Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Passover and Food Choices

I sometimes wonder if social media was created for the expressed purpose of sharing food porn.

I am as far from a foodie as one can get. There are just too many comestibles out there that disrupt my delicately balanced digestive system or those to which I might have a moral objection. I rarely eat for sheer pleasure, but rather for nourishment, nutrition, and basic preference, (Hello, vegetarian sushi!) but I plead guilty to the online crime of occasionally sharing delectable images to Facebook, Instagram, and the like. When I do photograph my creations, it is mostly out of the sheer amazement that I was able to create anything that even closely mimics the recipe. (I am not in the least bit artistic, so any food that doesn't resemble vegetarian chili is a win.) So, sue me. Every so often I like to show off my rather limited culinary prowess.

At this time of year, it is almost impossible to avoid surfing food porn. The coming of the Passover holiday will do that to even the most lapsed of Jews. I cannot think of another observance that puts us more in touch with our inner gourmand and our continuing culinary legacy than does Pesach. (Unless of course we count the pure asceticism of Yom Kippur and that holiday makes us think less about food and more about hunger.) At Pesach, we become positively intransigent when it comes to preparations and menu planning. Favoured and cherished recipes, that still carry the stains of previous years' cooking, are dragged off the shelves. Family discussions about what dishes will or won't be served at the seder often take on greater significance and importance than planning for the event itself. Recipe sharing becomes almost cutthroat, and all of this takes place before even considering issues like kitniyot, vegetarianism, ethical eating, or nutrition. But, I have begun to wonder if we have become far too focused on the food and far less on what the food represents. In our zealousness to protect our food heritage, have we lost the simplicity to maintain our legacy?

Yes, we all know about the matzah and the maror and the significance of the seder plate. But what about the actual sitting down and the sharing of our birthright and our history? Do we really require an almost gluttonous experience to achieve this most important of Pesach lessons? And what does this type of overindulgence say about us as a people?

There is no question that food stimulates memory and that our memories are sensory. Many cannot even conceive of a holiday observance without Bubby's famous fish or Aunt Ida's chicken soup. The idea of introducing the perfectly legitimate and halachically-acceptable  rice, corn, and beans into Pesach ritual is anathema for some because it rubs against the grain of family history. I understand these positions. It is difficult to let go of things that we believe have become part of our ancestral fabric. But for me, it is more important to challenge and question past norms in order to build a Judaism that remains relevant for me in the here and now, and ethical, healthy, moderate, and sustainable eating is a huge part of that.

When I sit down to my seders this week, I want and will attempt to achieve a simple balance in my food choices. I don't want to remove the memories of my ancestors, but rather to build on them with care and consideration. I don't seek to redefine the holiday, but rather to adapt it to my twenty-first-century ideals of helping the planet and her creatures. When my Jewish heritage and beliefs easily coexist with my secular ones, Judaism becomes starkly relevant for a new age and only then will I be comfortable with the legacy that I am leaving for the next generation. We need for Pesach to be far more than "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat." 

This year, the first seder coincides fortuitously with Earth Day. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life created a few lovely readings that we can and should share at our tables. Here is one that particularly resonated with me.
This is the Lechem Oni, Simple Bread, that our ancestors ate when they were slaves in Mitzrayim. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need celebrate Pesach with us. This year, we are still alienated from the land and its living communities. Next year may we be more connected to our people’s homeland, Israel, and to the natural world that is homeland to us all. This year, we are still slaves, tied to materialistic and destructive consumption patterns. Next year, may we and all the peoples of the earth be redeemed by having enough to satisfy our needs without consuming beyond what the earth can sustain.

Chag Sameach.

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