Forbidden Kitniyot Now Take Center Stage at Many an Ashkenazi Seder

Ashkenazi immigrants to Israel recount the process of gradually weaning off the custom of banning legumes: Now they eat cornflakes.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue on March 25, 2013 in Miami Beach, Florida.
A community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue on March 25, 2013 in Miami Beach, Florida.Credit: AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Idele Ross will be hosting 15 people for the Passover Seder at her new home on Monday evening. She hasn’t yet finalized the menu, but one thing’s for sure: There will be rice on the table.

“I’ve been living in Israel now for 40 years,” said the Detroit transplant, a senior broadcaster on Israeli English-language radio. “I figure if I have a new home and a new kitchen, why not also start a new tradition? So this year I’ll be eating kitniyot for the first time.”

A category of foods that includes rice, legumes, soy and peanuts, kitniyot are traditionally avoided on Passover by Jews of Ashkenazi descent. Jewish law prohibits eating chametz, or leaven made from the following five grains on Passover: wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. The custom of abstaining from kitniyot, which dates back hundreds of years, evolved out of a fear that foods in this category might have either been in contact with the five grains or be mistaken for them.

Like Ross, many Ashkenazi Israelis have begun to question the relevance of this custom for life in the modern-day Jewish state. “It’s completely meaningless today,” she notes. “They don’t grow lentils in the wheat fields anymore. So I said to myself enough already. Enough with this Ashkenazi-American custom. I’m a Jerusalemite now, and I follow the custom of Israel.”

For Geoff Clein, it didn’t take nearly as long to become a convert to kitniyot. The American-born former rabbinical student said that when he moved to Israel in 1984, after already concluding that it made little sense to keep abstaining from kitniyot, he made the big move. “As far as I was concerned, once I made aliyah I was an Israeli Jew and no longer bound by Polish halakha [religious law],” he says.

Some who have broken away from the old custom, like Clein and Ross, are going all the way, putting everything from sushi to hummus on their Passover tables. Others prefer to take it more slowly, beginning the process by experimenting with derivatives of kitniyot like peanut oil, before going for the hard stuff.

Yair Sheleg, for example, says he and his family have reached a compromise of sorts that works well for them. “We don’t eat actual peas or garbanzo beans,” he explains, “but we will eat food that has a kitniyot component in it. On the one hand, we know there’s really no reason anymore not to eat kitniyot, but on the hand we like to preserve our family traditions.”

Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who specializes in issues of religion and state, speculates that Ashkenazi Israelis are probably more inclined to abandon the practice of abstaining from kitniyot than their counterparts overseas. “Outside Israel, there are clearer lines of distinction between the different streams of Judaism, maybe because there’s more emphasis on the community there,” he observes. “Here in Israel, though, there are fewer distinctions, which makes it easier to do what others are doing.”

Many of those Ashkenazi Israelis who have begun to consume kitniyot say they simply reached the conclusion there was no reason not to anymore. Specifically, they note, the concerns that prompted the original prohibition − that the food was grown in the same fields or packaged in the same sacks with the five forbidden grains − were no longer relevant. Others say they no longer feel the need to observe Ashkenazi-specific customs when living in Israel. For yet others, it’s just plain too difficult to avoid kitniyot in Israel.

“Where I grew up in Sydney, Australia, there were lots of kosher-for-Passover products you could get that didn’t have kitniyot in them,” notes Benjy Rutland, who moved to Israel 10 years ago. “But here in Israel, it became a big struggle. I’d have to go to special Haredi supermarkets to find things that I could eat on Passover.”

Rutland, who describes himself as “moderate Orthodox,” says that last year, for the first time in his life, he began bending the rules a bit. “I said to myself that enough is enough and that it’s just a custom. But I haven’t gone all the way yet. I’m not eating rice or corn or hummus, but I might reach that point, and it’s becoming more and more common among my friends.”

About 25 years ago, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative-Masorti Movement in Israel issued a ruling that not only permitted eating kitniyot, but also stipulated that it was “perhaps even obligatory.” The ruling, written by Rabbi David Golinkin, cited numerous reasons to abandon the custom it referred to as “foolish,” among them the fact that “it causes unnecessary divisions between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” Sephardi Jews, after all, do not observe this custom.

More recently, Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, an Orthodox rabbi who runs the Jerusalem-based Shilo Institute, issued a ruling permitting Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel to eat kitniyot on the grounds that it has always been the custom in the Land of Israel. This view, however, is not upheld by mainstream Orthodoxy in Israel.

Sarah Vanunu, an immigrant from Australia, had her first tasting of kitniyot on Passover during a Seder hosted by her Moroccan mother-in-law. “They didn’t even take into consideration that anyone might not eat kitniyot, so unless I wanted to go hungry, I had no choice then but to eat the kitniyot,” she recalls. “Now that I’ve been doing it for quite a few years, it doesn’t feel strange anymore, and here in Israel, it almost makes everything kosher for Passover.”

Davida Chazan, who didn’t grow up Orthodox but keeps kosher, said she couldn’t bring herself to begin eating kitniyot while her observant in-laws were still alive. “It was a matter of keeping the peace at home,” she explains, “even though to me it made no sense at all. But now that I don’t have to worry anymore about eating cornflakes in the morning on Passover, it makes life so much easier.”

Not only Ross, but also all her guests, she says, are looking forward to their upcoming kitniyot-laden Seder meal at her home. “It took the Jews 40 years in the desert,” she notes. “It took me 40 years to put rice on the table.”

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