Time was, Jews at Passover would feel they were wandering in a culinary desert, nourished only by syrupy wine, leaden loaves of gefilte fish and seemingly endless sheets of matzah.
But with the recent introduction of foods like kosher-for-Passover pasta, granola and even pizza, members of the tribe have found their way into a gourmand’s promised land rich with chocolate-flavored milk and honey-sweetened cereals, where gastronomic deprivation is no more.
So a question, like so much chametz, arises: Sated with savory satisfaction, can a Jew really feel the deprivation of decades in the desert?
“Now, almost everything you can mention is kosher for Passover,” says Menachem Lubinsky, publisher of the monthly trade paper Kosher Today. “With the exception of real bread, you almost don’t feel deprived at all.
“We’ve gone from deprivation to indulgence. That’s quite a leap. And all in the last few years.”
Among the new products this Passover are granola and several new sauces and spreads. About 600 debuted last year, Lubinsky said, including frozen pizza, and some 400 the year before that.
Pasta made of matzah cake flour (finely ground matzah) and potato starch has been on supermarket shelves a couple of years, as have the ersatz Fruit Loops sugary cereals.
Thousands of products are certified by the Orthodox Union as kosher for Passover, according to Rabbi Moshe Elefant, executive rabbinic coordinator of the OU’s kosher supervision department.
“A few years ago we had a handful of companies that made matzahs, wines and, of course macaroons,” he says.
As for all consumer markets, necessity — or at least the necessity of convenience food — is the mother of invention at Passover.
“Now we’re into the blintzes and pizzas and ice creams,” says Lubinsky. “The list is endless.”
But are pizza and similar products really in keeping with the spirit of Passover?
We recall the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt by eating bitter herbs at the seders, but there is no prohibition against enjoying a wide variety of foods on Passover. It’s just so alien to many traditionalists.
Last year in Atlanta, a Conservative rabbi and Orthodox rabbi nearly started firing matzah balls at each other over kosher-for-Passover pizza.
The Orthodox rabbi approved of the delight, which uses a matzah-meal crust, said those familiar with the product. But the Conservative rabbi had the rare experience of coming to the right of his colleague: No matter how you slice it, he said, pizza cannot possibly bring the hurried exodus from Egypt to mind and so violates the spirit of the holiday.
Certainly the debate extends well beyond pizza. Ashkenazim, of course, traditionally abstain from legumes, the beans that can be ground into wheat, which Sephardim enjoy during the festival.
The Conservative movement’s rabbis in Israel have ruled that the Ashkenazi ban, which is based on the fact that legumes once were grown next to wheat, so a bit of wheat could slip into the chickpeas, is no longer valid in the Holy Land.
Then there’s the prohibition on “gebrokts,” mixing matzah or matzah flour with any kind of liquid, by chasidim and others among the most strictly Orthodox. They pass on the traditional matzah balls and fried matzah brei, managing only on potato starch products until the festival’s final day, when the ban is lifted.
Rabbi Elefant’s family not only avoids gebrokts but garlic — it once was grown in fields next to wheat. Passing down family custom, usually abiding by the father’s practices, is a large part of Passover observance for traditional Jews.
Rabbi Elefant knows some people who abstain from chocolate, even though it’s one of the least-problematic Passover foods from a kashrut view. They do it “just to make Passover different” from the rest of the year, he said.
Debra Offenhartz, a Boston-based social worker who takes time off from her job in a sleep lab to produce Savta’s Passover Granola, sees no need for Jews to be cut off from their culinary pleasures. She sees her granola as an enhancement of the spiritual aspects of the festival of freedom, once people are freed from the drudgery of wondering what they’re going to eat for breakfast and feed the kids for snacks.
“My granola brings people a lot of pleasure, and Passover is not a holiday of denial,” says Offenhartz. “The granola keeps people away from worrying about what they’re going to eat so they can focus on the meaning of the holiday.”
Offenhartz had been enjoying and tweaking her mother-in-law’s (Savta, or grandma, to her kids) granola recipe for years. Granola, which is usually made with wheat, oats and other Passover-prohibited grains, is in this case a double-toasted combination of farfel, almonds, coconut, honey, brown sugar and a little margarine.
As the granola was popular with a large circle of family members and friends, Offenhartz decided two years ago to indulge what she calls her “Ben & Jerry’s” entrepreneurial fantasies and make a super-large batch to sell locally.
Last year local demand led her to make 700 pounds of the stuff in the kitchen of her in-laws’ Orthodox synagogue in Lynn, Mass. She quickly sold it out.
This year, aided by a crew of “highly educated, overqualified” family and friends, Offenhartz is producing 8,000 pounds of rabbinically supervised Savta’s Pesach Granola and has orders from all over the world (www.savtas.com).
“We have orders from small towns in Oklahoma and Mississippi, places where you might not even know there are Jews. And we have orders from overseas,” she says. “We’re trying to figure out how to translate dollars into euros and pounds into kilos.”
The Passover seder closes with the wish to be “next year in Jerusalem.” But next year in Massachusetts, Offenhartz hopes to be at work in her own kitchen, producing Passover granola in a range of flavors including dried fruit, chocolate chip and a sugar-free version for diabetics.
It sure isn’t the stuff of Passover most of us grew up with.
“I really believe that everybody has to make their own life, and should make the line and say that ‘this is what I will eat, and that is what I won’t,’ ” says the OU’s Rabbi Elefant. “Where the line will be is something each person has to teach their family.”
But even Rabbi Elefant’s live-and-let-live attitude has its limits.
“When I saw the pasta I was offended,” he said. “There’s always going to be something new” coming onto the market, he said. “Now I’m waiting for bread.”