the run-up to Passover, I’m drooling over the mouth-watering images of Passover foods on Pinterest. There’s chocolate matzah, Pesach pizza, sweet potato fries, gefilte sushi, and my personal favorite: the BEST EVER KOSHER-FOR-PASSOVER COOKIE RECIPES! And I’m pinning those suckers like crazy. (Okay, not the gefilte sushi. Eeuw.) I’m searching the limited Passover section at Publix for my favorite chocolate macaroons and scouring the local liquor stores for drinkable (I do NOT put Manieschwitz in this category) pesadik wines. That kosher-for-Passover beer is calling my name, too.
The seder I attended was a shmancy affair with a tender brisket (not for me, but my friends enjoyed it), a potato casserole that weighs in at about 1,200 calories per serving (I brought it, so I know), and a flourless chocolate torte that would make a Jehovah’s Witness jump ship. Oh, the usual ritual foods were on the table, including plenty of the “bread of our affliction,” and we told the story of how our ancestors suffered in Egypt, while we didn’t.
This week, it has been egg salad, matzah, and potatoes. The pesadik wine makes the slave-diet a bit more tolerable, but I kvetch anyhow, and I’m too lazy to make all those sumptuous Pinterest treats. My way-Reform friends roll their eyes and butter their toast; Kim’s lost her mind… another convert gone round the bend. Why suffer? Let’s enjoy our freedom to have a biscuit. Or beer. Or pork barbecue. Or the shrimp.
I get that. I really do. We have the freedom to make choices, and we’ve had to fight one Pharaoh or another for thousands of years to keep it. The world has changed in all that time, and what difference does it make whether I eat chametz or not? Maybe Passover kosher is just plain silly.
Or maybe suffering has its purposes.
What is enslaving us now? What is keeping us from being the best Jews we can be? The Israelites couldn’t find out who they really were until they got away from their oppression in Egypt. They suffered 40 more years in the desert before they were ready to accept their destiny, to be chosen as a distinct people, a “nation of priests.” What does that mean today? Maybe it’s more important to think about how (and by whom) our food is grown than to do without yummy yeasty bread. Or, maybe by forgoing the bagels for a few days, on our next trip to Brueggers, we’ll wonder if the person behind the counter is making more than $7.25 an hour. Were the tomatoes picked by an undocumented immigrant woman who is sexually harassed but keeps it to herself out of fear of deportation? How was the cow raised, and slaughtered, for the next juicy Rueben at Noshville?
Making the conscious choice to follow what some consider to be an outdated tradition might have spiritual benefits we didn’t expect. The fact that Reform Jews consider keeping Passover kosher a choice doesn’t necessarily diminish the integrity of the holiday. So we tell our story of suffering and freedom, and hope there’s enough flourless chocolate torte to go around. Let’s make it so everybody gets cake.
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Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist at www.hebrica.com
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