The Four Questions I’m Asking About Israel This Year
I have very little artistic ability. Throughout my childhood, I tried my hand at photography, drawing, singing, clarinet, dance, and musical theater, but to no avail. Considering all these failed attempts, I was shocked when I finally stumbled upon an outlet as an adult to successfully express my creativity: cooking. I began with simple baked goods and advanced to elaborate meals that involved chopping, flambéing, braising, sautéing, frying, plating, and more.
Not only did cooking serve as my creative outlet, it also became the medium through which I learned about and gained ownership over Jewish tradition. I did not grow up in a traditionally observant home, and I have taken on a number of mitzvot (commandments) that were once foreign to me, including keeping kosher. For several years I have kept kosher for Passover for an entire month, rather than roughly one week as is standard. This means that I do not eat chametz (leavened wheat, barley, rye, oat, and spelt), or kitniyot (rice, corn, soybeans, peas, lentils, legumes, and many seeds) for 30 days.
This personal minhag (tradition, custom) forces me to read labels carefully and experiment with new recipes. More important, though, this practice has become meaningful to me because it is a big challenge. In a world driven to make everything easier, more convenient, and more pleasant, I like that Judaism provides holidays and mitzvot that are demanding yet rich in meaning. We observe these dietary restrictions to remind ourselves of the haste with which our ancestors fled slavery, a difficult story that we retell and in a small way reenact to increase our own sense of both gratitude and responsibility today.
My Passover practice is challenging in North America, but its dimensions change considerably when living in Israel. First, Ashkenazim (Jews from eastern and central Europe) abstain from kitniyot, while Mizrahim (Jews from the Iberian peninsula and Middle Eastern lands) do not. Many families in Israel are Mizrahi or of mixed background, and in order to decrease internal Jewish divisions, it is common practice here to eat kitniyot during Pesach. Second, I do not need to read labels carefully or methodically search for different ingredients because everything in the grocery store is labeled with a large “Kosher for Passover” sticker. Third, many restaurants in Israel develop Passover menus, and even serve fluffy rolls made from approved ingredients. It is easy to understand why we end our seder saying “next year in Jerusalem,” a city boasting hundreds of delicious options even during this restrictive holiday!
Far be it for me to complain about eating a peanut butter sandwich on soft potato bread during Passover, but I do miss the difficulty of keeping kosher for this holiday. Yet living in Israel demands a new minhag, a new type of challenge, a new approach to accessing the same feelings of gratitude and responsibility. With this idea in mind, I am asking myself four new and difficult questions this Passover:
- How do I hold immense gratitude for the establishment of Israel alongside the pained narratives of those the state displaced?
- How do I praise Israel as a safe haven for Jews around the world while acknowledging the discrimination many immigrants have faced here?
- How do I appreciate Israel’s technological and environmental advancements while simultaneously seeing its shortcomings in ameliorating poverty?
- How do I engage with Israel’s flourishing institutions of Jewish learning while disdaining its suppression of progressive Jewish streams?
Grappling with these topics will certainly be harder than keeping kosher for Passover, but doing this work is essential to connecting with the essence of the holiday. We are a people who underwent hardship, who has an obligation to recall and embody those experiences and use them to motivate our actions today. I am grateful that living in Israel has forced me to approach Passover in an innovative and deeper way, and I invite us all to use this holiday as a time to ask hard questions, push ourselves a little more, and embrace that which is challenging.