Archive for April, 2011

A Vegetarian Pesach

April 19, 2011

Since high school, I have observed some form of vegetarian diet.  At times I was super strict – “No thanks.  I can’t eat that veggie burger because you cooked it on the same grill as your beef burger.”  At other times, I was more flexible – “Miss another year of Grandma Sarah’s infamous chicken soup with matzoh balls?  No thanks.  I think the earth and animals can forgive me just one bowl…”

Passover presents a special challenge to those of us who count grams of protein rather than calories.  Aside from passing over matzoh ball soup in chicken broth, Ashkenazi Jews – those of us who descend from families from Eastern Europe – are expected to pass on legumes as well.  This means no soy (think tofu, soy milk, tempeh), no chick peas, and no lentils.  These are staples of many vegetarian diets.

I found the following recommendation for getting protein during the holiday on a discussion board about vegetarian Pesach meal planning:
“Remember that you want to get protein into your diet, not necessarily into the main course. Cheesecake or a rich chocolate torte (the kind where the recipe begins: separate a dozen eggs) can follow a vegetable main course.”
Cheesecake for dinner?  That doesn’t sound so bad, but it doesn’t sound too healthy either.  Part of the reason I eat a primarily vegetarian diet is to show respect for the body I have been loaned to live in.  Not to mention, what does this offer a vegan??

The Ashkenazi Rabbis expanded the prohibition of eating leavened bread to any food that expands or ferments and any food that might be ground into flour and confused for wheat, rye, barley, spelt, or oats.  As with the inclusion of chicken on the list of meats that should not be eaten with dairy products, they wanted to avoid confusion.  Nevermind that a chicken could never be boiled in its mother’s milk…  They made an exception for potatoes because these were a staple of the Eastern European diet.

Elsewhere, in Spain, Italy, and the Middle East, for example, the Rabbis allowed rice for the same reason.  Vegetarian Jews from these areas, Sephardim, can also enjoy all the legumes they can bear to eat.  My grandfather used to say that his family was expelled from Spain during the inquisition – usually as an explanation for my mother and her brother’s dark skin.  We never heard much more about it, and in all ways my grandpa enacted the role of an Ashkenazi.  But at Passover, I embrace this bit of family history and allow myself a few legumes along with my bowl of matzoh bowl soup made following Grandma Sarah’s recipe.

Beyond the basics – no pork, no milk and meat, no shellfish – a lot of Jewish dietary laws are about traditions of interpretation.  I’m not a Rabbi.  I’m not trying to change the laws of Passover.  I am however devoted to treading lightly on this earth and maintaining my health – especially now that I am breastfeeding and essentially eating for two.  My traditions for Passover no longer mirror those I grew up with – strict Ashkenazi – they are my own.

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A Haggadah for Every Table

April 12, 2011

Growing up, we spent Passover in one of two places.

At my Grandma Sylvia’s in North Miami Beach her father, my great-grandpa Victor, reigned over a seder table that stretched across three rooms.  While the youngest person recited the four questions according to tradition, it was Victor’s custom to have every person past bar or bat mitzvah sing the full kiddush (blessing over wine).  I can’t remember if we were allowed to sip from our glasses after each recitation or not until the end of the last person’s turn.  Either way, it made for a VERY long introduction to an already long service centered on the cover-to-cover reading of a traditional, rabbinically-published Haggadah.  Victor came to the U.S. from Poland and everything about the way he ran the seder, starting with his atonal Hebrew chanting, felt like “the old country.”

At my Grandma Sarah’s in Queens, we tended to have smaller gatherings.  My Grandpa Paul grew up in a more secular family and his seders reflected that.  There was more joking around as we plodded through the seder service to earn my Grandma Sarah’s legendary chicken broth with matzoh balls.  Paul was an engineer, a proponent of innovation.  He also loved to find a bargain.  His son, my uncle, was a Mad Man.   As such, it was perhaps no wonder that we used the Maxwell House Haggadah – free with a canister of coffee – when we were together.

Growing up, I was aware that the covers of the haggadot we used with my mom’s and dad’s families were different.  Afterall, I helped place them around the tables.  I knew that these seders had a different feel to them.  But I didn’t think much about how much those differences were reflected in those booklets.  Articles out this week about the history and revisions of the Maxwell House Haggadah have offered me space and time to ponder those differences.

Since its first printing as a marketing ploy in 1932, the Maxwell House Haggadah has remained relatively unchanged.  This year, one million copies of a new version, for a new generation, will hit seder tables across the globe.  This generation, my generation, tends to be less comfortable with the personification of God as King (though I’m not sure Monarch offers as much of a change as something like ruach or spirit might have) than our parents and grandparents.  We also prefer our role models to be gender neutral as in the case of the four children, previously the four sons.

I created my own Haggadah a few years ago.  I organized it to cover the requirements (explanation of exodus, matzah, and maror) and hit some traditional highnotes like the four questions, ten plaques, and eating Hillel sandwiches (matzah, charoset, and maror together).  I made it with particular attention to the fact that at my seders, I am often the only Jew.  I use the Passover seder as an opportunity to share my heritage and traditions with friends and my husband’s family, and I want them to feel like they are experiencing an authentic seder without feeling alienated by too much new language or concepts.  I ask them to stretch their minds a bit, but not too far all at once.  Then I feed them a delicious meal complete with my Grandma’s chicken soup that has now become legend in central Ohio.  (NPR aired a similar story, “Our Haggadah: A Guide for Interfaith Families,” this week).

What do you remember most about your family’s seders?  If you were creating your own Haggadah, what would you include?  What would you leave out?