Posts Tagged ‘judaism’

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part 6: a gluten-free meditation on passover

April 4, 2012

Part 6 (and final) in a series on bread and baking.

This post is not about bread. It certainly has a place in this series, but it is not about bread, or even about baking.

What does it mean to be gluten-free and celebrating Passover? On Passover we clean our homes of hametz, anything yeast-leavened made from the five grain species: barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. Anyone gluten-free knows that those are precisely the grains we are already avoiding 365 days per year. The only permissible form of food made from these grains is matzah, which has to be baked for 18 minutes or less. According to Jewish law, Jews are not permitted to own or eat any hametz during the eight days of Passover.

OK, so what. I’m one step ahead of you all!

The focus of Passover for me, growing up, was about restrictions. In addition to the restrictions on bread, pasta, and other yeast-leavened foods, because we were Ashkenazi (descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe), we were also restricted from eating kitniyot, which includes legumes, rice, and seeds. This meant Passover was eight days of being perpetually hungry. For a lot of Jews, Passover is akin to Yom Kippur.

But Passover is also the holiday of spring and rebirth! Such symbolism and beauty.

For me, the last few years of eating gluten-free have also coincided with my own development of a deep love and understanding of local food, which came with a new appreciation for the rhythm of the seasons. In Boston, spring means that crocuses have come up, daffodils are blooming (a little too early this year), perennial greens are returning. It also means that my farmer friends are starting seedlings in their greenhouses, and work crews return to the farm to begin cultivating the soil and readying the land for the new growing season.

Passover has become a time to focus not on food restrictions, but on the miracle of the shifting of seasons that turns snowy fields into homes for thousands of plants in a matter of months.

young beet seedlings

beets begin their initial ascent in the greenhouse, march 2012, at powisset farm, dover, ma

In her book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Jessica Prentice writes a chapter on The Egg and its symbolism in spring. On chicken farms, springtime means an increase in egg production, as light stimulates hens’ pituitary gland to produce a hormone that stimulates their ovaries to produce eggs. (My farmer friend M was telling me yesterday that their chickens are producing so many eggs right now that they can’t keep up.). Factory egg farming increases production by lighting the factory 24 hours a day, creating a sort of perpetual summer for the hens. Adding antibiotics to the mix ensures a standard egg production all year round. But at small farms with actual free roaming chickens, springtime is truly when egg production booms.

hens at powisset farm

chickies at powisset farm, dover, ma (photo credit: powisset facebook page)

multicolored springtime eggs from powisset farm

multicolored springtime eggs from powisset farm

Eggs are a common springtime symbol, including in the big spring holidays of North America, Passover and Easter. Prentice writes, “Eggs, like seeds, are symbolic of hope and of a future that is fertile with life. They are an ancient icon of spring, rebirth, and renewal.”

As we move from winter, the season of scarcity, to spring and summer, seasons of abundance, let’s reframe Passover not as a time of restriction but as one of hope and abundance. Anyone with food restrictions (including gluten) can tell you that life is vibrant, colorful, and more fun when we focus on the abundance of foods that we can eat, instead of the ones we can’t. Enjoy the new greens, the richness of springtime eggs, and revel in the miracle of changing seasons.

springtime sky, jamaica plain, ma

springtime sky, jamaica plain, ma

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bread and baking part 2: baking as a spiritual practice

February 22, 2012

Part 2 in a series on bread and baking.

“One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” -Martin Buber

Like many people who grow up in the Conservative movement, I did not have a natural sense of spirituality associated with Jewish ritual, prayer, or liturgy. I am not sure this is Conservative Judaism’s strong suit. I struggled with what role God does or should play in my life, what the purpose of praying is, how to find meaning in the canon of Jewish liturgy.

Spirituality, what does that even mean? Right now it means a sense of a power larger than me, who partners with me in creating my life. I have a sense of feeling part of something else, something beyond my own decisions and actions. It also connects me with my history, both personally and communally. And it gives me the ability to look at everyday actions, beauty, friends, solitude, music – with a sense of awe, though I sometimes think of myself as a cynic.

I picked up baking. Bread, specifically. And the start of bread baking for me was also the beginning of a new chapter of spiritual practice. I could say that I baked bread for the purpose of having bread to eat – that would be simple enough. But I was living alone at the time. And as my “hobby” picked up, I started to have more bread than I could eat, so I would share it with co-workers and friends, which gave me a second layer of satisfaction beyond baking it and eating it in my own kitchen.

round challah rising

learning to slow down: a rosh hashanah challah is carefully braided and then rises again before being baked

Coming into this spiritual practice also required leaving New York. I needed to feel more connected to my body, my food, community – and I needed to slow down in order to do that. In Boston I had a more flexible schedule, more time to cook and bake. And at the same time, I was coming to the realization that I had a gluten intolerance. My body could no longer digest the magical bread I had started baking only a year earlier. I was devastated.

So here was the moment. What did I love about baking bread?
Slowing down. The slower the better. Mark Bittman’s No Knead bread was a revelation to me. All this bread needed was yeast, salt, flour, and water. And time.

no-knead bread

no-knead bread rising in a floured towel

Planning ahead. I have always been a planner. Baking bread really took full advantage of this skill. There’s something that I actually love about how you can’t eat bread 5 minutes after you thought to make it. The best bread takes thoughtful planning, no shortcuts or tips or “30 minute meals” here.

Presence. Bread does not bake itself. Whether it’s bread that requires kneading or overnight time or, in the case of gluten-free bread, careful measuring and balancing of flours, you need to be present. This might be the crux for me: much like meditation, bread baking requires mindfulness and focus. Just because you know the recipe by heart does not mean you can check out and think about something else. You might forget the salt, or overknead, or not leave yourself enough time for your bread to rise.

Magic. Here is where Shechina/God comes in. Bread is a partnership between humans and divinity. The fact that you can take a grass (I’m talking gluten here), grind it up into tiny disparate parts, mix it with water and live cultures and turn it into bread? There’s something magical happening there. I believe that even those chemical reactions are God.

Connection. Nourishing other people with your hard work – do I even need to get into this? What a blessing for everyone involved. We nourish ourselves by nourishing others.

With all of this in mind, I began a Community Supported Breadery (CSB) in my new community in Boston, and became known in some circles as “the bread person.” This was at the same time I stopped eating gluten. A lot of people were confused by this, but it made perfect sense to me: bread baking brought me so much spiritual and emotional nourishment and I could no longer eat it – so I needed an outlet for it. This was it. And it was wonderful. I was fully present, immersed in flour and yeast and caraway seeds and raisins two days per week, and was visited by new friends and community members, excitedly picking up warm loaves of bread from my home.

The CSB proved to be a perfect bridge between my short-lived bread baking and eating days and my gluten free days. It allowed me to continue the spiritual practice, to cultivate it multiple times a week, without having to eat all that bread.

pile of fresh bread

community supported breadery (CSB) breads awaiting pickup

I believe that each of these parts of bread baking are spiritual practices to cultivate on their own. And each time we practice one of them in our kitchens we work towards turning our kitchen tables into altars.

Upcoming installments: feminism and connections to the past; crossing over to the gluten free side of baking, and more.