For adherents to Judaism, Monday marked the first of eight nights of Passover, the ages-old remembrance of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery to freedom. Traditionally, families and friends gather for the first two evenings to read the Exodus story, participate in special blessings and rituals, and sing songs.
And, they eat.
For a growing number of Jews, keeping Passover meals sustainable and local has become an important part of the holiday.
“I believe that we have the ability to free ourselves from the bondage of slavery to food conglomerates and injustice as much as any other form of servitude,” says Miriam Leibowitz, Food and Social Justice Advocate in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Passover ceremony, called a seder, includes wine, matzoh, and a plate of symbolic foods meant to represent various aspects of the Exodus story: bitter herbs (often horseradish); an apple and nut mixture; a vegetable (parsley or celery is common) with salt water to dip it in; a shank bone (often lamb); and a hard-boiled or roasted egg. The meal often includes matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and brisket.
During Passover, Liebowitz says she grows her own greens to have on the seder plate. She says this practice is not only symbolic, but within most people’s means—“no matter where you live.”
Leibowitz says her most sustainable practice is making sure her Passover foods come from local sources. For this sedar, she’s using eggs from two local farms and parsley from her own garden, “which over-winters and is pungent and perfect for use in dishes and on the seder plate.”
Another seder tradition, gefilte fish, can be procured sustainably and made at home, as Jeffrey Yoskowitz discovered a few years ago. Yoskowitz set out to ditch the canned gefilte fish he grew up eating and prepare it himself. On The Jew and the Carrot he writes about procuring the fish:
Fortunately, the freshwater fish that make up gefilte fish are generally more sustainable than more popular saltwater fishes. The fishmonger explained that nearly all of his fish comes from Lake Michigan. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable fish guide, Seafood Watch, lake whitefish from the Great Lakes is a “best choice” fish, and wild-caught yellow pike is a “good alternative.” Freshwater carp is also considered a more sustainable fish option, when not confused with its invasive cousin, Asian carp.
Some Jews even choose to divert from the strict Passover traditions in the name of sustainability and community. The website Hazon, which focuses on sustainability from a Jewish perspective, offers several alternatives or activities that can add meaning to the seder commemoration:
Host a vegetarian or vegan seder. Even if you regularly eat meat, Passover is a great time to eat lower on the food chain. Think of it as getting rid of your “gastronomical chametz.” Menu ideas: quinoa salad, matzoh tortillas, vegetarian matzoh ball soup, roasted new potatoes with rosemary, Israeli salad, borscht, garlic sautéed fiddleheads… the possibilities are endless!
Host a potluck seder. Or at least accept offers of help with the preparation. A sustainable seder also means not wearing out the host!
Food Blessings. Recount the amazing food blessings that we have. One person starts it off, and the second person has to answer incorporating the last one and adding a new one. This is a good way to consider all of the food that we will eat together during the Passover seder, and what the significance may be to each individual at the table.
The Fast Food of Passover. Think of matzoh as a “fast food” and have a food access conversation. What are the reasons that matzoh could be considered a “fast food”? Can we introduce the concept of food security/insecurity to the conversation?
In addition to celebrating sustainably, Jews should also observe Passover with an eye toward the poor and oppressed, writes Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. After all, Passover is about the Jews' exodus from slavery. She suggests that Jews place an olive on the Seder plate to remember oppressed people around the world—including Palestinians.
Sustainability and justice can—and probably should—be integrated into Jewish Passover commemorations. However, integration of those practices don’t have to come all at once. “Sustainability can start with small changes and can build over time,” Leibowitz says. “Just as it took 40 years to create change in mindsets while wandering the desert towards the Promised Land.”
What sustainable food practices are your family implementing this Passover?
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