The Passover season is upon us again; in war and in peace, good times and bad, the joyous hysteria of spring cleaning combined with halachic craziness is sweeping the country (as it were). Passover is probably the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar here. Only the most hardened secularists are prepared to skip the seder. The unique combination of individual and collective memory; the visceral response to the change of seasons; family, food, music, and the hope for redemption make the Passover Experience here a very powerful one for every different type of Jew.
Today the mashgiach brought his team to kasher our restaurant. There were two bearded mashgichim and four enthusiastic yeshiva students, who turned the patio in front of the dining room into a war zone, employing roaring gas jets, seething cauldrons, and the fire hose to work their magic, ridding the premises of the last molecules of leaven. Someone walking past asked me whose insurance would cover any injuries that might be caused by this torch-wielding gang; I assured her that God would provide. The whirlwind, however, passed without incident, and we were left to dry everything off and put the kitchen back together. The first time I observed this process, I couldnt avoid the temptation to watch closely, to see how these experts carried out the halachic principles I had learned about the various types of materials and vessels and how they can be cleansed of leaven. But then I came to understand (see Mishnah Rosh Hashana 2:8-9) that whatever the current rabbinical authority decrees as kosher is ipso facto kosher, and there is no point in asking too many questions. Now, I set up the gas line for the team and just get out of the way.
Still, there are aspects of this business that are hard to take. Like kitniyot: According to the Talmud, only the five kinds of grain (wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt) can become chameitz; all other grains, seeds, etc. do not fall in this category. Therefore, corn, rice, legumes - together labeled kitniyot - all are kosher for Passover. But somehow, in the 13th century in France, the custom arose of avoiding kitniyot, perhaps as a precaution against mixups in the kitchen. Over the ages, this custom spread and became firmly entrenched throughout Ashkenaz but was emphatically rejected by the Sefardic world. Today, in Israel, most Jews are of Sefardic origin, and therefore happily eat rice and felafel and humus throughout Passover. The Ashkenazim, meanwhile, struggle to find products manufactured without any ingredients made from kitniyot, which turns out to be very difficult, as so many edible oils and other industrial food ingredients are derived from legumes. Everybody agrees that this is crazy, but what rabbi - even the chief rabbi of the Jewish state - will dare to change such a deeply rooted (and hated) custom? Indeed, one rabbi in the 19th century argued that the custom must have been divinely revealed - otherwise why would the people be so committed to it? And another orthodox rabbi, just after the Reform rabbinical synods of the 1840s, argued that the custom should indeed be eliminated, but now that the Reformers have abrogated it, orthodoxy cant!
In order to maximize our restaurants appeal to Israeli vacationers during Passover, we maintain a menu that is kitniyot-free. Our mashgiach, who is Sefardic, is not particularly helpful, as he doesnt understand why we bother. One year he didnt even notice that the cook had purchased and was happily frying potatoes in soy oil and serving them to customers who believed they were eating kitniyot-free fries. Who caught the mistake and stopped the deception? Me, the reform rabbi who knows that the avoidance of kitniyot oil is a halachic absurdity. Again this year our dining room manager is scouring the supermarkets for kitniyot-free products, as our wholesale suppliers laugh at us just like the mashgiach.
Sometimes I wonder about the standard greeting, have a joyous and kosher Pesach: is it a blessing, or a curse?