Monday, April 18, 2011

Passover a Primer: Seeking Meaning in Tradition

Dear Reader,

As some of you may be aware, the Jewish holiday of Passover began tonight at sunset. These seven (often observed for eight outside of Israel) days mark the release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It is one of the three pilgrimage/harvest festivals on the Jewish calendar, situated squarely between Sukkot (final fall harvest of the year) and Shavuot (harvesting of the first fruits). While we focus on the historical aspects of the holiday and celebrate freedom, we often downplay or forget entirely the agricultural importance of Passover as marking the start of the harvest season. Perhaps this is because agriculture has largely left the centerpiece of daily life, but it's undeniable that the holiday is all about the food.

However, in today's observance, the spirit of the holiday seems to be lost in following the letter of the law. Ashkenazi Jews, generally those with ancestry from Eastern Europe, follow a strict set of dietary restrictions during this week. The story goes that the Hebrew people had to book it out of Egypt without time to allow their bread to rise, and so were left to consume an unleavened cracker-like substance. As such, the Torah prohibits the eating of five grains during the holiday: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. Ok, fantastic. We have other holidays paying homage to grains, so no tragedy there. But, another custom developed during the middle ages extends forbidden foods to all those processed in the same way as wheat, mitigating the risk of "confusion". Included in this category called kitniyot are rice, millet, and legumes (as well as their derivatives like oils). There is much debate over the validity of this restriction, and particularly its place in the modern era of food production.

Talk about losing the forest for the trees. You can buy Passover cake mixes, made with all sorts of processed ingredients, but you can't eat hearty lentils. As a vegan, following all these restrictions is very limiting - no tofu, beans, peas, rice, corn. My approach to observing the holiday has morphed over the years, as vegetarian following and then not following kitniyot to vegan subsisting off of matzah. This year I thought called for a different approach. Yes, the holiday is about freedom, but it is also about spring, rebirth and generation after the winter, and exulting in the bounty the earth (and a healthy planet as a whole) can provide.

So, I have taken it into my head to go raw this Passover. Certain kitniyot that are simply absurd will remain in my diet - wild rice (actually a grass), sunflower seeds (?!?!), and mustard (huh?) - and I will focus on fresh fruits, veggies, and nuts. My hope is not to stay on a raw diet, but to start with a clean slate, really focusing on whole foods, and having weaned myself of a reliance on certain rajasic foods (ah, chocolate).

Wish me luck, and follow my daily progress/endeavors here.

No comments: