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Let My Popcorn Go: Rethinking Passover’s Forbidden Foods

Let My Popcorn Go: Rethinking Passover’s Forbidden Foods

A new rabbi changed my views on whether to eat kitniyot during the holiday.

Overflowing bucket of popcorn against a red background

I was born Jewish but married into Judaism.

That is to say, I grew up in a Jewish family, in which we lit Hanukkah candles and were inspired to make the world a better place. But it wasn’t until my twenties that I truly became enchanted by the rich practices, deep structure, and community experience of Judaism.

I met my husband-to-be on Shavuot, a holiday I’d never heard of until a few days earlier. At synagogue services, I watched the people around me out of the corner of my eye to see when to stand up and sit down; he didn’t have to look. While I sounded out the Hebrew words of the siddur (prayer book) letter by letter, he sped confidently through the prayers.

Growing up, my family’s Passover seder was all about family and food. Relatives would drive up from Los Angeles, and my sisters and I would put out a beautiful, white tablecloth and our best dishes. We knew the basic story of the Haggadah, but the cryptic words of obscure rabbis didn’t do much for us. We’d flip through the pages, stopping at the parts we recognized, singing our favorite songs and skipping whatever else stood between us and the delicious feast my mother had prepared. The next morning, we would have matzah brei with maple syrup for breakfast, but after that, it was back to toast and cereal.

In the early years of marriage, I turned to my husband for guidance on all things Jewish. Before our first Pesach together, I helped him clean the kitchen, removing every trace of forbidden foods in preparation for the holiday. The five types of chametz (leaven)wheat, oats, barley, spelt, and rye were easy to remember, but there were also a seemingly infinite number of types of kitniyot, or “small things,” including rice, corn, corn syrup, sunflower seeds, soybeans, soy sauce, tofu, lentils, peas, sesame seeds, kidney beans, and peanuts. In the beginning, I couldn’t remember them all. “Is this OK?” I’d ask as we rooted through the cupboards. “What about this one?”

As vegetarians, we found the kitniyot prohibition especially challenging. Our young children grew up on tofu, rice, and beans. We both worked full time and didn’t have the time or energy to devise exciting vegetarian Passover meals. It was a long, long week of seder leftovers, supplemented with salad and eggs. But we wanted the children to enjoy Passover rather than experiencing it as a deprivation, so we sacrificed their nutritional needs on the altar of ancestral custom, replacing their healthy breakfast foods with boxes of brightly colored kosher-for-Passover cereal made of sugar and air.

Then one year, I learned from another congregant that the kitnyiot prohibition is primarily only observed by Ashkenazic Jews; his Sephardic family was free to eat as much tofu as they wanted.

“Listen to this!” I told my husband. “As the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of a Portuguese Jew, I am ready to claim my Sephardic heritage. And my popcorn.”

He responded, “That’s all true, but you’re not Sephardic.” He was right.

Things changed when a new rabbi joined our congregation. On our first Passover together, he strongly advocated eating kitniyot, arguing the following:

  1. Avoiding kitniyot is a custom, not a law; halacha (Jewish law) only requires us to avoid chametz (oats, spelt, rye, wheat, and barley).
  2. The custom of grouping chametz and kitniyot together in our practices can make it more difficult to remember which five foods the Torah actually prohibits.
  3. It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.
  4. It causes unnecessary divisions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
  5. Arguably, kitniyot falls into the category of “mistaken or foolish customs” subject to reform according to halacha.

He explained that the original reason for avoiding kitniyot is unknown. One of the first to mention it was Rabbi Samuel of Falaise in the 13th century, who referred to it as a minhag mahmat taut (mistaken custom); in the 14th century, Rabbi Yeruham of Provence called it a minhag shtut (foolish custom). Many rabbinic authorities, including the sage Maimonides, have ruled that it is permitted – and perhaps even obligatory – to do away with a mistaken or foolish custom.

Jews, our rabbi insisted, have a duty to resist this mistaken and harmful tradition by making it a point to eat kitniyot on Passover.

Some of his arguments were more persuasive to me than others, but on the whole, I thought he was right. The following year, sitting in the garden a few weeks before Pesach, my husband and I discussed the matter. Notwithstanding the substantial investment we had made in observing the kitniyot custom over the years, we ultimately decided that, going forward, our expression of Judaism in our home would include eating kitniyot.  

This Passover, as I sink my teeth into a delicious homemade bean burger, I will be grateful for the release of my people from slavery and – on a much more modest scale – thankful for our release from a custom that had prevented us from fully enjoying the holiday.

Juliette Hirt lives in San Francisco and works in Oakland. She practices law, parenting, and pottery.

Juliette Hirt
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