(RNS) — Passover is coming, and I miss my father, George Salkin, who died in February 2019 at the age of 98.
I miss him not only because of the Seders of my youth, but because of an annual ritual in which I would compel him to participate.
For the last five years of his life, I would call him right around the third or fourth day of Pesach.
“Where, exactly, is our family from?”
“Vilna,” he would say. “What the Lithuanians call Vilnius. The capital of Lithuania.”
“Not Aleppo? Not Salonika?” I would ask eagerly, referring to two of the capital cities of the Sephardic Diaspora — those Jews of Iberian ancestry and/or “Arab Jews.”
“No! What the hell are you talking about?”
And my late mother? Her family was from Munkascz, in Austro-Hungary.
Darn. I am 100% Ashkenazi.
Which, on Pesach, has been a problem.
Has. As in “once was; no longer.”
So, this is what you need to know about keeping kosher for Pesach.
No leavened products (hametz) — bread, doughnuts, bagels, pasta, pizza. Kashering the kitchen. Some observant Jews not only clean the hametz out of their homes; they will sell that hametz, symbolically, to gentiles.
But, Ashkenazic Jews go one step further.
For centuries, they have refrained from indulging in rice and legumes (kitniyot) during Passover.
Sephardim have no such “legume-phobia,” and they eat beans, as well as rice, during Passover.
But over the past few years, there has been a revolution in how Jews think about cuisine for Passover.
It is the cry of those who seek redemption from the custom of avoiding kitniyot, and who are ready to walk the way of rice.
Eight reasons (one for each day of Pesach) to support that decision:
First: There is no mention in the Bible of a prohibition against legumes. It says “leaven.” Period.
Second: There is no mention in the Talmud of a prohibition against legumes.
Third: So where did it come from? Probably from France in the 12th century — and only for the Ashkenazim. There are many theories as to why they prohibited legumes; we need not go into them here.
Fourth: The greatest Jewish thinker in history was Maimonides. The great Maimonides thought the avoidance of legumes was a “stupid custom.” Of course, Maimonides was a Sephardic Jew — a refugee from Spain, who lived in North Africa.
Fifth: The state of Israel. Jews from many lands have migrated to the state of Israel from the four corners of the earth. That means we should be emphasizing the unity of the Jewish people, not those ethnic differences that separate us.
Sixth: In Israel itself, and in the Diaspora, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as Arab Jews, have married into each other’s families. They all have to eat together. You don’t want ethnic conflict at the Seder table.
Seventh: This is particularly and poignantly relevant as we enter Pandemic Passover, Year II. This year in particular, we need to lighten up on Pesach. If we make Pesach so restrictive and so onerous, there is the real and present danger otherwise committed and caring Jews will simply walk away from even trying to observe the festival at all.
And finally, there is my own reason. The eighth and final reason: By elevating a Sephardic way of observing Pesach, we are “repenting” for having created an “Ashke-normative” American Judaism.
We tell the story of Judaism as if it were located solely in Germany and Poland and Russia.
Yes, we speak of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 — but we often fail to tell the larger story of American Judaism.
Two centuries before our great-grandparents showed up at Ellis Island, the first Jews in this hemisphere were Sephardim — in Curacao, St. Thomas, Jamaica; in Newport, Rhode Island; New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah — all of them, originally, Sephardic communities.
Because this is a Jewish conversation, I am now going to take the other side — and tell you why you shouldn’t eat rice and legumes on Pesach.
First: The whole “it’s not in the Bible, so I’m not going to do it” argument. While that might be true, it is not true enough. Do you realize the way we do Judaism is, by and large, not biblical? Do you realize how confusing this is for Christians who want to understand Judaism?
Let’s make a short list of Jewish things that are not in the Bible. Lighting Shabbat candles. Bar mitzvah — and certainly not bat mitzvah. Neither, by the way, is the Passover Seder.
It’s not only that Judaism is allowed to grow and change; it must.
Second: It is OK for Ashkenazic Jews to not eat legumes — because it is OK for Jews to have ethnically diverse traditions.
Why should all Jews have the same traditions? Like the coat the biblical Joseph wore, Judaism is multicolored and richly textured. It is quite acceptable for different Jewish groups to cling to, and to cherish, their own traditions.
By the same token: Is it cultural appropriation when Ashkenazic Jews adopt Sephardic customs?
IMHO, no. I view the entirety of the Jewish tradition as a buffet. It is there for all Jews to sample, in their own search for sanctity, connection and meaning.
In the words of the great Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig: “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.”
There is a third reason why you might not want to eat rice and legumes during Pesach. This reason might be the hardest to hear.
Judaism is like a sport. It requires discipline. It is not supposed to be easy.
Do you really think we cannot do without rice or legumes for one week? Are we really that weak?
But: If you want to have a ricey, legume-ish Pesach and be liberated from the Pharaoh of all-too-strict-and-historically-flimsy customs, as your rabbi, I will tell you: Feel free to do so.
After all, it was none other than Maimonides who said abstaining from legumes was a “stupid custom.”
We’re talking Maimonides here.
I’m just saying …
Would I ever serve sushi at my Seder?
What are you — nuts?
But, as the week progresses …
Whatever you eat, or don’t eat — have a great and sweet Pesach.