For Vegan Jews, Seder Is Different From All Other Passover Nights

You can celebrate the rich symbolism of the holiday and stay kosher without brisket or a lamb shank bone.
The lamb has been replaced by a beetroot for this vegan version of a Passover seder plate. (Photo: Ewan Munro/Flickr)
Apr 20, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

The joyous holiday of Passover, an eight-day commemoration of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, begins this year on Friday evening. If you are cooking for family or friends who are vegans, preparing a seder—the feast held on the first and second nights of Passover—isn’t the easiest company meal to pull off.

But take heart. One can argue that avoiding foods from animals that have had their freedom curtailed or taken from them is just one more welcome manifestation of what this holiday is all about.

Those experienced in cooking for Passover, with its food restrictions that revolve around the avoidance of leavened food products (chametz), are nothing if not creative. Even if you eliminate traditional Ashkenazic offerings—that is, from Eastern Europe, Germany, and France—such as gefilte fish, chopped liver, matzo ball soup, and brisket, as well as the symbolic seder plate offerings of a lamb shank bone and roasted or hard-cooked egg, there are plenty of delicious options.

I know that’s easy for me to say—all I have to do is pick up some vegan wine this year. While it’s true that the word seder is Hebrew for “order,” it’s important to note that the rituals have never been set in stone. Every family customizes the seder to some degree to make it their own, after all. That’s what makes it so enduring, so beloved, and such great fun.

“Ever since Passover became a home-centered holiday with the destruction of the Second Temple, the service has been evolving, new customs and ceremonies added over time and throughout the Diaspora,” writes Jayne Cohen in Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations. During talmudic times, the ancient Hebrews adopted many elements from the Greeks and Romans, for instance. “The four cups of wine owe as much to the Roman practice of drinking before, during, and after the meal as to the traditional Kiddush ceremony.”

Not until the Middle Ages would the European seder plate—the centerpiece of the table— resemble the current Ashkenazic one, Cohen notes. “Rabbis then finalized the roasted shankbone and egg as appropriate substitutes for the ancient Temple sacrifices,” she writes. Today, many vegans substitute a roasted beet for the lamb shank bone. “The blood-red color is symbolic of the blood shed as well as the blood smeared over the doors of the people the Angel of Death passed over,” wrote Rhea Parsons for One Green Planet in 2015. Instead of a roasted or hard-cooked egg, she uses an avocado pit or orange; others prefer a small boiled potato.

When it comes to more recent changes, the 21st century has ushered in a couple of biggies. In 2013, the Orthodox Union announced that quinoa, the protein-rich, grain-like seed grown in South America, is kosher for Passover when processed with special OU Passover supervision and bearing the OU-P symbol.

In December 2015, Conservative Jews received the ruling, by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, that permitted the consumption of rice, beans, and other legumes in the category of food called kitniyot, traditionally avoided by Ashkenazics during Passover. Because nothing in life is ever simple, the rules of kitniyot vary depending on your Jewish affiliation. Cohen suggests checking with your rabbi or the online kashruth guidelines published by an organization approved by your community.

By custom (minhag), not commandment (mitzvah), kitniyot foods have always been eaten by Sephardic Jews—that is, those of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East and their descendants—on Passover but have been forbidden by Ashkenazic rabbis since the 13th century. Although many who have always abided by the ban won’t be doing anything different this Passover, it gives others more flexibility. It’s worth noting that even before the ruling, the Conservative movement allowed vegetarians and vegans to eat kitniyot.

“By dispensing with a custom whose roots in Jewish law are relatively recent as such things go…the ruling responds to modern concerns over nutrition, finances, and even Jewish unity,” wrote David Holzel for Washington Jewish Week (via the Jewish Telegraphic Agency). The Conservative movement in Israel has allowed eating kithiyot since 1989, and even some Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis in Israel have been lenient with their followers, added Holzel.

When it comes to preparing a vegan seder, it helps to think spring, so showcase the pure flavors of the season. You could start with roasted asparagus, for instance, or braised artichoke bottoms, and then, for the deeply satisfying umami tastes everyone craves in a main course, segue to stuffed portobello mushrooms, stuffed zucchini, cabbage, or even a vegetable shepherd’s pie topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes and herbed matzo crumbs. A salad of oranges and bitter herbs (such as arugula, watercress, dandelion, or sorrel) would add brightness, and for dessert, serve a rhubarb or raspberry compote, or your favorite vegan baked good.

Among the sources of inspiration you’ll find online or at your local independent bookstore are Cohen’s Jewish Holiday Cooking; The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer and Miriyam Glazer; Vegan Holiday Kitchen, by Nava Atlas; and Vegan Start Passover Cookbook, by Rena Reich. Although The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, by restaurateur Fania Lewando, is not vegan (there’s no shortage of butter and cream), I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention it. Originally published in 1938, Lewando’s book is now available for the first time in an English translation, with a foreword by Jewish cooking authority Joan Nathan.

“Europe in the early 20th century already had a thriving vegetarian movement grounded in the philosophies of both morality and health, and Lewando was a vocal advocate for a meat-free lifestyle,” wrote Gabriela Geselowitz in a review for Tablet last spring. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, the book is enriching on several levels. The guestbook from Lewando’s restaurant survived the war, and the new translation includes messages from patrons such as Marc Chagall, as well as compliments to the chef, talmudic citations, and fiery exchanges revealing some of the politics that animated vegetarians of the day.

“The last we know of Fania Lewando is that she and her husband attempted to flee Vilna in 1941, when the Nazis invaded and turned part of the once-thriving city into a ghetto,” wrote Geselowitz. “They are thought to have been captured by the Soviets, and all accounts end there; the exact circumstances of their deaths are unknown.” How lovely that today we can hold that book in our hands for the first time.

Whether you are embracing old traditions or reinventing them, happy Passover.