Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Passover Shopping Project

With Passover starting tomorrow night, it seemed appropriate to start off with my first non-introductory post talking about Passover.

To make a long story very, very short, Passover celebrates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. We eat certain ritual foods and perform certain ritual blessings and activities during two special dinners called seders. The holiday lasts eight days, during which time we are not supposed to eat any “chametz,” which is a whole category of foods including leavened bread, foods made with wheat flour other than matzah, and, in the Ashkenazi tradition (of which I am a part), we also don’t eat corn, rice, or legumes. This eliminates a rather large number of foods from our regular diet.

Thus, in the weeks leading up to Passover, there is a great deal of preparation to do, involving shopping for special foods to eat for the week as well as cleaning the house of chametz and acquiring dishes and utensils to use so that any food we cook or eat will not be contaminated by any chametz remaining on our regular dishes, in the oven, cupboards, or refrigerator.

This “Passover shopping” project means finding replacements or alternatives for just about everything, from ketchup and mayonnaise to starchy staples like pasta, bread, and cereal. Why ketchup? Well, most commercial ketchups are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, and we don’t eat corn products. Why mayonnaise? You have to be careful what oil was used.

We used to live in a suburb of Philadelphia that had a very large religious Jewish population. This meant that the two major supermarkets near us carried quite a lot of kosher products in general, and they brought in a lot of kosher for Passover products in the Passover shopping season. We’re not talking about just matzah. We’re talking just about anything you could think of made from potato starch or potato flour instead of corn or wheat flour, from lollipops to pasta. Cereals made from matzah meal. Kosher for Passover potato chips (not difficult, really), cheeses, canned and frozen products, premade Passover pizza, with dough made from matzah meal, matzah ball soup mixes (of course), potato latke mix, potato kugel mix, Passover egg noodles… the list goes on. And it’s all specially produced and specially watched just for the Passover season.

One thing I should note is that more Jews keep kosher for Passover than keep kosher during the rest of the year, so the market for these products is much bigger than the market for standard kosher products is the rest of the year. (This is a topic that warrants a series of posts in the future, incidentally. I’ll get to it. But not right now.)

Now we live in northern San Diego County, a place with very few Jews. The kosher sections of our local supermarkets carry only very basic products during the year, and finding kosher meat is very difficult. On Passover, they set up an endcap or two with matzah, grape juice, matzah ball soup mix, and some macaroons. Granted, macaroons are tasty, but you can’t eat macaroons three meals a day for eight days, can you?

Certainly, you can eat many fresh vegetables and fruits, so you’re not limited to packaged stuff, but you need the proteins and starches to build a meal. We find ourselves eating quite a lot of eggs and potatoes on Passover.

There is a store about 25 minutes from us with a pretty big kosher section, so for two years, we went down there to do our shopping. This year, we decided to go all out and drive up to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, where there are several all-kosher stores and restaurants. Passover shopping was very easy there, very fun, the over 1-1/2-hour drive notwithstanding, and very expensive.

In general, a weeks’ worth of Passover shopping costs, I’d say, three to four times what a standard weeks’ shopping would cost. On top of that is the purchase of whatever utensils, pots, dishes, tablecovers, and kitchen accessories you need to acquire or replace. The idea is that you accumulate all of these things and then don’t need to buy them each year, but it’s hard when you’re first starting out. For example, last year I bought extremely cheap frying pans at Wal-Mart. They were terrible. Just awful. So this year I decided to buy a nicer set of pots so that cooking would be more pleasant. The same went for knives. I went ahead and bought a slightly nicer set of knives to use this year. Those, we’ll keep around for next year, of course. We do a fair amount of cooking throughout the year, but we do even more on Passover, so having useful cooking utensils was an important consideration.

We also decided to go with paper this year for plates, bowls, cups, and flatware. This may not be an environmentally sound decision, but it’s much easier and cheaper in the short run than buying new sets of dishes.

All in all, keeping Passover here is more challenging, and not just because finding kosher for Passover food is more difficult. When you’re surrounded by others keeping kosher for Passover with you, it’s easier to stick with it. But when the guy in the next cubicle over is having pizza while you are eating your matzah with cream cheese, you can feel a little left out. But that’s also another series of posts waiting to happen.

I’ll finish by saying that although Passover itself is only 8 days long, the preparations start weeks in advance, and at least a day or two before Passover, you need to have finished switching over your kitchen so that you can start cooking! My husband is hard at work in the recently switched-over kitchen making meatballs for our second seder right now, in fact! (Don’t worry; I’ll be doing some of the cooking, too. But he’s the meat maker in the family.)

I know I left out a lot of details, and I didn’t really get into all the laws here – limited space, you know – but I’d love to entertain questions or comments from you if you want more information on anything I touched upon here.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Rather than starting with an introductory post telling you all about who I am, what I do, my wonderful husband and children, I thought I'd start with an on-topic post and let you learn about me through my writing. I hope that over the course of this blog, you get to know me very well, but I don't think a few paragraphs about my background and education are really what you came for.

Let's start with what I see as the main aspects of Judaism that make being religiously Jewish in the United States a challenge.

1) Observance of the Sabbath (Shabbat) and holidays.
2) Observance of the dietary laws (kashrut).
3) Observance of the laws of modesty and family purity (tzniut and taharat mishpachah).
4) Avoiding intermarriage.

I expect to be making general posts on each of these topics in the future for educational purposes as well as creating more specific articles to look at some of the details of these and other Jewish traditions and practices.

There isn't just one type of American Jew, and there isn't just one way to be Jewish in America. That makes my task more interesting. For example, a Jewish person living in New York City is surrounded by one of the largest Jewish populations in the world outside of Israel. There are plenty of kosher restaurants and supermarkets, synagogues, Judaica stores, and Jewish-owned businesses. On the other hand, a Jewish person living in Lincoln, Nebraska may find that the closest kosher food to be had is an hour away in Omaha, and the pickings there are probably rather slim, too.

The point is, American Jews are just as diverse as American anyone-elses. And I haven't even touched on the spectrum of Jewish practice one finds in the U.S. That's another post or six.

Did I mention that there are only about six million Jews in all of America, 13 million in the world, including Israel? That makes Jews only about 0.1 to 0.2% of the world's population. Yet just about everyone has heard of us! Another several entries will have to touch on just why a people with such small numbers has such a big impact.

Finally, I want to talk about more personal topics. What is my life as an American Jew like? What is my day-to-day?

I think I have plenty of fodder, and if any loyal and dedicated readers care to suggest topics or ask questions, I will be delighted to entertain your ideas as well. I encourage discussion but will not tolerate antisemitism or ad hominem attacks, nor do I want to create a space that encourages internet "flame wars" or massive debates. My e-mail inbox is full enough without that kind of nonsense.

By the way, for the intensely curious, I was born in southern California but spent my teenage and early adult years in suburban Philadelphia, then moved back to southern California three years ago. I have been married for almost eight years to an Israeli man, and we currently have two adorable young sons and two fairly annoying but adorable cats. I'm sure all of these people and animals will find themselves mentioned as we go along.

And now I have laundry to fold. See, I have a real life, too!