How Do You Mark Passover When Gluten-Free?

Jewish holiday Passover banner design with wine, matzo on wooden background.
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Debbie Greenberg’s son, Aaron Mazer, was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of 17.

For Mazer, that meant the end of school cafeteria lunches, which were typically breaded or otherwise stuffed full of gluten.

For Greenberg, who lives in Wynnewood, her son’s diagnosis meant that packing her son’s lunches and cooking for the family got a little — well, a lot — more complicated. Gone were the days when she could throw a sandwich in a brown paper bag and get on her way.

“At first, it really was very difficult,” she said.

There was one time of year, however, that actually got easier for them: Passover.

For Mazer, the requirement to refrain from all chametz-based products over Passover was easy as (gluten-free) pie, even if meant missing out on prior favorites like matzah brei and matzah meal pancakes.

For Greenberg, it was a chance to get a little creative. How could she help her son celebrate Passover with his diet, when he already refrained from eating chametz?

“He would like us to go Sephardic,” Greenberg said, referring to her son’s desire to eat kitniyot — legumes — during the holiday. “I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”

Mazer’s Passover problem is one faced by many Jewish people who maintain gluten-free diets for health reasons.

Besides the complications that arise for anyone with that diet, refraining from gluten as one normally does poses an interesting problem for those who wish to mark Passover as special with their diets. Peruse the message boards and comments sections of gluten-free recipes and rabbinic opinions, and you can find enthusiastic debates on the subject.

Michelle Markowitz’s solution, like Mazer’s rejected one, has to do with kitniyot.

Markowitz of Bala Cynwyd was diagnosed with celiac disease when she was 3 in 1992. Growing up, gluten-free substitutes were in short supply, and what was available was not exactly an enjoyable eating experience. It would be many years before good gluten-free food was available year-round, in ample supply. But in the meantime, Passover became a little oasis.

“Passover was always my favorite holiday,” Markowitz said, “because the availability and selection of gluten-free food doubled. It was always easy for me to eat on Passover, and I got a little bit of schadenfreude at the expense of my friends who suddenly found their diets limited the way I did during the year.”

Passover wasn’t only an opportunity to have all her gluten-free needs met. It also became a time to stock up for the months to come, when the bountiful gluten products would once again be in short supply. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that we had a second fridge and freezer where we saved K for P food to eat during the rest of the year,” Markowitz said.

Like Mazer, Markowitz relies on kitniyot during the rest of the year. But unlike Mazer, her method of distinguishing her Passover diet from her rest-of-the-year diet is to do what Ashkenazi Jews already do: refrain from eating kitniyot during the holiday. And for the record, she said, the quality and taste of gluten-free food has improved tremendously over the years.

Rabbi Zev Baram of South Philadelphia was diagnosed with celiac disease about 10 years ago. Gone are his days of munching on matzah or any matzah-based products during the holiday. In their place is gluten-free shmurah matzah. Ten years after his diagnosis, Baram still refers to “getting used to” the gluten-free shmurah matzah, which isn’t all that easy to find, either.

Like Markowitz, Baram uses Passover as a time to stock up on gluten-free products that he can use for the rest of the year. But how does he mark Passover with his diet?

“Like everyone else,” he said. “Just with a lot less matzah.”; 215-832-0740

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