Saturday, April 30, 2016

Masa Balls For Passover

Why was this night different from any other night? Because homemade corn tortillas were on the menu during Passover. Not that I adhere to the dietary laws of Passover. As a non-practicing Jew, I usually pass right over them. My everyday diet is punishment enough. But this year, what’s permissible to eat during those eight days of menu mehs includes what's known as kitniyot—corn, legumes, rice and seeds—that were forbidden for centuries. 

Mazel tov! Jews are free from the shackles of an 800-year ban on innocuous foodstuffs! But who passes Passover amendments, anyway? Ruth Bader Ginsburg? They don’t call the badass Supreme Court Justice Notorious RBG for nada. If she bangs her gavel and proclaims it okay to eat tortillas while commemorating our liberation from slavery in Egypt, then who am I to argue? Bring on the masa (as long as it’s not GMO corn. I’m pretty sure Moses wouldn’t be down with that). But if it's not her, who are these grain and legume authorities nulling sacred Passover practices, and why change the laws now?

First of all, matzo is made of flour and water—but not just any flour. It must be ground from wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oat that has not been allowed to ferment and rise. During Passover, leavened foods, known as chametz, are forbidden, and while Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern European descent were prohibited from kitniyot, the same rule didn’t apply to Sephardic Jews from Spain and the Mediterranean. 

Rabbis can’t really agree on why kitniyot was forbidden in the first place, but one theory is that since these foods were stored in the same sacks as the chametz grains, people may have worried about cross contamination or that both types of grains may have grown in the same fields. In any case, it’s likely that worrying was involved. And kvetching, too, since Ashkenazi Jews have been complaining about this rule for generations. 

So last year, some influential rabbis with the Conservative movement argued that kitniyot should be allowed, so they lifted the ban. But inquiring minds want to know why. Was it Big Grain lobbyists? Citizens Kitniyot United? A Passover super PAC? Did the Koch brothers convert to Judaism?

Some rabbis suggest that some traditional concerns surrounding kitniyot are simply no longer problems. Now that we buy our grain in supermarkets in sealed packages that are carefully labeled, any fear that a bit of wheat flour might make it into cornmeal or rice flour is mitigated.  

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the movement’s law and standards committee, said “It was not a wise custom to begin with, and in our day, when you have Jews of Ashkenazi descent married to Jews of Sephardic descent, it gets really hard to figure out what to do in your house.” He said there was also another reason behind the decision: the rise of vegans and gluten allergies. “I think that’s why it came up now as opposed to a generation ago,” he said.

It just goes to show how market trends can become movements that impact more than the marketplace. Voting with your dollar can help change 800-year-old laws. I can't wait for next year's Passover. I'm thinking sustainable gefilte fish will be having its moment. 

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