The Kitniyot Question: What’s a Convert To Do?

By Elizabeth Savage

Published April 13, 2011, issue of April 22, 2011.
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The question of kitniyot presents an interesting challenge for the converted. Kitniyot — literally, “little things” — is the umbrella term used for the specific foods not eaten during Passover in the Ashkenazi tradition, including rice, corn, beans and lentils. It’s a practice whose origins are unclear; but what is clear is that this anti-legume custom, passed down from generation to generation, raises a significant question for those who have chosen to be chosen. What should converts do when faced with a specific minhag, or custom, whether a food tradition or otherwise? As someone who converted to Judaism, I didn’t realize how stressed I must have been by this until my subconscious gave me a very particular gift: my kitniyot nightmare.

The dream begins quite innocently, as many horrible dreams do. My husband and I are hosting three very important and incredibly pious rabbis and their equally religious, shaytled, balebuste wives. Everyone is gathered around the dining room table. No one is smiling. I am busy in the kitchen, nervously preparing to bring out the meal. From the dining room, I can hear the rabbis deliberating, handing down religious rulings of some kind.

“That can’t be right,” I say to myself. “You can’t do that on Shabbat.” Then my heart begins to race. “Can you?”

At this point, it’s important to mention that in the dream, I now realize that, for some strange reason, I have made a Mexican-themed meal. It seems an odd choice to me, as I pull the steaming pot out of the oven. And then, wait a minute. Was I cooking on Shabbos? A feeling of dread starts to descend.

I walk out to the table, my pot-holder-gloved hands shaking with nervousness, my stomach in knots like a loaf of Zomick’s whole-wheat challah. The combination of panic and steam rising from the pot makes me break into a full-on shvitz. I set down this gigantic steaming bowl, afraid to look up, opting instead to stare into my bizarre Mexican not-quite cholent. It’s beans of all kinds: black, red and white. There’s rice and peas and lentils and corn.

In horrible slow motion as I set down the enormous bowl, I realize, “Omig-dash-d, these rabbis are so pious, they don’t eat kitniyot — even when it’s not Pesach!”

And this is the moment I suddenly awake. It’s just too unbearable: My Kitniyot Disaster. (I tell the story to my husband, who roars with laughter.)

But days later, the question still stands: When it comes to Passover, do I eat kitniyot or not? What do you do when there is no precedent? My Greek ya-ya made a great spanakopita, and she threw around Yiddishisms just like your bubbe; but there was no matzo ball soup or chopped liver recipe in my family tradition.

What custom do you follow if you have no custom? Do I follow the customs of my partner’s family? It seems a touch old-fashioned and maybe anti-feminist for this 21st-century gal. Do I ask a rabbi? Toss a coin? It’s one of the special questions, I guess, reserved for sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah.

For me, at least for the first year, my choice was decided by tradition — a tradition that arose on my first official Passover as a Jew. I was in Israel, where kitniyot are much more widespread than in the United States, and where a friend (American, Ashkenazi, observant) at dinner passed me a lentil salad. I followed minhag haMakom — the tradition of that place. So even though my husband doesn’t eat kitniyot (in honor of his late grandmother and her unbroken familial custom), it turns out that I do; in this respect I’m Sephardi. I may always have the convert’s perverse zeal for matzo, but on Passover — in Israel, at least — I’ll take my matzo with lentils and rice.

Elizabeth Savage is a writer and a personal organizer. She anticipates being fluent in Hebrew by about the year 5880.


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