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At Passover, finding a kosher path out of Egypt

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For Passover, the combination of a change in diet and the Haggadah's focus on the departure from Egypt can lead you down a path of change. (Edmon Rodman)

For Passover, the combination of a change in diet and the Haggadah’s focus on the departure from Egypt can lead you down a path of change. (Edmon Rodman)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — With lots of matzah, boxes of the right flat stuff required for the making of everything, are you kosher for Passover? What about the day after; then what happens?

Last Passover I began a personal exodus that saw a departure from the diet I’d been using since my earliest days. What better time to begin? Passover is a celebration of the “going out” from Egypt, of the search for a Jewish identity that can be found on the way.

At Passover, each of us is commanded to eat and drink, but to "esn un trenken," in prescribed order from a very particular menu. Only last year, the prescription seems to have had a side effect.

Call it KP syndrome: eye and brain strain from searching labels for KP (kosher for Passover). For whatever seasonal reason, as I sit down to the seder this year, it will mark a one-year journey that has caused me to part ways with things that I loved and fondly remember.

As the sun sets on the first seder, I will mark one year of not eating treif, non-kosher food, and of extending the choice of kashrut that my wife and I have kept in our homes since 1980 finally to the last treif frontier — restaurants.

The Haggadah, the ultimate in interactive books, asks us to take the exodus personally; to project with imagery, tastes, questions and song the feeling that we were there. It’s a book that wants you to have some take-away.

Did I come away last year with the line: “The more one tells the story of the departure from treif, the more one is to be praised?”

No. But the seder did inspire me to turn the page.

Last year, after going through the process of preparing the house for Passover — bringing the dishes from the basement, even koshering a few pots by boiling water and placing a stone in them — I finally confronted something a friend said to me several years ago: “Edmon, your dishes are more kosher than you are.”

That truth hurt. Yet dishes were way easier to change than my lifestyle. Not that I didn’t try.

Though growing up in a Conservative Jewish home, my family did not keep kosher. Not until my second year of college, when I lived with a couple of more observant guys, did I give keeping kosher a try. But outside our apartment, I ate what I wanted.

When I married, my wife wanted to keep a kosher home, so I signed on. I still ate treif in restaurants, though that began to change over time.

First, no bacon or pork. Then shellfish, too, when at a New Orleans restaurant, one of our 8-year-olds declared, after I announced that I was ordering a shrimp dish, “But daddy, that’s not kosher.”

Still, it was not simply a kosher coincidence that I began my exodus from treif at Passover, the holiday that more than any other puts Jews at odds with American gastronomic culture. The unleavened thing, I think, after eight days of struggle, flattens the field of choices, opening up a new perspective from which to view our eating habits.

It starts with no bread. What does it mean? At the restaurant, coffee shop or party, you turn it down. And then you also forego other foodstuffs containing leaven. Even those who don’t usually pay much attention to this can become obsessed for a week with the holiday search for substitution.

It’s as if you’re being prepared for something besides a week of queasy unease.

That’s why after eight days, two seders and a book full of blessings, I was on the exodus road, leaving behind the world of unkosher steaks and BBQ and brochettes. Once on the road, I found these objects in the mirror do appear closer than they appear. Even in the Bible, the children of Israel recall longingly the leeks and onions and yes, the meat of Egypt.

It has not been an easy journey. Though we eat in kosher restaurants as often as possible, we eat in non-kosher ones as well. Every menu there is a kind of treif Haggadah, with its own order of temptation:

Appetizers: “Does that have meat?”

The soup: “What kind of broth is it in?”

The entrees: “Can you leave the meat out of the —- (fill in the blank)?"

Not that I didn’t get lost on my journey. There was the night in a dimly lit Italian restaurant when my eggplant parmigiana was mixed with another diner’s veal parmiagiana. I discovered the error at first bite.

My journey this year is not for everyone. For years it wasn’t even for me. (Barbecue sandwiches in particular remain a plague of temptation.)
 
As I prepare for another Passover, even before hearing the exhortations of the Haggadah, I hope to imagine myself trekking in the desert with B’nai Yisrael — a "ben horin," a free person who freely made a choice to go kosher.

I’m on the road out of Egypt and I’m not going back.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)
 

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