Confessions of a Passover Dieter
I’m not normally a fan of diets, though I have on occasion ventured into the world of trendy eating plans. There was the one from Seventeen Magazine (at the time I was much younger than 17) that introduced me to the dubious concept of eating breakfast. There was an attempt at that cabbage soup fad in college; my roommate and I made the soup and were instantly so disgusted by it that we left it in the fridge untouched for I don’t remember how long. And there was that moment when seemingly all of America went on the South Beach Diet. South Beach food was extremely healthy, but — as I coincidentally learned in South Beach — the cumulative effects of several months without starchy carbs means a drastically reduced tolerance for alcohol.
But for the most part, I ignore dietetic quick-fixes, not to mention their adjunct large-print paperback books. Instead, I stick to the boring stuff. I count calories. I don’t allow tempting foods into my cupboards. I give up treats that are more trouble than they’re worth. (Popcorn, for instance. Who needs a bowl full of empty calories that can slice your gums?) I understand that being thin, or in my case being less than extremely fat, is not something one achieves in a week. It’s a life-long mundane struggle.
Except every spring, I find myself looking at Passover’s eight breadless days and suddenly, all of that knowledge goes out the window. I think, Hey! Maybe I can lose some weight!
I do not need to point out that weight loss is not why Jews are supposed to go without leavened bread, most grains, and anything not marked Kosher For Passover for the duration of the holiday. But the real reason, to recall the Israelites’ hasty departure from Egypt, has never entirely resonated with me. Much like themed History Months, the concept of a “Slavery Week” feels a little hollow. Why does remembrance, or imagination, require a special menu?
Another thing that goes without saying is that the Pesach diet, while restrictive, is in no way inherently healthy. A box of matzoh is, as far as weight maintenance goes, as damaging as a box of Cheez-Its. And you only have to look at matzoh cake meal and potato starch to know that any resulting dessert is not going to be light.
So my annual Passover weight loss plan has always involved not simply giving up chametz, but not fully replacing it. Instead of embracing those questionable yet acceptable foods (hello, quinoa) or temporarily pretending to be Sephardic in order to eat rice, I figure, why not take the opportunity to get rid of all of them? Not that I always succeed at this. Most years I don’t. But I try.
I don’t know what it is about Passover, as opposed to other food-restricting holidays, that brings out this impulse. Maybe it’s the season. Perhaps the still-wintery air that nevertheless smells sweetly of spring acts as a warning: prepare, lest you be caught on a freak 80-degree March day with your fat winter arms and lack of pedicure.
This could also explain why Passover is associated with extreme spring cleaning. Though what’s technically required is to clean your space of errant crumbs, many go far beyond that, turning the occasion into a curtain-washing, floor-waxing extravaganza.
I was sure I couldn’t be the only Jewish woman who’d thought of Passover dieting. In a world of meshuggah diet gimmicks (Middle East peace through shared weight loss tips being one recent example), I imagined this too must be an established thing. But when I went looking for evidence that I wasn’t alone, I didn’t find any. Many Jews do worry about gaining weight over Passover, and much has been written about either minimizing that weight gain or accepting it as inevitable. I also found a few rather silly articles about the health benefits of Pesach foods (red wine! greens!) targeted at non-Jews. But aside from the calorie-saving tips that get recycled for any food-centric holiday, I saw no specifically Pesach-related diet. Which means either that I’m a particularly bad Jew, or I should write one.
"This holiday we take for ourselves, no longer silent servers behind the curtain, but singers of the seder, with voices of gladness, creating our own convocation, and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."— E.M. Broner
"The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."— Rabbi Leora Kaye
"The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."— Rabbi Arthur Green