Ice Cream or Bread?

I remember the argument like it was yesterday. There I was, a 10-year-old kid growing up in a Reform congregation in Santa Monica, arguing with my best friend (another 10-year-old from the same synagogue) about the laws of kashrut for Pesach. Well, actually, the argument was really about ice cream and soda pop more than anything else.

You see, my family took seriously our ability to interpret Jewish customs in ways that would best add meaning and spiritual purpose to every holiday. For example, every Chanukah, we would have a “home decoration contest,” and my mother, father, three sisters and I would create by hand our own unique Chanukah decorations. Another year, it was a giant 6-foot painted dreidel out of plywood, which has stood in my parents’ living room every year since. One year, it was a hand-painted mural of Jewish history, with biblical quotes, original sayings and three-dimensional depictions of the story of the Maccabees.

The same was true for how we approached Pesach — we had our own personal family traditions. Never mind Jewish law committees, Sanhedrins or great rabbinic minds of the generation; what we all turned to for the definitive halacha on what was and was not kosher for Pesach each year was my mother’s annual “kosher-for-Pesach” pronouncements.

One year, we learned that milk and juice were kosher for Pesach, but all soda pop was unkosher. The next year, ice cream (any ice cream) was added to the non-kosher list. These lists were not up for democratic vote by the family — when my mother spoke, that was it.

Now my best friend’s family had a different style of Pesach observance. In Jimmy’s family, bread was forbidden during the week of Pesach, but soda and ice cream were permitted. Hence the argument over what was and was not kosher for Passover. When I think back on it, I am a bit amazed. But, yes, I actually remember that we both agreed to go to our rabbi and have him give us the definitive ruling on who was right — my family or Jimmy’s. After all, what are rabbis for?

So Jimmy and I trotted off the to rabbi’s study and presented him with this Solomonic dilemma. “My mother says that ice cream and soda aren’t kosher to eat during Passover,” I declared. “And my mother says that ice cream and soda are OK; it’s only bread that we can’t eat,” Jimmy countered. “Whose mother is right, rabbi,” we both asked?

What else could a poor rabbi do? “They’re both right,” he replied. Ahh, Solomon would have been proud! “In your family, ice cream and soda are not kosher for Passover, and in your family, they are. Every family has its own customs that it follows, which helps make the holiday personal, meaningful and theirs.”

Funny how that lesson stayed with me throughout my life, and in so many ways has become a metaphor for what I consider one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life: that Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, and each of us has our own unique, special and important role to play in that evolutionary process.

As I think about that argument with Jimmy every year, I realize that it symbolized the very process through which Judaism evolves and the way it stays forever vibrant, alive and personally meaningful in my life. I experience every holiday as an opportunity to give expression to the highest spiritual sense of what it is to be human — that the quality of our lives is a direct result of the quality of our choices.

Perhaps this year you might use Passover as an opportunity to experience liberation from the petty bondages of the past year, and a challenge to make life more meaningful every single day.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.