Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Multicultural Jew: Challah: Reshaping Our Image of the Quintessential...

The Multicultural Jew: Challah: Reshaping Our Image of the Quintessential...: Challah is a mainstay in the celebration of Jewish traditions. The salty-sweet twist of bread makes its appearance at almost every majo...

Challah: Reshaping Our Image of the Quintessential Jewish Bread

Shabbos beauty - Roland

Challah is a mainstay in the celebration of Jewish traditions. The salty-sweet twist of bread makes its appearance at almost every major festivity on the Jewish calendar. Its braided symmetry is meant to be emblematic of the goodness we seek in life. It symbolizes the joy and peace of Shabbat, the continuity of a new year at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweetness that we seek in our life throughout the world. Its braided form holds immense religious symbolism in our observance as Jews and would seem to be an irreplaceable part of every Shabbat meal.

So it is hard to imagine someone turning down a piece of this favourite confection when offered. Harder still to believe, is the fact that there have been millions of Jews throughout history for whom this hand-made delicacy would be nothing short of perilous to eat.

But in fact, a significant number of Jews must abstain from eating challah – or matzo, or hamantaschen for that matter – as the result of a strange and quirky autoimmune disease that wreaks havoc on the body when wheat is ingested.

The affliction is called celiac disease, and its symptoms really don’t have anything to do with wheat per se, but with a protein that is present in wheat, rye, barley and spelt. Ingestion of gluten by someone with celiac disease triggers an autoimmune reaction that can ultimately herald the diagnosis of other diseases, like malnutrition, osteoporosis, and cancer.

Wheat - Dag Endresen
It isn’t enough that these grains happen to be four of the five species that are used in hamotzi, baked bread. Modern food processing techniques make the ingestion of oats – the fifth grain used in hamotzi – risky unless the oats have been processed in a certified gluten-free environment.

Gluten-free advocates often talk about the significant cost and difficulties that this disease can present, but few Jewish authors have centered on what to me, seems an even greater danger: the sense of disconnect that can result from not being able to participate in specific traditions, and the sense of alienation that comes from recognizing that something so intrinsic to our faith is out of bounds for those with celiac disease.

Sure, there are gluten-free (GF) challah recipes these days. In fact, hundreds if not thousands live on the Internet. And there is gluten-free Shemurah oat matzo. There are also support groups, and a staggering number of Jewish cooks with their own personal appreciation of the trials of staying GF. This alone suggests that a significant number of the estimated 3 million celiacs in the United States may be Jews. But even in its best and most ornate form, GF challah is just not the same as the buttery-sweet braided tradition that has been passed down through the ages.

Rosh Hashanah roundness - Ryan C Boren
Gluten is much more than a coincidental ingredient in bread. It is what allows us to braid the challah and build the many symbols into our holiday challot, such as the ladder or the roundness of a fulfilling new year. It is what, through synthesis with other ingredients, creates the fluffy, airy texture that we crave at Shabbat. The appearance alone of challah made without gluten is reminiscent of a compromise, a symbol of something cherished, but not quite attained.

Gluten is also what allows matzo to stay together, but retain its flaky texture, and is an intrinsic part of certain dishes on the Pesach seder table. Without gluten, dishes like chicken soup with matzo balls, gefelte fish and your bubbeh’s fantastic Passover cake are all the harder to make. Judaism is replete with symbols fashioned from gluten’s unique alchemy, and amazingly bereft of kosher options to use in its stead.

Chickpea GF bread - Artis Rozentals

Some holiday recipes can survive without gluten, of course. Over the years cooks have discovered curious stand-ins for the protein, like guar gum and xantham gum, that when combined with ingenious mixtures of flours made of bean, vegetable and non-gluten grains can create passable hamantaschen, cakes and cookies. And oat flour, which by itself, is harder to leaven, makes satisfactory matzos.

And therein lies the problem.

Sharron Matten, the author of the blog Kosher Every Day  and Chicago-based chef notes that rabbis have stipulated that in order for baked bread to be considered challah (and thus observe its Shabbos traditions), it must comprise a “significant amount” of flour from one or more of the five grains. This is an option that is nearly impossible for GF bakers, who often must rely upon large amounts of other ingredients like tapioca, rice flour and potato starch to “lighten” the dough. Matten’s answer to the problem is both ingenious and an example of the extensive brainstorming that Jewish GF bakers must use to remain religiously observant. Her recipe even includes the use of a baking pan that simulates the braided appearance of wheat challah.

Yet the truth is, creative cooking doesn’t override all problems. What does the GF individual do at shul on Friday nights, after Shabbat morning services and bar/bat mitzvahs? Individuals who are GF are unable to eat anything at celebrations if they are unable to tell for sure that the food was prepared with GF needs in mind. Ironically perhaps, the growing availability of non-gebrokts* baked goods at Passover makes the holiday a bit easier for celiacs, but only if there is forethought to labeling the dishes "non-gebrokts" or gluten free.

The true challenge in other words, isn’t finding ways to reinvent the wheel at home, but to stay connected socially with the community in a way that is meaningful and allows the celiac individual to at least feel there has not been a disconnect with the Jewish lifestyle.

And it is a problem that is growing. According to the Mayo Clinic, the incidence of celiac disease has risen sharply over the last 60 years. Researchers say the increase is due to improved diagnostic methods, as well as a growing intolerance to gluten in the general population.

Many Jewish communities are already attempting to address this problem by ensuring that there are items on Kiddush tables that are certified gluten free, and that alternative dietary options are available at community events. Still, more that can be done to ensure that Jews who have celiac disease can find the means to stay connected to their communities. They include:

  • Organizing educational forums to discuss the halachic challenges associated with a GF diet
  • Offering kosher GF cooking/baking classes for Passover and Purim
  • Including articles in synagogue newsletters about kosher gluten-free resources
  • Establishing a regional “hotline” to help connect individuals with gluten intolerance.

Our traditions sustain and nurture our connections with Judaism and throughout history, have evolved to meet the changing needs of our communities. Perhaps the increasing prevalence of celiac disease will offer just such an inspiration for new traditions and new ways to express the meaning, symbolism and beauty of challah at the Shabbat table.

*Non-gebrokts - (Yiddish) refers to the Orthodox-Ashkenazi tradition of abstaining from eating any product made of matzo that has been combined with liquid (such as matzo balls) during the first seven days of Passover. The Jewish food industry now makes many of its baked products without matzo in recognition of this exceptionally stringent tradition, rendering foods made in this manner gluten-free.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Remarkable Haggadahs for the Contemporary Seder Table

A 14th-century haggadah - Public Domain
For many Jewish families, Passover is a time steeped in tradition. The haggadah that is used to tell the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, like the recipes that complement the Passover meal, has often been passed down from generation to generation. A traditional Orthodox Jewish haggadah can almost as likely be found on the seder table of a Reform Jewish family as on the table of an Orthodox family. For some, Passover is a time for revisiting one’s roots, the traditions that define them, and their identities as Jews.

The Passover Haggadah for Contemporary Readers

But for others, Pesach is a time for considering the present, and their personal responsibilities to the rest of the world. The subject of ecology, poverty and the impact of the human footprint on the environment have all become topics at the contemporary Seder table and opportunities for reflection in the broader meaning of Passover. The topic of tzedakah – the act of righteous living – has become a cornerstone to Passover observance in some communities. In others, striving for a more peaceful existence has become synonymous with the ancient Jews’ escape from bondage and strife.

These discussions have led to an explosion of creative expression, and an ever-expanding selection of haggadahs in the bookstore and on the internet. E-publishing has opened the door to a wide variety of versions that can be easily printed off, some with ornate depictions, and others with simple text. Some include the original Hebrew text; others provide only the transliteration and English passages.

Print Haggadahs for Passover Seders

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) sells the beautiful, sensitively depicted haggadah, The Open Door, written by Sue Levi Elwell, with art by Ruth Weisberg. Written for the Reform audience, it contains both Hebrew and English text as well as transliterated portions, and can be purchased through the CCAR website.

Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family by Alan S. Yoffie and illustrated by Mark Podwal is one of the CCAR's most recent publications and has been lauded for its inclusive text and stunning art work. It can be purchased in soft cover or a beautiful cloth-bound gift edition.

Historian and novelist Elie Wiesel has put out his own exemplary haggadah illustrated by Mark Podwal. As expected, his writings in A Passover Haggadah remind the reader not only of the travails of the ancient Jews but of more contemporary recordings of slavery and mistreatment, and the importance of continuing one’s link with history.

The Modern Haggadah Distributing Company features a wide variety of haggadahs, from books that are directed toward Jews who are practicing Buddhists, to a popular family haggadah that includes the complete Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) for more traditionally observant Jews.

Haggadahs from Israel - PikiWiki

Online Haggadahs for Easy Printing

Quite a number of websites offer free, print-as-you-go haggadahs, some with ornate color illustrations, others with bare-bones text and explanations. Some include the Hebrew, others include only transliterated prayers.

In addition to its print haggadahs, sells an internet version as well. Written by Rabbi William Blank, it is designed for contemporary readers who like their haggadah to be “brief, to the point, (without) unnecessary ornamentation.” It is well illustrated however, and contains both the Hebrew and transliterated prayers. The book can be downloaded directly from the site.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat provides on her site, a black-and-white version with sensitive explanations of some ancient and some new traditions. She utilizes the modern-day tradition of including an orange on the Seder table and gives some explanations to transliterated terms used during the Seder. The haggadah could easily be used with guests who are just learning about the Passover experience.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman offers her own printable version with just enough illustrations to make it enjoyable to read, educational and inspiring, but not labor-intensive for the printer.

The Jewish Federations of North America covers the whole gamut, with a list of downloadable haggadahs that range from an Orthodox text put out by Chabad, to a basic haggadah published by the Jewish Federation. If their five published options don’t suit, readers shouldn’t lose heart: there is also a link for do-it-yourself haggadah software from

It has been said that the haggadah tells the story of the Jewish people – and does so in a way that all generations can understand. Contemporary haggadahs take that lesson one step further by recording the meaning of the ancient story in modern-day terms. It may well be possible that generations in the future will look back at these haggadahs as commentary on the struggles that Jews - and all humans- faced in our lifetime, and our own interpretation of the true meaning of what it means to be, and live as a Jew.

Adapted from The Contemporary Jewish Passover Haggadah by Jan Lee and published on

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Passover in Perspective: When Moses Discovered Skype

As we rid our lives of the last of the chametz for the year, take a moment to enjoy these two great videos.

Thanks to Aish (via YouTube) for putting Pesach into perspective for us:

And - my favourite - Thanks to JewTribe for this gem!

Chag Sameach everyone!