By Kate Shellnutt
This Passover, it's easier than ever for Jews in Houston to keep kosher.
Jewish food guidelines become even more restrictive starting Friday night, the beginning of an eight-day festival when Jews abstain from any leavened ingredients - from bread to corn syrup - to commemorate the Exodus.
In the ancient Jews' rush to leave Egypt, they didn't have time for bread to rise, leaving their descendants seeking out specialty foods such as boxes of crispy matzoh crackers, jars of gefilte fish and even certified-kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola during Passover, now more readily available at grocery stores.
Many Jews who don't keep kosher year-round will serve kosher meals and traditional family recipes for Passover, a celebration of their religious freedoms that relies on food to symbolize the story.
For Orthodox families and others who are kosher all the way, Passover is a time to stock up on Jewish favorites as grocery stores dedicate special displays to their expanded offerings, Houston Kashruth Association executive director Alex Pfeffer said.
During a visit to Kroger a week ago, he noticed shelves piled high with Passover staples, except for an empty space once displaying chocolate-covered matzoh, a popular holiday dessert that went fast this year.
"Houston traditionally has not had much kosher food, but as Houston has grown, so has the kosher consumer base," he said. "Even in Houston, it's not that complicated to shop kosher."
The kosher association and TORCH (Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston) dedicated March to kosher awareness, touring stores to pick out kosher offerings, showing off kosher cooking demos and schooling Jewish families on dietary law. At its simplest, kosher eating prohibits animals deemed unclean - no pork, no shrimp - and requires Jews to separate meat and dairy.
The meat-dairy separation goes beyond a ban on cheeseburgers. Kosher Jews won't mix the two in the same meal, and strict observers don't allow them to be cooked in the same dishes.
In Houston, 8 percent of the Jewish population keeps kosher, according to Jewish demography research by Ira M. Sheskin at the University of Miami.
"It is rewarding for people to embark on the kosher journey, and we've had many families beginning their journey (during Kosher Awareness Month)" in March, said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, TORCH executive director. "People are curious. People aspire to growth. They want to grow in their spirituality and take their level of observance to the next level."
Nationwide, the Orthodox Union is also pushing out resources to make kosher shopping more convenient, including an app that lets shoppers track 600,000 products that carry the OU's symbols, among the the oldest and most widely recognized kosher stamps of approval.
"During Passover, a lot of Jewish people are doing cooking and food prep," Rabbi Eli Eleff with the OU said. "This gives them verification and allows them to plan their shopping in advance."
Holiday hosts find themselves cooking for a crowd during the first and second night of Passover. Sheskin's research found more than 8 in 10 Houston Jews plan to attend these big family dinners, called seders, which include ritual elements of storytelling, singing and tasting foods that symbolize plagues in Egypt. Jews in kosher homes have even more work to do to get ready for the Passover crowd. They conduct a special kind of spring cleaning, selling or throwing away any grains that have been allowed to ferment. This includes baked goods but extends to liquor and other products.
They clean crumbs from their house and make their cooking dishes kosher for Passover by taking them to be washed by their rabbi. The efforts to keep so strictly kosher may seem cumbersome, but families see it as an essential element of their faith and obedience to God. Pfeffer, an Orthodox Jew who has kept a kosher diet his entire life, said once families become intentional about seeking out kosher products, they'll find it to be rather easy, with the exception of giving up some nonkosher favorites, such as cheeseburgers and shrimp.
"When we're shopping, my 5-year-old daughter will grab things and ask, 'Is this kosher?' and then she'll look for the symbol," he said. "Instead of, 'Can I have it?' she asks, 'Is this kosher?'"
Wolbe emphasized that kosher restrictions come from God's commandments to provide a purer way of life.
"Kosher has to do with my body, my soul," he said. "No matter if it's in my kitchen or in a restaurant, whatever I eat has a spiritual effect on my body."