15 April 2014

Giving it up for Easter & Passover

I don't make a big deal of religion.  I think it is a personal decision for each person, no matter how you are raised, and in some ways I consider what people call "spirituality" to be more important than formal religion.  To quote Abraham Lincoln:  "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion."

That said, organized religion can provide one with a community and support group, which I have found important when moving to places where I know nobody, or almost nobody.  It's the main reason I joined congregations when I moved to the Dallas area and then to Hartford.  However, while most people identify me as Jewish, I don't exclusively follow that religion, and when in Dallas I ended up spending more time at a friend's church - which has a stronger social justice streak then the synagogue I joined, and those who know me know how important that is to me - plus interesting adult learning and a really nice pastor.  I haven't found a church I like as well here, so I just participate in the Jewish community, at both the Reform congregation I consider my main home, and a friend's Orthodox congregation, as well as organizer of some of our community events.

It might inform you to know that in addition to being raised with Christian influences (my mother went to Jewish Sunday school, Catholic mass, and a Chicago Bears game every Sunday during the season, so those are the three religions primarily acknowledged in my family) including the Jesuits from whom my mother received one of her degrees and among whom she taught for a couple decades, I had three sets of godparents, none of whom are Jewish - one each of Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Methodist.  My parents chose based upon who would raise us the way they would want us to be raised, which included continuing education and to be good people.  My parents don't see this being limited to one religion.

This explanation is important because every year I give up something for Lent.  I try to make it different every year.  One year it was cookies, which is tough because this is Girl Scout Cooky season.  Another year it was candy, tough because I tend to have some always at hand as a nervous thing (I substituted almonds); another year, it was crackers that I have in my desk for a similar purpose.  And so forth.

This year, I couldn't think of what to give up, and then realized I was almost out of bread, so I decided to give up that.  Also no related baked goods.  This makes it tough at my weekly morning bible study, which usually offers bagels or bread of some kind, with spreads.  (I always take the Passover date, and bring in a noodle kugel made with Passover noodles, which people seem to love because it's not the expected matzoh with spreads.)  It's harder for me because so often when busy I grab a sandwich, and this year I have been quite busy with a play and other activities.  I've eaten a lot of nut/fruit bars and yoghurt!

I did get asked by someone why I gave up bread when you're supposed to give up meat. Part of the reason is that I don't eat a lot of meat on a day-to-day basis, so it wouldn't be a real sacrifice to me.  The reason I do this is almost as a test of myself, to see if I can follow through for the full forty days.  I know some people who take the money they would spend on whatever they give up and give it to charity, and I don't do that (I did give all my Girl Scout Cookies to the troops that year, instead of buying any for myself - usually I do that for most of my order and just get a couple boxes for me), but I do like the mindfulness of having to remember "no, I don't; no, I can't."  It also helps to think about people who have to avoid certain foods all the time, or who don't have certain foods available to them for various reasons.

Now it is Passover, on top of Lent.  This means, if you want to be really observant in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) sense, no beans or rice or other whole grains. (Sephardic Jews, from the Mediterranean, can eat them because it's the majority of their diet and their rabbis said it's OK.)  I've heard two reasons for this:  One, that because they swell when cooking, they look leavened, which is forbidden at Passover; and two, because they might have been stored in a warehouse with forbidden items and gotten contaminated. I think the latter is the reason that some won't eat peanut butter - the peanuts might have been in a warehouse with flour.  Since peanut butter didn't exist in 19th-Century Easter Europe, maybe it's just too foreign to their way of observance?

I had a friend who, when I mentioned giving up bread for Lent, asked how I expect to perform the required Passover Seder observances with matzoh?  I said that the small amount required for the ceremonials would be OK to me (to borrow from George Carlin, "my observance, my rules") but I wouldn't eat matzoh otherwise until Easter.  I've done something similar a few years ago, when I had an abscess in my jaw and major surgery with bone grafting just before Passover, and wasn't allowed anything crunchy or crumby.  There are a LOT of ways to cook potatoes, believe me!

These few overlapping days will be tough because often I would eat matzoh for meals when I would usually have rice, or pasta, or cereal.  Not possible until Sunday.  My diet is more limited, but in a way this frees me to be creative with what I do allow myself.  And those who know me know how much I love a cooking challenge!  Luckily I also love fruits and veggies, and I am not obsessive about eating only kosher-for-Passover items.  As long as it doesn't contain the forbidden items - grains, beans, rice - and nothing treyf (pork, shellfish, meat with dairy - I'll eat them the rest of the year, but not during Passover or the High Holy Days) I'm OK to eat it.  My meals may include some less-standard items, such as roasted squash (olive oil, slivered onion, and sage) for breakfast, but there's nothing wrong with that.  Think outside the cereal box.

I've dealt with this conjunction many times in the past.  The most interesting was the time I was asked to cook a meal for a group in Oklahoma, about 100 persons, with a medieval theme.  I knew that even if there were not observant Catholics in the group, some would be very observant as part of the character they played.  So I developed a multi-course meal that included Lent-appropriate vegetarian and vegan items; plenty of meat; and not many baked goods.  We ended up with very little leftover, other than the chicken liver pate that was on the first course platters (silly people!), salad (although all the rainbow assortment of Peeps® bunnies and chicks I'd used to decorate it did manage to vanish), and some of the lamb stew that was the third course.  I actually heard that people were surprised to see multiple meat courses come out given the ticket price, meaning they had not read the menus I'd placed at the tables.  I shopped well and can plan well, which is why the lamb was the third course instead of appearing earlier, so that people were stuffed with chicken cooked with grapes and herbs, and beef brisket with dried fruit and root vegetables, and didn't need to eat as much of it.  Dessert was strawberries with optional almond cream - edible by everybody except those with nut allergies, who had to make do with plain strawberries.  Awww.

I just saw strawberries on sale at the grocery, come to think of it.  As is asparagus, so there will definitely be an omelet or souffle on my menu this week, possibly on Saturday.  Yum!

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