Friday, March 26, 2010

The Kitniyot Konundrums - 5770

The following is an encore presentation of a timely and pressing issue of the gravest importance. When first written in 2009 and submitted as an entry to the blog of a major modern orthodox Jewish organization, the article first had to be approved by the “halacha department” as if the issues discussed were somehow in wild contradiction of accepted Jewish law. In the end, the article was not published. This year, allow me to share a more recent update as a preface: I am sitting across the table from a man after donating blood, drinking nauseatingly sweet juice and eating particularly bland cookies. I mentioned to him that I have accepted recent rabbinic rulings that it’s OK for Ashkenazi Jews like us eat Kitniyot on Pesach. He is horrified, as if I suggested killing someone. “Kitniyot are chametz. You can’t eat Kitniyot on Pesach,” he stammers. “No,” I retort. “Kitniyot are Kitniyot. It’s a tradition that’s important, but they are not chametz.” “No, they’re chametz. But you just can’t sell it like chametz.” “If you can’t sell it like chametz, maybe it’s because it’s not chametz.” “No, Kitniyot are chametz.” “So what you’re saying is that Sephardim who eat Kitniyot are eating chametz and violating the most fundamental law of Pesach.” “No. It’s their minhag. It’s OK for Sephardim.” “But if they’re chametz, how is that OK for anyone to eat them during Pesach?” … Who’s on first? I don’t ever recall thinking about kitniyot during Pesach in any substantial way while living in the US. I grew up there and made my first home there, and kashrut, particularly relating to Pesach, seemed to focus on the customs of Ashkenazim like myself which made up the majority of American Jewry and, therefore, dominated kosher and culinary things there. Since making aliyah, it seems that not only has a year not gone by without kitniyot being an issue about which I have had to think considerably, but one that seems to get more heated year by year and as preparations for Pesach get closer. For an understanding of what kitniyot are, please see There are many challenges and opinions surrounding the kitniyot question ranging from whether Ashkenazim can eat them at all, eat derivatives of products from kitniyot, eat things classified as kitniyot that have no historical bearing as kitniyot, following minhag avotaynu (our father’s customs), and not eating them at all. It’s eye opening to walk the aisles of grocery stores throughout Israel and see things like pasta, rice cakes, Doritos, chumus, popcorn, and a wide range of other things that are indeed kosher l’pesach. It’s challenging to shop for cookies, candy, oils, sauces, beverages, ice cream and many other things that may have traces of kitniyot, or things derived from kitniyot, that make consumption of these items for Ashkenazim an issue. Indeed, in the past years, we have eaten our share of kitniyot by mistake because it’s easy to let it slip by that generic kosher l’pesach cookies might be made from something that our ancestors in Poland did not eat. More confusing was the time when we were on an outing and got ice cream for the kids in a familiar yellow Magnum wrapper – checking that it was kosher l’pesach – but without thinking that there might be kitniyot that made this Pesach version of the yummy white chocolate ice cream so tasty. Last year, going out to lunch at a mall in Haifa became an exercise in frustration because every restaurant that was open and kosher l’pesach included kitniyot in their menu, or ingredients. That time, all the kids had to eat was the one ice cream that could be found without kitniyot. As complex as it is to shop and eat as an Ashkenazi who does not eat kitniyot, people are passionate about why they do or don’t. While my personal thinking has evolved, without getting into my practice, I’d like to share just a small sample of the opinions that have been presented on Anglo e-mail chat lists here. First, a conversation I initiated with a respected Rabbi in the US last year as the issue – or my awareness of it – came more to the surface. Dear Respected Rabbi, Recently, we were talking about the topic of eating kitniyot on Pesach. There seems to be a great deal of interest this year more than the past two that we've been here, a flood of e-mails and the like. I am passing along this e-mail from one of the Anglo lists and very much wonder what your thoughts are. Not that we're running to eat kitniyot, but the issue is interesting. As many things, I know there are two sides and it's not normally the role of a Rabbi outside Israel to make a psak on issues in Israel, but we're curious what you think. Yonatan Dear Yonatan, As you correctly noted I cannot issue a Psak Halacha for people residing in Israel. There is much merit to this argument (of eating kitniyot on Pesach). Others have said something very similar as well. The mainstream rabbinate will have to make that decision. Unfortunately, I don't think that it will be coming too quickly. Chag Sameach. Your Rav There are those who passionately disagree that there is any merit to this at all…. I am curious, all those Ashkenazi Jews who are so willing to eat kitniyot, are they also ready to change their nussach tefilah and get up for slichot all of Elul! There is a principle stated in Pirke Avot that one should not separate from the tzibur. The vast majority of orthodox Ashkenazi Rabbis today, and for very many generations in the past, don't permit eating kitniyot on Pesach, except under extraordinary circumstances. There is a very, very small minority who permit Ashkenazim to eat Kitniyot on Pesach. It seems to me that generally speaking, an Ashkenazi Jew should follow the vast majority of today's orthodox Ashkenazi Rabbis, and not eat Kitniyot on Pesach. As far as I am concerned, when (someone writes) that “…. (Rabbi) Hartman said…” and that “…already there is not a single family in the country without a Sephardi member..” is enough to invalidate his position. (The latter is just) not true. And others who feel just as passionately the other way… By separating themselves from the MAJORITY of Jews who live in Israel and who, just by chance happen to be Sephardic, it is Ashkenazi Jews who insist on keeping up their traditions at all costs, who are continuing to keep Am Yisrael from becoming one nation with one halacha. It is these Jews who separate themselves from the tzibur. This year we're going with the things that were added to the original gezera and didn't exist at the time- like soy, peanuts, humus, canola etc. Rice is a bit much at this point for us. I just found out that Moroccans don't eat rice, either, but definitely things have gotten too machmir and there's a rebellion. For us the real selling point was that if we're 'Eretz Yisraelis' and the minhag makom was to eat kitniyot and ideologically this is consistent with other things we do, then we're okay with it. Already the majority of Jews in Israel are Sephardi. It’s almost a certainty that at least one of my four girls will marry a man whose custom it is to eat kitniyot, and they will. By the time the grandchildren are married, there will be very little difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and few families outside Mea Shearim and Bnai Berak who are 100% Ashkenazi. I like to see myself as a Zionist visionary, just starting to do something that will be done in the future anyway. Some are more confused with the issue as time passes… I used to give the Kitniyot Madness Award every year to the most lunatic new humra on kitniyot. One year it almost went to the rabbi who solemnly proclaimed a ban on tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini. Why? Because the seeds are edible. (Siddown, rabbi.) He lost out to the rabbi who proclaimed cottonseed oil to be kitniyot. I can think of several good reasons not to eat cottonseed oil ever but none of them has any connection whatever to Pesach. The only reason I can see to call cottonseed oil kitniyot is that kutnah sounds something like kitniyot. Now, I am told that products can no longer get a mehadrin hekhsher if they have cottonseed oil. Please tell me this is not true! Meanwhile, many of the same people who worry over every new humrah on kitniyot buy ordinary matzot and not matzo shemurah. We are told the ban was instituted to protect the integrity of the matzo and now there are people who are hamur on kitniyot and meykel on matzah. Does that make any sense? A few years ago, news went out the quinoa is not kitniyot because it was not known to the rabbanim at the time of the ban and we do not expand humrot by analogy. That may be true as a general rule but kitniyot is a madness way beyond that sort of nicety. That year, I did not find quinoa with a Pesach hekhsher. The next year, it appeared on the market, “Kasher lePesah l-okhlei kitniyot bilvad.” (Kosher for Pesach only for those who eat kitniyot.) As much as some passionately agree, and others passionately disagree, there are those who are passionately irreverent and must be using this as a mindless interlude from cleaning and cooking…. If we decide to eat kitniyot....are we also obligated to celebrate Mimouna? If that is the case...the deal is out...I can't think of having to cook an entire Mimouna festival after 8 days of cooking matza brei.... Just a warning -you might see me during Chag sitting in the plaza with bare legs munching on a rice cracker - please don't call security on me. The rabbinate is so corrupt I can get a psak for anything, if I ask the right person for the right amount of money. So why do I need to wait until someone issues a psak, because his brother in law just started a wholesale chick pea distribution business. I know an Ashkenazi man who, in order to please his Sephardic wife and in-laws, wants to finally (begin) eating kitniyot but he also wants to keep his great-great-grandmother's tradition of eating "non-gebrocht"... Question: Is there any way to do both: Eat "non-gebrocht" and eat kitniyot? And if there is no way to do you know of any good marriage counselor who can give him advice as how to please his wife and (honor) his great-great great grandmother’s memory? Please note: he wants a marriage counselor who eats non-gebrocht if possible... When Mashiach comes, (bimeheyrah veyameinu) if he tells the Ashkenazim, “Well done, and bless you for your perseverance in kitniyot, and you can now actually eat kitniyot,” they will not do it. They might decide he didn’t really say that and what he said didn’t really mean that "and in any case, just to be on the safe side, we won’t do it.” And if he says to the Sephardim, “Continue to enjoy your kitniyot on Pesach but you may not grind it into flour,” they will say “But we never accepted the ban on kitniyot.” Chag sameach and may we need to keep ourselves busy with kitniyot issues rather than with security and defense issues, even though I doubt that this will be the case. As the last post suggested, there are many other more pressing issues this Pesach and in general. Nevertheless, the issue has become so widespread that even the far from religious oriented Forward published an article on it, “Pesach Kitniyot Rebels Roil Rabbis As Some Ashkenazim Follow New, Permissive Ruling” at Perhaps the primary recent source that has aroused this debate is Rav David Bar-Hayim's Beit Din well-publicized psak permitting the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews living in Israel which can be found at Finally, not to be outdone or leave people to think that kitniyot are the only potentially divisive issue during Pesach, last year Haaretz reported that “A 28-year-old yeshiva student was arrested late Sunday after undressing completely in a Tel Aviv supermarket with only a sock to cover his genitals, to protest the store's sale of chametz during Passover. The same student was arrested for pulling the same stunt last year, after the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court passed a controversial ruling which permitted the sale of chametz (foods Jewish law prohibits on Passover) in some businesses. The court ruled then that the matzot law, which prohibits the display of chametz, in public places during the holiday, does not apply to supermarkets, pizzerias and restaurants, as they are not considered "public." The student was detained for interrogation on suspicion of performing an indecent act in public. In his defense, he claimed that since chamez was sold on the premises, it could therefore not be legally recognized as a public place, and as such, there were no grounds to press charges against him.” Perhaps it’s obvious that the majority of recent Anglo olim here are Ashkenazim who are confronted with something in kitniyot that they never had to consider before, so these Anglo lists are probably more prone to this debate than Israeli society on the whole. What will be in the future? Will you eat in my home during Pesach? Will I eat in yours? Only time will tell. After all, yetziat mitzrayim took 40 years so I suppose we can give this a little time too. Chag sameach.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Let Freedom Reign

Our dinner at a very nice Jerusalem restaurant consisted of appetizers of fried and stuffed mushrooms, stuffed artichokes and spicy Moroccan fish. The main courses were steak, burgers and chicken. Dessert was halvah parfait and lemon tart, tea and coffee. And a very nice bottle of Israeli wine. On the surface, it was a nice evening out for two couples, friends whose relationship goes back more than two decades. Over dinner, as much as I enjoyed visiting and catching up with David and Anna, seeing photos of their kids and finding out what they are doing, and reciprocating about our family, talking about work and recent job changes, politics, and a little reminiscing of stories past, I couldn't help but recognize that this visit was worlds away from our first meeting. Thursday October 1, 1987, I had just landed in Moscow with a friend, Michael. This would be my second trip to the Soviet Union for the express purpose of visiting and helping Jewish refusenicks (, Jews who were brave enough to submit a formal application to leave the USSR, flagging themselves for all sorts of problems socially, legally, politically, and professionally. Despite optimism from perestroika and glasnost, the USSR was still an oppressive society where the cloud of fear and mistrust loomed as a huge as the vast reach of the Kremlin itself. This was especially the case for Soviet Jews whose struggle for freedom had ebbed and flowed along with the tide of international affairs, and who were definitely feeling the heel of the decades of oppression in spite of much publicized hopes. In all of 1987, fewer than 1000 Jews were given permission to leave the USSR. Most of them were long term refusenicks. My trip that October was initially intended to launch the process of marrying a woman my age whose family I had adopted some years earlier. After years of correspondence, I finally met the Steins 1985. I proposed marriage with the hopes of using that as leverage to get her and her family out of the USSR. That year, they were four among the lucky few who had already received permission to leave, and actually had left that summer, so my trip became about helping others. (See the following links for video and stories as background about this chapter of my life, the first from ABC News anchored by Ted Koppel March 25, 1988: , and the second a research project about which I was the subject Back to Moscow 1987. We arrived two days before Yom Kippur for a seventeen day journey that would take us through Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Odessa, and encompass both Yom Kippur in Moscow, the first days of Sukkot in Leningrad and then back in Moscow for Simchat Torah which had become a celebrated outlet for Jews to express their Judaism, under careful watch of the KGB. Toting a new address book in which I had transcribed all my contacts, long before this could be done electronically, I opened it to look for the names of the refusenicks I was to contact, who had been entered among all my friends, family, and others, in code, so that the KGB would neither suspect me nor be able to identify who I was supposed to visit. We followed careful instructions as to which pay phones were believed to be relatively safe to use and not draw attention upon ourselves, or those we were calling, even though it was common belief that no call was really safe from KGB ears. Within hours we were off to meet the Lurie family, long term refusenicks whose matriarch had been allowed to emigrate, but the rest of the family had been refused. Anna, the oldest daughter, had recently married David, a young Jewish activist, and we became instant friends. Getting to know them I felt that David’s story sounded familiar, but wrote it off to my several prior years of involvement and activism. We went about the rest of our visit including being the first to see the legendary Ida Nudel hours after she received her permission to emigrate. Our audio tape of that visit and the accompanying photos showed her immediate transformation from an oppressed slave of the Soviet system to a free woman. We shared a taxi to the synagogue for Yom Kippur eve services, and she left the following week. With the exception of this euphoric experience, most of the rest of the visits with dozens of refusenicks we met were less upbeat. They were appreciative of our help and being there, but still felt the fear and oppression that existed, and they desperately yearned to be free. Our last night in the USSR was back in Moscow, both to be ready to leave on our flight home and to be there for the Simchat Torah experience. Thousands filled the street outside and hundreds, maybe thousands, more inside Moscow’s then only “functional” synagogue. Those outside either could not get inside, did not want to be branded as a potentially bigger troublemaker by actually entering the sanctuary, or were just having too much fun where they were. It was said that the scene outside the synagogue on Simchat Torah was like a big Jewish singles event, resulting in many matches being made. Based on the demographics, that was probably true. But the scene outside was also the meeting point of older Jews, married and not, those who had applied to leave, and those who just wanted a taste of Judaism. We bumped into several leaders of the refusenick movement there, a virtual who’s who of Moscow’s Jewish community. Drawn to some festive singing and guitar playing, we noticed our new, old friend, David, at the center of a circle, guitar in hand, leading in Hebrew songs, something that in and of itself could have been punished by trumped up charges and a prison sentence. But the Jews of Moscow felt just free enough that festival, as they had in the past, to push the envelope, just a little. For a few hours each year, Moscow’s Jews experienced a hint of freedom. Yet the KGB watched very closely and, when they were ready, gave the order to close down the festivities. As we walked from the Archipova St. Synagogue together with David and Anna, saying good bye but not knowing when we might see one another again, I started giving David things that we really didn’t need. Among them, my long wool coat that was keeping me warm in the cold Moscow pre-winter. Initially David refused, but I insisted. I told him to take it, and sell it on the black market if he needed money. He liked that idea as, rather than keeping the money himself, he’d use it to buy an amplifier for his guitar so that when they had clandestine festive Jewish gatherings full of song and dance, more people would be able to hear from further away. David and Anna were allowed to leave not long thereafter. By then, Daniel was born, and they had to leave their families behind initially, not knowing when they’d see them again, but also not knowing when there might be another chance to leave. Now that they were parents, it was all the more urgent that they be free, so they could raise a new generation of Jewish children in Israel, in freedom. After they made aliyah, they visited me in the US, and I’d visit them in Israel. Though we don’t make the opportunity to see one another often enough due to the complexities of life, kids, work, etc, at least today we have the freedom to do so as now we’re living only 45 minutes from one another. Some time after David and Anna were in Israel, I discovered why, when I had met them some years earlier, his story was familiar. It turns out that David was the subject of a 1982 article in Hadassah magazine, the very one my mother read to our family over dinner one night that had inspired me to become active. We learned that David and I share the same birthday, and that Anna’s birthday is the same as our wedding anniversary. Other than the nostalgia of dinner with David and Anna, our story, and reliving my past involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement, it is a story that is particularly relevant this season, on the eve of Passover, the festival of freedom, the celebration of the Jewish redemption from slavery in Egypt. Our tradition teaches that Jews must observe Passover, reliving the Exodus of thousands of years ago as if we, too, were slaves in Egypt. That’s a very hard to do today, unlike in my day when Jews were still largely enslaved in the USSR, Syria, and in other corners of the world. It’s hard to feel as if you ARE a slave leaving Egypt thousands of years ago, when the concept of a refusenick, modern Jewish persecution and enslavement, the idea of living in fear, and even a black market to deal in wool coats to sustain Jewish life is one that is completely foreign and unimaginable. Even the children of these brave Jews who resisted Soviet oppression and assimilation, those living in Israel as free and proud Jews integrated with my kids and the rest of Israeli society, don’t fully grasp the struggle their parents had to endure to bring them to a life of freedom in Israel. As we celebrate this festival of freedom and redemption, looking back on ancient history as if it were the present, it’s important to remember that freedom has a price, but that no matter the price, it is far less than the value. In addition to teaching us about suffering of generations past, Passover teaches us to appreciate our freedom, and never to take it for granted. May we be privileged to have the freedom to continue to recount our redemption as if we had been redeemed ourselves, never actually knowing what that was like. May we have the ability to celebrate festivals together with friends and family, as well as long overdue reunions, but be mindful not to take these for granted, even though we have the freedom to do so.