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A retrospective on Pesach 2022: Naomi

Naomi Reiter reflects on different Pesach celebrations and the people who helped make her own so special.

I think it’s important to preface my retrospective on Pesach with one crucial caveat: my experience could not have been more different to Leah’s. Leah spoke of coming to the realisation that the minutiae of observance can make Judaism cumbersome to the detriment of the original intent of the holiday. I spent my Pesach eight days getting more familiarly acquainted with the tiny nuances of observance than I ever have before.

My family’s celebration of Pesach has always been more on the minimalist end of the spectrum. My family are all Ashkenazi Jews who live in the diaspora, which is important to the version of Pesach we ought to observe, as different groups of Jews observe Pesach in different ways. The starkest difference is that between the dietary restrictions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. Typically, Ashkenazi Jews will avoid the food groups known as ‘chametz’ and ‘kitniyot’. The prohibition of kitniyot was put in place by Ashkenazi rabbis in the Middle Ages and was not an original part of the holiday. The reason for the decision to prohibit kitniyot is not agreed upon but my personal favourite explanation is that rabbis were worried that Ashkenazi Jews would not be able to distinguish between chametz and kitniyot in their raw form and so might accidentally use barley, which is chametz, thinking it was rice or some similar mix-up. The vast majority of Sephardi Jews did not accept this rabbinic ruling and continued to use kitniyot on Pesach. Interestingly, the recent consensus amongst the non-Orthodox movements within Ashkenazi Judaism has been that Ashkenazi Jews are indeed able to tell these grains apart and should be able to consume kitniyot on Pesach. It may be the case that in the future more within the Ashkenazi community will change their position on kitniyot and eventually overturn the Middle Ages ruling on the subject, but we shall have to wait and see on that question.

The other important difference in observance is between those Jews who are physically in the historic land of Israel and those Jews who live outside Israel in the diaspora. In Israel, the holiday lasts seven days with only one Seder at the beginning. In the diaspora there is a second Seder night extending the holiday to eight days. With this knowledge in mind, perhaps you the reader can understand why my grandma took the executive decision many years ago to celebrate this holiday as if we were Sephardi Jews who live in Israel (eating rice with one less day sans bread) rather than Ashkenazi Jews who live outside of Israel. And even then, we barely observed those restrictions. We would have matzah symbolically while still eating some bread. Some of you may call this ‘cheating’ or ‘picking and choosing traditions to have the most enjoyable version of Pesach’ and I won’t lie to you, there is a part of me that agrees and so, with the greatest of respect to my grandma’s ruling and my parents’ observance, I decided to spend this Pesach as what I am: an Ashkenazi Jew in the diaspora. This was certainly an enlightening experience.

I went to two Seders for the first time this year. The first was a large event and it was interesting to chat and compare prior Seder experiences with others there as we all came from vastly different family traditions. The second was more like the Seders I am used to at home – nine people gathered around one table in the Chaplains’  house. It was nice to have a Seder similar to the ones I had in my childhood as I have not been able to be home for one in a couple of years. However the larger change to my normal Pesach experience came with taking on the food restrictions of Ashkenazi Jews.

My Pesach food experience began a couple of weeks before the start of the holiday when I heard at a Shabbat lunch that there would be a trip to Kosher Kingdom. Kosher Kingdom is a kosher supermarket in London and an essential trip for anyone preparing for a fully observant Pesach as they sell many items that cannot be found in Oxford. I’ll confess now that I did not have anything I needed to buy beyond almond milk and matzah which I could have easily found in Oxford. I just went along hoping that I’d learn some valuable things along the way about Pesach kashrut and to experience a Pesach food section that went beyond the Aberdeen standard of the local Sainsbury’s having a few boxes of not-for-Passover-use matzah.

I began to realise that Pesach shopping was not a relaxed endeavour when Pammy, the other student on the trip, got out her spreadsheet in which she had meticulously planned what items she would be buying in Kosher Kingdom and Oxford in the run up to Pesach. As we sat in the back of the car on the drive to London I learned I had vastly underestimated what I would need to buy to feed myself and be fully observant of Pesach kosher standards. Thankfully, my woeful lack of planning didn’t hinder me too much as Pammy kindly agreed to go around the shop together and point out what I might need.

As I was talking to Pammy in the car and realised I was in way over my head, I texted another friend to ask his advice on what I should buy. This friend told me he was not the best person to ask about this as his family keeps even stricter stringencies than the average Orthodox Ashkenazi family. I wondered how bad it could possibly be until I sent him a picture of what I had bought in the specially-kashered-ish drawer I had prepared for it (it ended up being five bags of groceries) and he told me his family would consider maybe two items as kosher enough for their Pesach standards.

“My family’s celebration of Pesach has always been more on the minimalist end of the spectrum. “

This is the point where I was introduced to the next level of Pesach stringencies: those followed by Hasidic Jews. My friend told me about the concept of not eating ‘gebrochts’ or ‘wet matzah’ (products made by combining matzah with water to cook it into classic Passover dishes like matzah brei, matzah pizza, and matzah balls. The logic given is that there is a risk that some of the matzah may be undercooked and thus by combining it with water a leavened substance could inadvertently be produced which would break the prohibition on chametz). He would also typically avoid processed foods to prevent any possibility of them being contaminated with chametz, even to the point of only seasoning food with salt, pepper and paprika for spices. It is also customary for Hasidic Jews to only eat food from their own house during Pesach as the level of stringency observed can vary greatly even between individual families. I learned this for myself when I asked the local Chabad Rebbetzin Freidy about what my friend had said and she informed me that even his family’s Pesach kosher standards are lenient compared to hers, since her family would only use salt, even processed pepper and paprika were a step too far. It is important to note that my friend comes from a different Hasidic group from Freidy and this explains some of the difference in custom, but I discovered throughout the week that even between families within the exact same Jewish group there are subtle differences over things like salt, sugar, and tea that while being miniscule differences can delineate a total difference in stringency that makes one family’s kosher for Pesach meals not kosher enough for another family. The Hasidic custom of only eating your own food during Pesach made a lot more sense with this context. 

At this point you are probably wondering where I fitted myself in on this spectrum of stringency within Orthodox Ashkenazi food customs. I found myself caught between two levels of Orthodox observance; I shopped with Pammy who observed the standard Modern Orthodox custom of avoiding chametz and kitniyot while eating gebrochts and processed foods, but I ended up eating almost daily at the Chabad house where Hasidic rules were observed. There were no gebrochts, all fruit and vegetables (even cucumbers) had to be peeled just in case the peel had been in contact with chametz, and even tea had to be kosher-ified for Pesach use before the holiday started and was in the form of a diluting juice rather than the standard teabag. Every meal was a creative combination of meat, potatoes, butternut squash, and eggs with a large number of avocados and mangos on the side, but they were delicious despite the strict parameters that had to be operated within and I was incredibly grateful to have them.

As this was my first time properly observing Pesach, it was very useful to have a guarantee of at least one substantial meal a day if I had completely failed to scrape together food for myself that day. On Monday especially I realised how much I relied on buying coffees and sandwiches as my main energy source every day and was truly running on empty by the time dinner rolled around. Luckily by Tuesday I had bought some Pesach-approved instant coffee and some fruit and vegetables so I could at least have matzah, cream cheese, and cucumber sandwiches. I had also bought some non-gebrochts potato pasta and pasta sauce that I could make into a decent meal. On Wednesday I was able to get by on my own food alone without going to Chabad which was, admittedly, a small accomplishment but quite a feat compared to Monday where I had felt close to fainting on their doorstep by the time I reached the Chabad house that evening.

I chose not to make gebrochts like matzah pizza but I had no qualms about putting processed cream cheese on matzah, so I suppose I could be classified as gebrochts-flexible. I also did not peel my cucumber or pre-process my tea. The extent of the Chabad Pesach stringency was truly encapsulated to me on the last day of Pesach which coincided with Shabbat. One of the children at the Chabad house wanted to eat a strawberry. I then watched my friend Musia meticulously peel an individual strawberry to give to him. At that moment I thought to myself that while I greatly respect this hardcore level of observance, I don’t think I’m quite up for that just yet. There is a degree of beauty in this level of stringency whereby even in eating the smallest item like a strawberry, one has the holiday at the forefront of their mind. The spirit of Pesach necessarily permeates every action when it dictates everything down to the minutiae. I like that this is also felt across the spectrum of Orthodox Jews I encountered throughout the week. From Pammy with her precisely-crafted spreadsheets to Musia peeling everything down to a single strawberry, everyone fitted their whole lives to strict Pesach restrictions for a week.

While I can’t see myself taking on the level of observance that Hasidic Jews do anytime soon, I definitely felt a greater level of spiritual connection to the holiday of Passover than I ever have before. Judging solely based on my own experience I would say that a greater level of observance does translate to a greater level of immersion in the holiday and a fuller experience of this aspect of Jewish life. There is naturally disagreement on this but one of the brilliant aspects of Judaism is that everyone is free to have their own relationship with it; there is room for pluralism and no ‘wrong’ way of going about things. The feeling of the holiday being all around me for want of a better description was something special to experience and I hope to replicate that feeling again in the future .

Glossary

‘Chametz’ = Any product that contains wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt e.g, breads, cakes, and pasta. Matzah can contain these as it is carefully controlled to ensure it doesn’t become leavened.

‘Kitniyot’ = Legumes including rice, corn, and peas that are traditionally permitted by Sephardi but not Ashkenazi Jews.

‘Kashrut’ = A system of rules that dictates which foods can be eaten by Jews and how foods should be prepared.

‘Kashering’ = A process by which utensils and storage areas are ritually prepared for kosher food.

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