Converts. Are we sorted into minhag, or customs of Jewish daily practice, like the youngest wizards are into houses by the talking hat at the Hogwarts School in “Harry Potter”? Do we get to choose, maybe with the roll of a dice? Or is it decided for us by a rabbi, with no input? It’s a big area of debate. But, for many worldwide, it’s becoming less and less of an issue as people just decide they want to take on a specific minhag. And, right around this time of the year is when that magical decision process seems to happen for many. Yep, it’s nearly Passover!
As I explained in an online conversation with some friends today, I have been told by some people that I am allowed to choose my minhag, while others have said that I need to go by that of my community. The thing is, if I go by the latter rule, the definition of “community” varies: Of my synagogue? Or, of my neighborhood? Both are mixed, and mixed a tad wildly.
In the case of the former, I go to a Conservative synagogue that has a large number of Ashkenazim, and among them they will almost all tell you in their homes something along the lines of, “My family has a very personal minhag: my parents were from Germany while my husband’s were from Romania and so we do this to remember them and keep them all alive. But, why don’t we follow your family’s traditions tonight since you’re the guest? We’d love to learn what you do.” Minhag is further broken down to specific region of Europe, not simply “Ashkenazi”.
Meanwhile, we pray in the services in our congregation with a Sephardic accent (which is the norm of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism). And, since moving here to New York six years ago, I’ve spent Shabbat meals and attended seders most of the time with one specific Sephardi family which has claimed me as extended family, and I’ve learned their traditions as a result. My synagogue also has a handful of congregants who are Mizrachi, having immigrated here from, or with parents who came here from places like Egypt or Iran. These all are the people who since day one have had a significant impact on me and my growth as a Jew. That’s just how things have happened.
The community at large beyond my synagogue, in my neighborhood, is just as diverse and hard to pin down. Again, we have a notable Ashkenazi presence, but the largest growing population of residents is Bukharian. The synagogue closest to my house, meanwhile, is Persian. I’ve visited one of the major Bukharian synagogues in passing on Simchat Torah and been invited to services at another, while being warned that none of the service is in English. Not that a lack of my native language phases me: I’ve attended the Persian synagogue multiple times, despite not being able to speak or read Farsi.
The Persian congregation is one of the warmest congregations I have ever met, though they were very wary of me at first and I can’t blame them. Few congregations in the neighborhood act aware of them or interact with them. And at first, I think that they thought I was going to be disrespectful. Once they saw my personal Nusach Sephard siddur and my genuine desire to simply participate in services with them as best I could, things changed like night and day. I feel incredibly at home and welcome among Bukharians and Persians.
I can’t claim the same about all Jewish neighborhoods, and that’s because this is my community and is what I know. I love where I live.
I converted in Philadelphia but moved up to the border between Forest Hills and Rego Park just months thereafter due to work and other pressing needs. I honestly do not know the Ashkenazi-only worlds of some other neighborhoods in New York, and it’s not a priority for me. Life isn’t life for me without signs everywhere in Russian and bakeries with piles of noni toki and rich spices and lively conversation everywhere.
But let’s talk get back to Passover, now that you know where I’m coming from with the community angle.
Long story short with all of that, I can’t simply call myself Ashkenazi with all of that Bukharian and Mizrachi and Sephardi influence. My life is too mixed. But in other regards… Passover. It’s that time of the year to talk about it, it really is.
Brace yourselves, maror is coming.
As I’ve written about before, I did once attempt an Orthodox conversion, and part of that meant trying to live according to the overall Ashkenazi minhag. It was a good learning experience–there’s always something to be said about learning about others and how they live. But, it really went over with me like a screen door on a submarine. It simply didn’t work with my Italian palate (worst attempt at pasta ever…for starters…), and healthwise, it was a disaster. I can’t do dairy so easily with my lactose intolerance. I can handle yogurt. I can handle some cheeses, but a lot of the ones I like weren’t kosher for Passover the year that I tried to do things the Ashkenazi way.
So, I tried drinking lactose-free milk that was certified kosher for Passover for a source of calcium. But milk, even the lactose free stuff? No way, Jose. Honestly, too, I’m very picky about which dairy companies I support for ethical reasons, and even for a week and a day, I’m not keen on spending money on a place that does stuff I find morally objectionable. I found that consuming products from soy and other beans, or almonds or coconuts for that matter, as I always do, was better on me.
And, health and ethical issues aside, frankly, the Ashkenazi rule against eating kitniyot (beans, rice, corn, legumes) is just stupid to me. There’s no other way to say it.
And so, I decided that year round, including for Passover, including with how I handle my dishes, including how I handle a lot of things, it just makes more sense to me to go by the Sephardi minhag, hook, line, and sinker. That’s what I was leaning toward before the Orthodox conversion, and it was my final decision after that Passover of gastrointestinal misery and feeling like a lousy ethical sell-out.
Now, let’s be crystal clear about something: I did not go with the Sephardic minhag because I found it easier.
It’s not easier.
I went with it because it makes more sense to me in terms of Jewish law and is healthier for me. It is far from easier in some regards. As my good friend Shmueli Gonzales explains each year in his blog, “Hardcore Mesorah,” we who go by this minhag cannot just buy any old beans or rice or soymilk for Passover. All of these products are still bound to strict supervision and need review every single year. There are rabbis in New Jersey who serve the Sephardic community who publish a guide, which Shmueli hunts down each year and from which he shares important information. It reports, for example, how some rice manufacturers enrich rice with chametz, the grains we have to avoid during Passover. Some soymilk also includes chametz ingredients that may not show up on a label and thus isn’t kosher for Passover. And no, dear, you cannot just buy canned beans.
Oh, no. Total Chametz-ville.
We need to take a cookie sheet, line it with foil, and sort dry beans multiple times, looking for grains of barley or any other chametz that may have mixed in with the beans at the plant and then cook those okay beans up old school in a dutch oven or in a Passover-only crock pot.
You thought we had it easy? Nope.
You should have seen me with my big sheet of beans last year. And yes, I did find grains mixed into that bag by accident. The end result was worth it: I made an amazing soup with them and some fresh veggies and ate like a queen. But it was hard work. Nobody can tell me I didn’t go through my little spiritual exodus during those eight days.
I went hardcore!
It’s a bit of a comfort that the Orthodox Union (OU) and Star-K kosher supervision organizations are now paying attention to the needs of the Sephardic community (and other communities that follow Sephardi rules regarding Passover with food). Coming this year, we’ll be able to better access information regarding which kitniyot products are kosher for Passover. But, I’ll still have my hill of beans to sort through and make wisecracks about on social media as I drag myself through the dreaded Passover preparations. And Shmueli will still have to hunt down the list from the rabbis in New Jersey, no doubt.
I know that plenty of people who don’t consider themselves Sephardi suddenly switch just for Passover thinking that they’ll have yummier food options and an easier time, but then do everything wrong and eat chametz as a result.
I hope they’ll at least look at the new guides coming out from OU and Star-K and clue in a bit. I find the insinuation that Sephardim = lazy to be annoying at best. Yes, we Sephardim may eat tastier, and quite likely healthier food on Passover, but it comes with tedious work.
Just remember everyone, regardless of minhag: we Jews will all be in this together, some of us in wackier ways than others. Just don’t think I have it easier than you if you don’t eat kitniyot; otherwise, I’ll make YOU come over here and count out these beans one at a time.
It’s fun, honest!
Your fingers and eyeballs will thank me!
Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.