Pesach uncertainty

by tobybee

Once again, Pesach comes around. And it is at Pesach time, more than any other festival, that I feel confronted with the question of how I define my relationship to Judaism and Jewishness; and, of course, it comes down to what I choose to eat over the eight days. I’m vegetarian and Ashkenazi, so my food options are rather limited. I also live in a sharehouse with two non-Jewish friends, who are incredibly interested and inquisitive. So I’m constantly forced to explain my choices not just to myself but out loud, to my friends.

Kitniyiot is, of course, the big question. To eat, or not to eat? I go with not, for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s the fact that according to Ashkenazi tradition, kitniyot are not kosher for Pesach. But they are, as most would know, kosher for Sephardi Jews. And so, increasingly, Ashkenazi Jews are deciding that for the purposes of Pesach they are Sephardi (a friend of mine was told by her Rabbi that her husband being Sephardi means that she is considered Sephardi – it seems a bit odd to me that you can inherit ethnicity from your husband, but anyway) and thus can eat kitniyot. And each year my mum asks me and my brother if we’re going to be Sephardi for Pesach, and each year we staunchly say no. It’s important to us that we’re Ashkenazi, because that’s our heritage. Not that it’s better (and certainly, in the context of Pesach, it’s far worse), but because it’s ours. Because, to me, there’s something entertaining in the idea/imaginary that Jews in Eastern Europe couldn’t tell the difference between lentils and wheat, but that Jews in North Africa were totally aware of the difference. I’m bemused by the lack of awareness. And it feels kind of lazy to me, that people decide to change ethnicity to increase their food availability for the 8 days. And finally, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s an exploitation of Sephardi identity that occurs. That Sephardi Jews are so marginalised in most general Jewish communities, but when it’s convenient, their traditions are embraced. I’m uncomfortable with the duplicity of that, or something that feels to me, akin to that.

But then I come back to my problem of Ashkenazi Jews eating kitniyot as symbolic to me of some sort of laziness, and I can’t figure out exactly what my problem is. I’m not an observant Jew. I don’t keep shabbes, I drink water (and the occasional hot chocolate) on Yom Kippur, I observe about 4 or 5 festivals each year, and all of them in incredibly lazy ways. So why does this incarnation of ‘laziness’ sit uncomfortably with me? Particularly when, living in the vegetarian sharehouse that I do, eating kitniyot would mean that I would mostly be able to eat exactly what my housemates eat, and it wouldn’t require me to cook as much just for myself as I do (although my brother and I always make a point of sharing a few dinners during that week).

And I realise that there’s something about this difference, which this particular festival represents, that I embrace. For me Pesach is intimately intertwined with food. It’s about food as symbolic, as different, as tradition. I like the idea that I’m eating the food that is traditional in my family (minus the carcasses, which is definitely an important difference). But I’m ambivalent about that too – why do I hold so strongly to Jewish traditions which are a part of a broader idea of being Jewish, and of life in general, that is no longer for me. I’ve dropped the idea that going to shul should be primarily about a connection to my family that is gone, and decided that it should be, first and foremost, about my family that is alive, and should reflect my identity and my politics. My food choices more generally are dynamic and political.

Yet there is something important to me in the act of eating separately and differently. It’s not Pesach-eating, for me, if I’m just eating what my non-Jewish friends make, minus the bread plus the matzah. There’s something in the act of preparing three meals a day which are different, which require thought, which point me to remembering the seder: the singing with my ‘family’ on first night, which I so love; the provocation of the conversations with my cousins on second night, which I am grateful for. And the message of remembering that we were slaves, and the idea that we are still bound up in slaveries which are importantly very different, but which enslave us all (in so many vastly different ways).

I have no answers. Only questions. Which is, after all, the point of the seder: to ask questions, to be open to ambivalence and uncertainty. To suggest responses, but know that they are incomplete and inadequate. To remember the implications of what we do, but not be confined by those implications.

And this is where I’m at, one week from the beginning of Pesach.

(I feel the need for a footnote… of course, this is where I’m at – as I read over what I’ve just written I fear that it sounds judgemental. If you know me, you know that I’m opinionated. But also that I seek to learn from others, and that my opinions are representative – generally speaking – only of the standards to which I hold myself. Please, don’t take anything I’ve written above as a comment on what I think of your Pesach eating practices…)