It’s one thing having to deal with school functions, sporting events, and birthdays. But, as each holiday we observe nears, my anxiety level skyrockets.
Growing up as a kid, nobody had food allergies. At least that’s how it seemed. The popular lunch sandwich sent to school was peanut butter and jelly, and birthday cakes were birthday cakes. None of this gluten free or nut free stuff. My only worry when traveling on an airplane was getting to our destination on-time and smoothly. Now, it’s whether or not my child will die from peanut exposure or ingestion.
We went to Tigers games, Pistons games, and Red Wings games without blinking an eye. In fact, the best part about these events was the food, and all the snacks and treats dominating the stadiums. If my parents said no to something, it was because I had had enough junk for one night. Not because it would make me physically ill or at-risk for anaphylaxis.
As a Jew, one of our most observed holidays, Passover, is starting on Monday night. This is the first year that my three-and-a-half-year-old has an understanding of the traditions, songs, and laws behind the holiday. He has been learning about it at school, and we have been discussing it at home. In his short, little life so far, our focus and struggles with him have involved food. He was diagnosed with severe food allergies, refused to eat, and was failing to thrive. Our family has had to completely clean out our house of unsafe foods, establish an everyday diet that is nutritious and healthy for him, and live within these limitations. Let’s just say–it wasn’t easy, but we have finally reached a place where we are in a groove.
So, now, throw in Passover–a holiday my family strictly observed my entire life. The most significant observance is avoiding “chametz,” or leaven. Traditionally, the process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Passover is an enormous task. To think of cleaning house, again, and eliminating even more food from his diet (even if only for a week) seems overwhelming and dreadful.
When I was a little kid, Passover, to me, mostly meant eating matzah–a lot of it–and in all different forms (fried matzah, matzah pizza, matzah with cream cheese–you get the point). Well, here we are again. I went to buy the most used item for the holiday, and my son is severely allergic to an ingredient in it.
As someone who battled and overcame an eating disorder, I can’t help but feel especially fixated on the food aspect. Particularly because our religion and customs have such distinctive food, rules regarding food (whether it is Kosher or Kosher for Passover), and we have such a rich tradition where recipes have been used and passed down through many generations. When learning about holidays, we can’t help but immediately think of them in terms of food. To name a few:
Shabbat = Challah
Rosh Hashanah = Walnut Cakes, Tzimmes
Yom Kippur (break fast) = Bagels, Noodle Kugel, Blintzes, Eggs
Hannukah = Potato Latkes
Purim = Hamantaschen
…, and, now, Passover = Matzah and Charoset (an apple and walnut recipe)
Every single recipe that has been used in the past, and passed down are completely unsafe for my son, and could potentially kill him. Sure, my parents, who are hosting the holiday, are helpful, understanding, and accommodating by making modifications so he can eat, and still feel apart of the Seder. But, still, I can’t help but wonder a few things.
Because he can’t eat the majority of popular holiday foods, will he grow to have the same appreciation for Jewish holidays as we do?
Will he feel excluded? Alienated? Or left out?
Will he wonder why he is the only one with food allergies at a table of fourteen? How will that make him feel?
Just as we have navigated food allergies up until now, we will continue working to find a way to normalize his allergies, making him feel included, all while honoring our faith, beliefs, and traditions. We will encourage him to embrace the Jewish holidays and our customs, help him to understand his specific health needs, and make the holidays more about family, love, history, and faith rather than just food. Actually, this is probably a blessing in disguise for me, as it will help prevent me from obsessing over meals, and to focus solely on appreciating and valuing those things, too.