I hope everyone enjoyed my April Fool’s column about the pigs in Beit Shemesh. Hopefully no one was too offended.
This time, I thought I would provide a few different observations about the frantic few days before Pesach (Passover) as Israel prepares for 7 days (this year 8) of Hametz free eating. This might be a bit more thematically disjointed than some of my other blog entries.
During Pesach, all around the world, observant Jews follow the biblical prohibition against eating Hametz, leavened foods made from five species of grains. Many people are extremely meticulous in their Pesach observance. They clean their houses completely to rid them of all traces of Hametz and then change over their dishes, kitchen utensils and other kitchen items to use only items that are “Kosher for Passover.”
As if this weren’t strenuous enough, many Ashkenazi Jews follow an additional prohibition against eating kitniyot, a whole additional category of prohibited products on Pesach, which derives from a rabbinical ruling from around 700 years ago. Sephardi Jews did not follow the ruling and continued to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Ashkenazi Jews followed it and continued to expand their list of prohibited items on Pesach. There is enough controversy about this issue to provide material for a lengthy essay. However, for reasons mainly of tradition, we have continued to follow this Ashkenazi custom, for now, which means no rice, beans, corn, or a range of other products on Pesach.
In Israel, where the combination of observant Sephardi Jews, observant Yemenite Jews and secular, non-observant Jews (of all different backgrounds), all of whom happily eat kitniyot during Pesach, vastly outnumbers the observant Ashkenazi community, it has become logistically more and more difficult to even follow the custom of avoiding kitniyot. For example, it is extremely difficult to find Kosher for Passover, kitniyot free margarine. One place in Ra’anana that I know of, Meatland, sells it – and there may be other places – but it is not sold in any major supermarket chain. All of the margarine is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” It is virtually impossible to find non-kitniyot cooking oil. Again, Meatland sells some – but it is palm oil – which, of course, is dangerously high in saturated fat content, as opposed to the Canola Oil that everyone else is using – which is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” You can get some olive oil – but it is quite pricey and it really changes the taste of some baked goods. I asked someone at Meatland if the margarine was kitniyot free. “All of our products are,” he answered, “we will never sell kitniyot during Pesach, God Willing” he added.
As another example, most of Ra’anana’s Kosher restaurants are open during Pesach but most are certified as “for kitniyot eaters only,” like the pizza places that use corn flour or the yogurt place that apparently has evil kitniyot in its yogurt. I suppose that by now, it probably makes sense to follow the old “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…,” on this issue, which is supported by relatively recent Conservative and Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish Rabbinical opinions (modern opinions), but so far we have resisted, out of deference to a silly family tradition that we continue to observe. There's even a Facebook page - the "kitniyot liberation front" dedicated to having Ashkenzi Jews eliminate the practice of prohibiting kitniyot during Pesach. But let’s face it; Judaism does have many traditions, derived from Rabbinic rulings, which are often not entirely logical.
Turning to another unrelated issue, I was reminded of the directness of Israeli society when I visited the local butcher. He asked what I wanted. I asked for some boneless chicken thighs. He told me that they were now all out and reminded me that there would now be no fresh meat until after Pesach, because of the holiday. He suggested I get some chicken breasts instead. He told me they were cheaper and lower in fat. He looked at me and told me that I look like a guy who should probably be worried about my cholesterol and so I would be better off eating the chicken breasts instead. I’m not necessarily saying he was wrong – but where else would you hear that from your local butcher, who I didn’t even know?
I also saw the Israeli economic system in action while I was in the supermarket. The woman ahead of me had a bill of about 780 N.I.S. That would be about $210. She negotiated a deal with the cashier (everything is negotiable in Israel) whereby she paid 180 N.I.S. in cash, 100 on a credit card and five post- dated cheques, each for 100 spread over the next 2 months. This was a supermarket bill!... Yet, Israelis pay in “multiple payments” everywhere – at the gas station, the local convenience store (the “makolet”) and other places. It seems like it must make things extremely complicated for both merchants and consumers. People can be paying in June for a supermarket bill from March, while making a new order that they will continue paying until October.
Yet somehow, with the pressure-filled preparations for detail oriented holidays (like Pesach, Sukkoth and others) throughout the year, the Israeli in-your-face directness and even the crazy state of the Israeli economy, Israel still managed to rank 14th in the 2012 World Happiness Report, 4 spots ahead of Great Britain and only 3 behind the United States. Not bad at all for a country facing existential threats from many of its surrounding neighbours, internal religious-secular tensions and chilly relationships with many of the world’s countries. Imagine how happy Israelis would be if we had peace!
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and Kosher Pesach.