I grew up in an Ashkenazic non-Orthodox home in rural Maine. Passover was a consistent experience during my childhood. We refrained from eating chametz and kitniyot (legumes, rice and other items which Askenazic Jews traditionally don’t eat on Passover). I never questioned our tradition.
As a vegan single woman in my 20s without children, my Passover food focus was potatoes, sweet potatoes, squashes, vegetables and fruits. I did of course eat matzah but even then I limited the amount every day because too much matzah makes me feels constipated during the holiday.
This felt fine to me at the time, as I am a person who loves potatoes, simple foods and rules. For me, Passover is a physical experience and simplifying my diet is a way of experiencing freedom.
I didn’t really think much about this prohibition until I got married and became a mother. It was not until I had my daughter and started observing Passover in a family again that the kitniyot ban started not to feel right.
Our diet during the year is plant centered: (fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, roots/tubers, intact whole grains and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils). (I know you are wondering, so I will tell you: My daughter is mostly vegan with the exception of eggs a few times per month and kosher fish a few times per year). Plus we live in Asia, so rice is a daily diet stable in our diet.
Passover without rice and legumes felt too restrictive and I noticed that my daughter did not feel as satisfied with meals. Added to this, I simply did not feel comfortable with this strict feeling about food in our house for a child (even if only for a week).
Unfortunately, many Jewish people today observe Passover in a way that is very unhealthy for their bodies. They may add a lot of Kosher for Passover processed foods into their diets, which they don’t eat year round, such as mayonnaise, salty and sweet snacks. In our family, Passover is a whole food experience and the only food that we add to our diet during the week of Passover is matzah.
This challenge led me to do some research into the issue of kitniyot. I discovered that the custom of not eating these foods began in the thirteenth century and that reasons behind it were unclear. Later, scholars suggested some explanations, such as:
- Chametz and kitniyot are boiled in similar ways and are easy to confuse in cooked form.
In some places, “breads” are made out of kitniyot (think cornbread or rice cakes).
- Grain might get mixed up in the bags of kitniyot during storage.
- Grain stalks might grow in a field of legumes and be mistaken for kitniyot.
These rationales feel a bit irrelevant, certainly in today’s modern world of packaged goods and technology-based agriculture. It’s hard to believe that the rice I buy has grains of wheat in it or that I won’t be able to distinguish between a rice cake and a piece of bread. People are more likely to mix up all the Kosher for Passover processed foods with their chametz counterparts, like a chametz cake with a Kosher for Passover one (this actually happened to a friend of mine one year).
A hundred years ago, Sephardic Jews (who have always eaten kitniyot) and Ashkenazic Jews had very little contact with each other. But today, Jews from all over the world live together in the same communities. 80% of Jews are Ashkenazic, but 80% of observant Jews are Sephardic.
That means that Ashkenazic Jews nibbling on their potato pancakes may be sitting next to a family of Sephardic Jews enjoying rice with beans. In Israel, supermarkets are full of products labeled, “For kitniyot eaters only.” Because of this proximity, countless articles and blog posts have been written about whether Ashkenazic Jews should continue to adhere to this medieval tradition.
I’ve decided that my health and my family’s health is paramount during Passover, and that the nutritional benefits of eating beans, rice and peanuts far outway the tradition. I am careful about how I nourish my body (and consequently my soul) all year round, and I don’t want to feel less healthy and vibrant during Passover.
I do eat potatoes and sweet potatoes on Passover, and of course, I center my food choices around fresh and cooked vegetables. In fact, I have created a special vegan cookbook specifically for the holiday. But I try to keep focused on eating simple meals during Passover as a way of heightening my Passover experience and really feeling the theme of freedom in my physical body.
So, tell me, are you Ashkenazic or Sephardic? Did your family’s traditions include eating kitniyot? Have you continued these traditions or have you made different choices as an adult?