Kitniyot and Me

post by Jessica

My first memory of Passover happened at our synagogue in South Africa’s communal seder, when I decided I didn’t like the matzah ball soup.Unlike in the US, in South Africa, the soup was only brought out on Passover, maybe in deference to the tropical climate. In our first year in Canada, we visited my aunt in Florida for the seder, but after that year, we stayed and just did the seder with the three of us, and sometimes family friends. We even have a videotape of me at almost 8 years old, practicing reading the four questions and answering questions about them with my mom, who was at that point (and for much ofmy childhood) my Hebrew teacher. Once we moved to the US, we had a home seder for the first seder, and for the first time I could remember, we participated in a second seder, in the form of the annual community seder, one of the biggest events of the year in the congregation. It was a really enjoyable experience, and allowed us to participate in at least one seder, even during the years in high school when my mom was sick with chemo.

I loved all those seders, but that was often the extent of our food observance of Passover. I remember eating matzah sandwiches in high school, but with matzah hard to come by where we lived, sometimes we’d run out of matzah before the holiday was over, and we’d just go back to bread. My first year in college, I was surprised to see that the dorms had some Passover foods available all through the holiday.That minor experience combined with my growing understanding of kashrut meant that through my college years, I was working on my understanding of kashrut during Passover as well. By my senior year, my roommate and I were covering our counters with aluminum foil and buying as much kosher for Passover food as we could. I first found out about kitniyot when a friend asked if I had found anything in the convenience store by the dorm that didn’t have any corn syrup in it. I had no idea what she was talking about, and, once I found out, didn’t worry too much about it as I never really made a commitment to keep kosher for Passover, even as my roommate and I made an effort to make the apartment as kosher as possible for her sake.

It was during our year in Israel that really made me understand what it meant that R was teaching me about Sephardi kashrut, rather than Ashkenazi kashrut. I decided that year to see what the kitniyot thing was about. Israel was, of course, the perfect place to learn more about kitniyot – it was everywhere! Matzah, cheese and hummus sandwiches are amazing, kosher for Passover Doritos? Unbelievable! Back in America, without a strong family connection either way, I was more than happy to take on my husband’s kashrut practices in general, and kitniyot in particular. We make our own hummus with chickpeas, sort through the rice, and make sure we don’t serve kitniyot to anyone who doesn’t want it. Coming from a family with very little tradition for Passover, having fewer restrictions on foods for Passover has really been a blessing.


One thought on “Kitniyot and Me

  1. Growing up, my mother would always tell me on Pesah that we were Sephardi. Now, I could never quite keep in my mind just who exactly the Ashkenazim and who the Sephardim respectively were. My mother told me the former were from France-Germany, and the latter from Spain, but this didn’t really help me very much, because I didn’t know enough history to realize the significance of this fact. Besides, France and Spain are adjacent – I at least knew geography – and I didn’t understand or comprehend how two adjacent communities could be so different. I didn’t realize we were talking about the 10th-century, when France and Spain may as well have been on different planets!!! So anyway, my mother told me that we were Ashkenazim all year but Sephardi on Pesah. I didn’t really know what this meant, and I always had trouble remembering whether we weren’t rather Sephardi all year and Ashkenazi on Pesah, because the terms meant so little to me. I just remembered that we were whatever type of Jew was allowed to eat qitniot, and that was enough for me.

    I also remember that we thought the prohibition on hametz was on anything containing leavening agents, so we’d just check ingredients labels for “yeast” or “sodium bicarbonate” or the like. My mother is a chemist for the FDA, so she could find leavening agents quite capably in the lists, and so we thought we were fine. I remember eating a variety of foods which I’m now sure were actually hametz simply because they had no leavening agents in the ingredients. The one thing my mother couldn’t understand is why wine was kosher – after all, it is made with yeast!!! And wasn’t beer unkosher for Pesah for precisely that reason??? When I became frum, I learned that the prohibition has nothing to do with yeast (Hazal didn’t know about yeast, and anyway, it’s in our air we breath). Rather, the prohibition is on any grains of the wheat family that have gluten (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, etc., and oats according to Rashi but not according to Rambam) and have become wet for 18 minutes (which causes the yeast in the air to begin fermenting the gluten). But yeast per se is perfectly permitted; wine is kosher but beer is not, not because of the yeast, but because of the grain. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, it’d be perfectly permitted to make quick bread (like scones) on Pesah by using matzah flour with baking powder; sodium bicarbonate is also permitted on Pesah, contrary to my mother’s erroneous formerly-held opinion.

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