With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic. I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six. Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years. We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.
This year will be an exception. I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work. I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work. The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight. That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning. So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.” The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.
As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse. Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice. Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it. Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive. Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah. So what’s the point?
At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine). We drink four cups of wine or grape juice. And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert. My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons. It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.
Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things. And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation. Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened. This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup. It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu. In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days. Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans. It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.
So what do observant Jews eat during Passover? Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy. Good luck, vegans. We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables. In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad. My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out. So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce). I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon. I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.
In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried). Now, it’s potatoes. In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato. Now, it’s potatoes. Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon. Very boring and largely protein-free. I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.
My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.” However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets. None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet. True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook. I don’t. I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.
And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over. I suppose I should look at the bright side. Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.
Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.