Behind the lines: Kosher-for-Pessah food for thought

It's a cruel fact of life in the 21st century that only the wealthy can afford to be thin.

mangal bbq 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
mangal bbq 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
Pessah is a frustrating time to be writing a column on the media and current affairs. There is no other period quite like it, as the entire country takes a time-out from just about everything. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there is an old year to summarize and sins to reckon with. By the time Succot rolls around, everyone is just so fed up with holidays that politics and other business are already back to normal. On Independence Day, there's always some good scandal going on. And during the summer break, there's usually a war going on - or an evacuation. Pessah seems to be the only time of year when, with the tragic exception of the Park Hotel terror atrocity five years ago, and Operation Defensive Shield which followed it, everyone seems to put down his tools and weapons and go on vacation. Even the prime minister takes a breather - and, of course, we're treated to the standard stories of the secluded resort in the Galilee, whose name will remain classified for the duration of the premier's stay, and of the complaints of the local residents having to undergo body searches every time they take the dog for a walk. But that's just about the best fodder the press has during this barren week. As it is, the holidays are hell for newspaper editors with all the special editions that have to be cranked out while crucial staffers are on vacation. The Pessah media ritual begins a week or two before the holiday, with headlines identical to those of last year. The only thing that changes is the numbers. The news organizations seem to take a perverse pleasure in competing with each other in citing incredible numbers of people who need help getting through Pessah. Last week Channel 2 broke all previous records when it reported that no less than a million Israelis need food handouts to celebrate Pessah. Where did it get this figure? Its not an official statistic; various welfare organizations measure poverty by different standards. Instead, the media rely on the press releases of various charities - well-intentioned, no doubt - but since none of them deals with even 10 percent of that number, we can only conclude that the figures are pure conjecture, aimed at boosting fund-raising rather than providing us with anything coming close to an accurate picture of social need. HOW MANY Israelis really couldn't sit down to the Seder if they hadn't received a package containing a box of matzot and a bottle of wine? There really is no way of telling, but poverty is too serious a matter for the media to be bandying about ridiculous figures that just don't stand up to scrutiny. Still, newspaper pages and airtime have to be filled somehow, and when Pessah comes knocking, it always seems to come around to food. You just can't turn on the radio without catching another celebrity chef delivering the latest recipe for a flourless cake and the ultimate Seder dish, which almost always seems to be a variation on saddle of lamb. I have yet to hear an interviewer ask just who can possibly afford such an expensive cut of meat if everyone is living off food handouts. But no sooner does the kitchen wizard finish all 25 stages of the perfectly simple preparation, and we're over to the diet guru preaching to us on how not to end the Seder bloated, by giving all those heavy meaty courses a miss and, of course, don't forget what havoc matza causes to your delicate digestion system, not to mention the never-ending round of barbecues that are a sacred ritual of Pessah here. At least that's a bit of useful advice for all those who can't pay for the meal anyway. Stay tuned next week for the deluge of advertising for diet plans and swanky gyms. It's a cruel fact of life in the 21st century that only the wealthy can afford to be thin. And since Pessah is also, some will say foremost, a religious occasion in which most of the strictures deal with - what else? - food and dietary concerns, the newspapers compete with each other on who can come up with the most bizarre story of the latest invention of those religious kooks. Some, of course, are recycled annually, like the one about how Jerusalem's water is to be supplied from wells instead of the Kinneret in which people might have thrown bread. Or the drain-opening fluid with a kosher-for-Pessah stamp. This year there were two new ones: Apparently, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the venerable sage who is known by his followers as the "posek (rabbinical arbitrator) of the generation," ruled this year that smoking is forbidden on Pessah, since cigarettes contain various unidentified ingredients that might be hametz. And according to The Jerusalem Post, Alei Yarok, the group fighting to legalize soft drugs, says marijuana is kitniyot, one of the foodstuffs forbidden by religious Ashkenazi Jews. Well, at least dope-heads of Eastern European extraction will be able to use their drug money to buy supplies for a decent Seder meal instead. A week's stash of grass should pay at least for a box of matza, though according to reports on the business pages, the corrugated wafers have gone up 10 percent in price this year. Yet another annual Pessah staple story.