Blame it on tradition. Ashkenazi tradition.
Three years after the Conservative movement ruled that its adherents could eat rice, beans and kitniyot (legumes) on Passover — staples of the seder meal for Sephardim — the culinary option has gone over about as well as a slice of seeded rye on Pesach.
“I do what my father did, and my father didn’t have rice and all that,” explained Avi Saks of Dix Hills, L.I. “If I ate rice and peanuts on Passover, I would have the same feeling as if I was eating bread. Mentally, I couldn’t eat it even though I know it’s OK.”
The ruling has been a “non-event” for his customers, said Jonathan Greenfield, whose family owns several ShopRite Supermarkets on Long Island.
“The market for Passover is very, very strong,” he said. “People are observant for Passover because it is a family custom, even though they may not be observant [the rest of the year]. But it is the holidays and tradition — and kitniyot does not fit the tradition.”
Kitniyot is also being shunned by most of the 500 families that belong to Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, despite an explanation about the reason for the change by the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Rachel Ain.
Only a “very small number” have changed,” she said.
The change was based on a paper presented to the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards by Rabbi David Golinkin. In it, he explained that because kitniyot were the food of mourners among different peoples, such as the Romans in antiquity, Ashkenazi Jews began refraining from eating it on Jewish festivals. Over time, the restriction was applied specifically to Passover.
But, he wrote, it is a “foolish custom” or a “mistaken custom” because it “contradicts the Babylonian Talmud and all the Talmudic sources, and because nearly all the Jews who observed this custom throughout the generations thought it was connected somehow or other to the prohibition against eating chametz [food made with a leavening agent].”
Rabbi Ain pointed out that for “all of the leniencies of the Conservative movement, this is an area they [her congregants] are not running to [embrace]. On the other hand, it took away much of the angst from those who are vegetarians or have other dietary concerns. They can still halachically keep kosher for Passover and eat in a way that is healthy.”
At the Forest Hills Jewish Center, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik said he would guess “only 5 to 10 percent” of his congregants have changed.
He said he told them that he changed because “my son-in-law follows the Sephardic minhag [custom of eating kitniyot] … and I wanted them to know that if any of them happen to be in my house during Passover there will be kitniyot on the table.”
Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center said he held classes for his congregants to explain the change. Among the things he told them is that all processed foods must have a kosher-for-Passover label even if the products are kosher year-round, because they often contain wheat that is not included in the ingredients.
“Canned vegetables are processed with a salt tablet that uses a wheat binder,” he said. “Most commercially available raisins are sprayed with a wheat-based alcohol. Sodas add different sweeteners that contain wheat. Apple juice is made with filters that have a wheat binder.”
His congregation’s cantor, Steven Hevenstone, said he and his wife Kathy started eating kitniyot last year.
“We didn’t make a big deal of it,” Kathy said. “I took the rice, corn, peas and chick peas and created a rice casserole. We decided to offer it as an option at both of our seders and welcomed our guests to try it. The first night we had members of the congregation; no one had it.”
The cantor noted that the rice casserole is kept in a separate dish with a sign that clearly states it is made from kitniyot.
“It creates a discussion at the dinner table — talking about the different traditions between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews — and it presents an opportunity to learn and grow.”