What’s a Jewish Holiday Without Food?

Jewish holidays and food go together. Often for some, the food is what holds the most significance in relation to various holidays. We anxiously await my mother’s kubbeh soup, only made once a year for Rosh Hashanah. What’s Purim without hamentashen? For Shavuot, it’s all about the cheesecake, kugel, blintzes and bourekas. I love cheesecake, but I gave up dairy a year and a half ago and unfortunately for me, I feel a lot better. What happens when your diet or allergies don’t allow you to eat foods that have become central to a holiday’s identity?

When I think about our holiday traditions in terms of food I wonder; is it the food itself or the connection to food that’s so important? I remember having conversations with more than one person with celiac disease about how to make Passover meaningful when the week in terms of food is not much different than any other. Since my food choices are not related to allergies I’ve eased into them gradually. I am grateful it’s a choice, but feel pressure to be flexible. I have become a ‘just one bite’ person. I taste to determine if I’m crossing the line or not today. Should holidays be a time to indulge in things I miss? Is it better to simply abstain or attempt to make versions of traditional dishes that fit within my diet? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of focusing on other aspects of the holiday. Shavuot also has a connection to food even in the holiday’s earliest form. Celebration and sacrifice of precious food.

I’ll be the first to admit I spent a good chunk of my time working on this article trying to figure out what Shavuot actually is all about. As always I worry that I just don’t understand its full meaning. It has its beginnings as a grain harvest festival where we bring our first fruits as an offering. Even living in Minnesota we usually have some first fruits to harvest by this time of year. In our own garden, we’ve already eaten radishes, rhubarb, salad greens and herbs. What does it mean in the modern world to bring an offering? Regardless of what we eat and how we choose to eat, we do all need to eat.

I heard a d’var Torah a few weeks ago at Beth Jacob where the speaker talked about how in today’s world if your garden or crops fail, for the most part, you can go to the grocery store and supplement your food supply provided you have some other source of income or savings. It reminded me of my favorite childhood book series, Little House on the Prairie. Anyone who has read those books knows how central food preservation was to life. The Long Winter always made me wonder what it would be like to survive months on end on only a little bit of bread a day. I have never experienced that kind of hunger. There are, however, still people that do. I thought about our modern food shelves. The fact that they often need to remind people they need more than a few cans of stuff from your pantry you don’t like. They need staples like rice and beans and peanut butter and tomato sauce. They also need fresh food. The thing about donating fresh produce is you can’t wait until you give up on eating it when it starts to look wilted or gets brown spots. Donating fresh produce, things you would like to eat, is a sacrifice.

With any new diagnosis or major diet changes, you have to learn new ways to eat. You may be able to slowly move into things at a comfortable pace, or perhaps you’ve had your whole life turned upside down in one doctor appointment. It can be a struggle at first to learn all the rules. Every meal might be difficult for a while. Once your food becomes habit there are still public spaces to navigate. To confidently and graciously eat what is best for me without offending anyone else’s food is something I’m still working on. I hope to continue to find meaning in Jewish holidays while maintaining my health through my food choices and finding joy in the communal aspects as well.