Gluten-free year-round: Celebrating Passover with Celiac disease

'The difference between Passover and the rest of the year is that I’m able to go into any supermarket and buy anything instead of going to a specialist store,' a person with Celiac's disease said.

 Osem gluten free pasta, which is not sold widely throughout the rest of the year, seen in the Passover section of a Jerusalem supermarket. (photo credit: Shira Silkoff)
Osem gluten free pasta, which is not sold widely throughout the rest of the year, seen in the Passover section of a Jerusalem supermarket.
(photo credit: Shira Silkoff)

Passover can be a time of food-related stress due to the unfamiliar foods and the extra work involved in cooking them. However, for those who cannot eat gluten for health-related reasons, eating during Passover can actually be a more enjoyable experience than the rest of the year.

Celiac disease is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues when gluten is consumed. This damages the surface of the small intestine (the villi) and prevents the body from absorbing nutrients. Gluten is a dietary protein found in three grains: wheat (including spelt), barley and rye.

An estimated 1% of the Israeli population (roughly 92,000 people) have been diagnosed with celiac disease. The disease itself is genetic, meaning that often multiple people in one family will have been diagnosed with it.

Siblings Daphna and Sander Ash were diagnosed with celiac at the ages of 12 and 10 years. Back when they were diagnosed, gluten-free products were not widely available in America, where they lived at the time. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, the siblings recounted their experiences growing up with Celiac disease, particularly around Passover, and how it impacts their lives now living in Israel.

“Growing up, we would stock up on food over Passover because suddenly there were so many more options,” Daphna answered when asked how Passover made it easier to find food growing up. “My parents actually bought a second freezer when we were first diagnosed in order to keep Passover food the entire year. We bought a lot of burekas, blintzes and even pizza.”

THE JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY burns a pile of hametz collected from across the city, last year. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)THE JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY burns a pile of hametz collected from across the city, last year. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Sander added from his perspective, “I’ve only found it difficult being celiac as I’ve gotten older. The main issue for me is the social component. I often sit at restaurants with friends and don’t eat. I can never just grab a beer with my friends. I found that Passover took away the majority of those social components because for me it’s never been a social holiday but rather a family one. But it certainly didn’t hurt while I was in the army and suddenly eating practically the same food as everyone else.”

Both siblings served in the IDF, Sander in the Nahal Brigade and Daphna in the Air Force, where she was provided with celiac-friendly microwave meals at the start of each week.

“I didn’t really eat in the army,” she laughed.

When it comes to shopping for groceries in Israel over Passover, both siblings said that the wide variety of food available is something they enjoy.

“The difference between Passover and the rest of the year is that I’m able to go into any supermarket and buy anything instead of going to a specialty store,” explained Daphna. “I can go into a regular supermarket and find more than one brand of [gluten-free] pasta available to buy, whereas normally I’d find one brand, maybe two, and they’d be considerably more expensive.״

During the year, for example, a 400-gram box of gluten-free Barilla fusilli pasta costs around NIS 14, whereas a 500-gram box of regular Barilla fusilli pasta costs only NIS 7, meaning someone who cannot eat gluten will be paying double the price for less product.

For Sander though, the price isn’t the main draw of Passover groceries, which he says isn’t noticeably different, but rather the range of options that the holiday brings with it.

“I’ve found that in recent years products have remained on the shelves long after Passover at a normal price point,” he explained. “I buy the same rice noodles that used to only be available during Passover the whole year round now.”

Both the siblings note, however, that there are still drawbacks to gluten-free Passover shopping, even for them.

“I never worry about shopping when it comes to finding gluten-free products during the year,” says Sander. “The reality is that there are plenty of solid products throughout the year and a lot of Passover specific products feel, in my opinion, lower quality and overly processed.”

During the year, Daphna is an enthusiastic gluten-free baker, and like many Jews standing in a kitchen ahead of Passover, she struggles with making Passover products work to the same standard as the ingredients she uses the rest of the time.

“The specialist gluten-free flours I use during the year actually aren’t available over Passover,” she explained.

Even though she doesn’t enjoy making them as much over Passover, one of the high points of the holiday for Daphna is the availability of baked goods.

“Going out to restaurants over Passover is definitely easier. It’s really nice. But the biggest thing for me is the bakeries. All those little bakeries that you find all over Israel. Usually, I can’t find a single thing there,” she said.

“But suddenly over Passover, I can buy baked goods that don’t come from a packet. Usually, I have to go to the one or two gluten-free bakeries in Israel if I want to experience that, whereas over Passover I can just go into a bakery and get stuff. It’s just fun.”