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Friday, December 19, 2014

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Maternal kashrut masoret gives way on Pesach

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Because my grandmother never allowed garlic in her kitchen on Pesach, my mother taught my sister and me that it was forbidden on the holiday.

 She explained to us, as Bubbe had undoubtedly explained to her, that because in the eastern Europe home of her childhood, garlic was dried above the fire where cooking was done all year, it was presumed to have come into contact with foodstuff and so was not permitted on Passover.

One year, budding chefs that we were, my sister and I rebelled. Our garlic isn’t dried over the fireplace or in the hearth, we argued. (Our New York home had neither.) Our garlic came to us in narrow glass jars, already ground into a fine powder. Not only that, but its label proclaimed it fit for Passover consumption. So why could we not use it to flavour our Pesach dishes?

Our logic was impeccable, our campaign impassioned. It took a few years, but eventually my mother yielded. Our holiday cuisine improved, became more complex and savoury, as we availed ourselves not only of garlic, but of whatever spices came in appropriately marked bottles. There were other foods my grandmother had banned from her Pesach kitchen, but many of them were available in North America with a Passover seal of approval. They, too, found a place in our kitchen. The authorities in charge of such things seemed to have a wider Passover palate than Bubbe. It was truly a new world.

Years later, researching food traditions of eastern European Jewish homes, particularly regarding Passover, I came to understand that my bubbe’s kitchen traditions were not simply her own invention, shaped by the configuration of her home and her families taste. Rather, they were a part of the tradition of her shtetl, which allowed certain foodstuffs and forbade others on Passover.

Eastern Europe, it turns out, was a patchwork of such traditions, with variations of what one may and may not eat varying by micro-region, by affiliation with particular rebbes, and sometimes by clan. The minute shadings operated region by region, sometimes shtetl by shtetl.

What to bring into one’s home, what and how to cook, was a masoret, a tradition of kashrut learned at the hearth, passed down among generations of women, grandmother and mother to daughter and granddaughter. When in doubt, there were local authorities to consult, but by and large, women knew their stuff, and they trained their female progeny in situ.

Today, in Canada and in the United States, that home-based tradition has been largely supplanted by the centralization of authorities on kashrut, who affix labels for all to see . Look on the web – you can find lists of what’s cool and what’s not for Passover kitchens.

By the time my sister and I were growing up, these two sources of food knowledge were operating side by side – competing, in a sense, for loyalties. Confronted with Bubbe’s tradition, on the one hand, and the centralized, homogenized North American lists, on the other, we opted for the lists and jettisoned the maternal masoret. We were not unique in this. By now, the idea of centralized authority has largely prevailed, creating a uniformity among immigrants and their progeny who may have inherited different ancestral traditions.

There is, of course, a gain in this. Foods my Bubbe never heard of might be on the right list (although, over time, some foods she permitted have been forbidden). The diverse origins of Canadian and American Jews meld into a few strong bodies of tradition. It also helps to equalizes Jews by choice, who have no inherited maternal kashrut to tap into.

But there’s also a loss, notably the authority of mothers and grandmothers in what was traditionally their domain. In retrospect, my sister and I should have clung to Bubbe’s traditions instead of so eagerly embracing the modern. The imposition of official bodies of authority over the maternal masoret minimizes the authority of women as keepers of the kosher hearth. It also erases history.

When our maternal traditions dictated our kitchen habits, as you ate, you tasted where you came from.

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