Kosher Quinoa or Human Rights: Guess Which Dominated Passover Stories

On the days before Passover began on April 18, the night of the first Seder, the major national media outlets ran the predictable holiday stories. Yet again, these feature stories focused on the most exotic and extreme expressions of adherence to the Passover dietary laws, laws which are followed in the most rigorous fashion by Orthodox Jews, who represent less that 10% of the U.S.’s six million plus Jewish population.

Typical were the front page stories in the New York Times and Wall St Journal—and a long broadcast on the topic on NPR.

The Times story raised the curious question of whether the grain quinoa, which has made inroads through the health-food industry, is kosher for Passover. Only deep into the story are we told that the question arose in grocery stores in the Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, nor do we get any sense that the question is not relevant to 90% of American Jews.

It’s not as if American Jews neglect Passover; in fact, it’s the one holiday virtually all Jews mark in some way—more than Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Seder, in a multitude of forms, has become an American phenomenon, celebrated by Jewish (and now many Christian) families across America.

Concerns were also raised over an equally small demographic, people who want to eat in restaurants certified ‘kosher for Passover’ by some of the long-established kosher certifying agencies. And in case you haven’t considered the problem of Passover and your non-human companions, the front-page Wall St. Journal story tells you how to make sure that your pet’s food is certified kosher:

These days Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. near Chicago sells dog and cat food that, in a manner of speaking, is kosher. They are deemed usable during the Passover holiday, though not kosher for human consumption, and have the endorsement of the venerable Chicago Rabbinical Council. Evanger’s website touts its products by showing a photo of a dog wearing a yarmulke.

Not to be undone on the ‘animals eating kosher’ front, an April 15 NPR story by Daniel Estrin reported from Israel on the recently enforced rules about which grains milk cows can consume in the weeks before Passover:

Just how strict we need to be when it comes to the presence of grain elsewhere in the food chain is a matter of some debate. In Israel, kosher certifiers insist that that for milk, eggs, and meat to be considered fit for the holiday, the cows and chickens from which they are derived must also be grain-free.”

I’m not casting any doubt on the importance of these questions for those living in Orthodox communities, though I can’t help but notice that the Passover dietary rules, which are many centuries old in their current form, seem to be getting more stringent with the passing of each and every Passover.

When the media stories focus on Passover food laws, other Passover stories—those that address the spiritual and political meanings of the holiday—are overlooked. As many scholars have noted, the biblical injunction to respect the stranger in your land, “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” is much more frequently repeated in the Bible than the injunction against eating unleavened bread.

An Israeli group working to honor the ‘stranger,’ Rabbis for Human Rights, has just published its Human Rights Supplement to the Seder. This group and its activism is surely worthy of an American media story. I have no doubt that the 400 American and Israeli Rabbis affiliated with this Human Rights group are following the Passover dietary laws (though I doubt they’re thinking about quinoa or dog food). They have chosen to find the meaning of Passover in questions of oppression and freedom.

Another group of Israeli Jews has chosen Passover to announce an initiative about the quickly-fading prospect of an Israel-Palestinian political settlement. The NYT did report (in a back page story) on this initiative, and gave a brief quotation from the signatories, twenty of whom were previous winners of the prestigious Israel Prize: Their statement, timed for Passover, said that:

“The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people where its identity was shaped,” the statement begins. “The land of Palestine is the birthplace of the Palestinian people where its identity was formed.” It goes on to say that now is the time to live up to the commitment expressed by Israel’s founders in their Declaration of Independence to “extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.” Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the signers, said the group chose this week to issue its declaration because it was Passover, which marks the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery.

Sadly, the NYT front-page story about quinoa for Passover was much more detailed and extensive story than the one on Ezrahi’s declaration. For American media outlets Passover as a time to reflect on our actions regarding the stranger—wherever he or she may be—does not seem to be a newsworthy topic.