Sushi Anyone? U.S. Conservative Jews Celebrate New Ability to Eat Rice With Passover Matzah

But for some, the Ashkenazi ban on eating kitniyot is a hard-to-break tradition.

Sushi
Rafi Koch

Sushi at the seder, cornflakes for breakfast, a rice cake smothered with peanut butter or hummus as a snack: For American Jews in the Conservative movement, these new culinary options are the reason why this Passover will be different from all over Passovers.

In the household of Daniel Schwarz, a Manhattan software designer, it is cause for excitement. His wife is actively hunting for new recipes and his three kids are looking forward to enjoying kosher-for-Passover corn and rice-based breakfast cereal in the morning instead of the monotony of eggs. He is happy that “a huge bag of rice was on our Passover shopping list for the first time and I’m really looking forward to having some rice dishes as a break from matzoh after four or five days.”

The revolution in the Schwarz household – and other observant families who belong to Conservative synagogues and follow the movement’s strictures – comes after a ruling by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the movement’s halakhic body, last December. The decision permits the consumption of what are known as kitniyot – mostly legumes like peas, beans and peanuts but also grains such as rice and other seeds such as corn, sesame and poppy. For hundreds of years, Ashkenazi Jews – who make up the vast majority of the American Jewish population – have traditionally refrained from eating kitniyot over Passover just as they avoid the other forbidden foods of Passover: grains like wheat, spelt, barley, rye and oats, as well as products derived from them.

The kitniyot ban dates back to the 13th century, when French Jewish leaders were concerned about the way legumes were grown and transported. The rabbis and community leaders worried these substances could easily be mixed together with the forbidden grains of Passover or be mistaken from them – and so they were prohibited, to be on the safe side. Over the years, for generations of European Jews across the continent, forbidding them over Passover became custom.

Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews in Asian and North African countries, however, never had this prohibition. In modern Israel, eating or abstaining from kitniyot or products made with them over Passover has become a major cultural divide and can be a point of contention in extended “mixed” families trying to plan the holiday menu. What makes the situation even more confusing is the fact that many processed Passover foods in Israel are made with products that aren’t explicitly kitniyot, but contain ingredients like peanut or other oils that are derived from them. As a result, many Ashkenazi Israelis – mostly non-Orthodox – have gradually abandoned family traditions over the years, and although they don’t eat grains over Passover, have joined the Sephardi majority and become lenient on the issue of kitniyot. Some only consume them within processed foods, while others go all out and enjoy eating products like rice and corn outright.

Because of these cultural tensions, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel ruled that Ashkenazi Jews in their movement were free to eat kitniyot back in 1989 – it has taken the CJLS in the United States 27 years to come around to a similar stance.

Schwarz’s spiritual leader at Congregation Habonim on the Upper West Side, Rabbi Joshua Katzan, said he was “thrilled” that what he and many other Conservative rabbis has long believed has now become policy – that banning kitniyot is a “mistaken custom” that is worth abandoning. He has believed and practiced it for years, but “I didn’t declare it publicly in the community until now,” he said.  

Katzan called forbidding kitniyot an “unnecessary challenge to healthy eating,” especially, he notes, as vegetarianism and veganism among Conservative Jews has becoming more common and kitniyot are a key source of protein and variety. Noting the biblical command to “be joyous on your festival,” he said wryly, it is a challenge to be joyous when “you can’t eat anything.”

Not all American Conservative Jews are happy about the change. Calling the decision a “misstep” in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote, “It represents an erosion of long-standing tradition, which is a very dangerous step for a movement to take when it claims to care about conserving tradition and even maintaining halakha [Jewish ritual law] For cultural minorities such as the Jews, traditions should not be lightly discarded unless there are very compelling justifications in the other direction.”

She is not alone. Connecticut rabbi Ilana Garber has no plans to eat kitniyot this Passover “because I see no good reason to change a tradition.” Also, like many Conservative Jews, she has Orthodox Jewish relatives that she wants to feel comfortable eating with them on Passover.  

In the Orthodox Ashkenazi world, while there may be pockets of dissent from the kitniyot ban (some have banded together on an amusing Facebook group called the Kitniyot Liberation Front ) the mainstream community leaders stand firm in choosing to prohibit them, preserving the tradition as a way of keeping the holiday special, while acknowledging that the practice is officially a “custom” and not a matter of halakha.

“We pass on our values to our children, the next generation, by connecting them to the great legacy of our illustrious ancestors of years past. We dare not abandon minhagei Yisrael [Jewish custom] even when the reasons no longer seem applicable, for a family that abandons its traditions severs its connections to the past,” wrote Orthodox Union rabbis Yaakov Luban and Eli Gersten.

Even among Conservative Jews, the change will take getting used to. Katzan said that some in his congregation will continue to abstain from kitniyot and in order to respect them and remain a united community, foods served at congregational events like their communal second seder will not contain them. “Maybe in future years, when they get used to the idea, we can add a kitniyot dish,” he said.

Schwarz, happy as he is about the change, is not going all out – he says his family is not going to serve kitniyot at their seders, though they will indulge during the holiday in their other meals.

Others are ready to plunge into their plates of rice and corn from the outset – but not without trepidation. Scott Perlo, a Washington DC rabbi, will attend a seder at the home of a friend who is an excellent cook and has been serving up dishes with kitniyot for a long time, and plans to indulge for the first time. “She is really excited to serve me kitniyot. I hope that I can do it. Even though I have been rooting for this change for a long time, I’m still scared of whether I will put that first bite in my mouth.”

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For first-time Passover kitniyot consumers – or anyone looking for a special holiday recipe, here are three recommendations from Haaretz food columnist Vered Guttman:

Vered Guttman

Cauliflower, Red Onion and Tahini Salad

INGREDIENTS:

Cooking spray

1 cauliflower

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt

2 tablespoon golden raisins

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup parsley leaves

1 teaspoon sumac (optional)

For the tahini dressing:

1.5 tablespoon water

1.5 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons tahini

2 teaspoons Greek yogurt (optional)

Table salt to taste

DIRECTIONS:

1.    Oven to 450 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Cut the cauliflower into 1” florets and place in a large bowl. Spray the florets with cooking spray, drizzle with olive oil and salt and mix well. Arrange on baking sheet in one layer and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, flipping cauliflower a couple of times during roasting.

2.    In the meantime, prepare the tahini dressing. In a small bowl mix the dressing ingredients. Add salt to taste. Set aside.

3.    When cauliflower is fork-tender, remove from the oven. Transfer cauliflower to large bowl and mix with tahini dressing. Let cool for 10 minutes and add raisins, red onion and Italian parsley. Sprinkle with sumac and serve.

Eggplant, apricot and date polow.
Vered Guttman

Eggplant, apricot and date polow

Serves six

INGREDIENTS:

2 large eggplants

Kosher salt

Oil spray

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 tablespoons butter

2 cups jasmine rice

1 yellow onion, diced

3/4 cup dried apricots, halved

1/2 cup pitted dates, halved

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

DIRECTIONS:

Wash eggplants and remove part of the peel, so that the remainder is striped. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise, and then cut each piece in half width-wise. Slice each quarter into wedges. Arrange eggplant in layers in a large colander over a large bowl, and sprinkle each layer generously with salt. Set aside for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Rinse eggplant and dry with paper towels. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Arrange eggplant wedges on baking sheets and spray on both sides with oil. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a tablespoon of salt, then roast for 40 minutes, rotating the trays and flipping the wedges after 20 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the rice. In a large pot over high heat boil 2 quarts water with 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Wash rice under running water until water is clear, and add to the boiling water. Bring to a boil, cook for 5 minutes, then drain in a colander.

Put three tablespoons butter into a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Sauté onion until golden brown, about eight minutes, stirring frequently. Add apricots, dates, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, and mix. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, mix and remove from heat.

Melt three tablespoons butter in a dutch oven over medium heat, then remove from heat. Add half the rice and mix well. Arrange half the eggplant over the rice, then top with the rest of the rice. Top the rice with another layer of the eggplant and finish with onion-apricot mixture. Cover pot with two-layered paper towel, then with a tight lid. Cook over low heat for one hour. Let set for five minutes and serve.

Vered Guttman

Green fava and herb rice

Serves 6-8

INGREDIENTS:

¼ cup olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

5 garlic cloves, sliced

2 cups Jasmine rice, washed and drained

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 bunch parsley, chopped

14 oz. frozen green fava beans (fresh or frozen peas or any beans can be substituted)

2½ teaspoons kosher salt

¾ cups freshly squeezed lemon juice

2¼ cups boiling water

DIRECTIONS:

Put oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add chopped onion and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, until onion is golden.

Add rice, mix and sauté for one minute. Add herbs, fava and salt and mix well. Add lemon juice and boiling water, bring to boil, then lower the heat to lowest, cover with lid and let cook for five minutes.

Mix the rice again (the herbs and fava tend to float up, so mix them in), cover and cook for 10 minutes longer or until the rice is ready.

Remove from heat, let sit for five minutes and serve.