Rice and beans for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover?


Seder tables in Conservative Jewish homes may look different this Passover, and it’s not because of a new popular cookbook or changes to the haggadah

It’s because the Conservative movement has officially decided that kitniyot — which include common foods such as rice, corn and beans — are now permitted for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover, overruling about seven centuries of Ashkenazi custom that banned those foods. The Passover prohibition persisted even though all Jewish legal authorities agree that kitniyot are not chametz, which is why so many other Jews, including Reform and Israeli Conservative Jews, as well as Orthodox Sephardic Jews, eat them during the eight days of Passover. 

The technicalities of the new ruling can be a bit confusing, but they’re laid out by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in a legal document titled “A Teshuvah Permitting Ashkenazim to Eat Kitniyot on Pesach” published in November. It removes all restrictions on kitniyot for Conservative Jews — restrictions that Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews will continue to follow.

The opinion, written by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner of Baltimore and Rabbi Amy Levin of Bridgeport, Conn., was approved by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly by a vote of 19-1. Its argument centers around three key points: First, that the custom of Ashkenazi Jews to not eat kitniyot on Passover is lacking in strong rational justification. Second, access to inexpensive foods like rice and beans reduces the high cost of observing a kosher Passover for American Jews. And third, for the increasing number of people who maintain vegan or gluten-free diets, rice, beans and other grains are important sources of nutrition.

A similar responsum written in Israel by Rabbi David Golinkin allows Ashkenazim to eat kitniyot on Passover; it was approved in 1989 by Israel’s Conservative movement. The Israeli responsa has now been translated to English and was voted on by the CJLS in December, passing 15-3. The Israeli responsa draws a similar conclusion, albeit through different reasoning.

Prohibitions against kitniyot are not based on Torah law or rabbinic law, but rather on Ashkenazi custom. About 700 years ago, rabbis in France began referring to a custom of some Jewish communities to avoid kitniyot, a label derived from the word katan (little), which includes rice, millet and legumes broadly, and beans, corn, peas, lentils and soybeans, more specifically. Everyone agrees that chametz — leaven derived from wheat, oats, spelt, rye and barley — is strictly prohibited on Passover. The custom to avoid kitniyot derived from two precautions: First, because kitniyot are sometimes grown in close vicinity to the five chametz grains, rabbinic authorities worried that chametz might mix with and accidentally contaminate otherwise kosher-for-Passover food. Rabbinic authorities also were concerned that Jews might confuse chametz with kitniyot, as they share some resemblance. 

Today, according to Orthodox law, the custom to avoid kitniyot on Passover is binding on Jews of Ashkenazi descent, regardless of where they live. But Sephardic Jews, whatever their denominations, do not follow this custom and enjoy the full range of kitniyot products throughout Passover, making Passover’s shopping experience and diet easier and more enjoyable. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and chairman of the CJLS, who eats fish but not meat, said that despite the ruling, his wife plans to continue to observe the custom, so there will be no kitniyot in their home during Passover. Dorff stressed that the Conservative movement’s change “should not be the occasion for looking down your nose, either at the people who do eat kitniyot or people who do not.”

One issue the teshuvah touches on, and which Dorff mentioned in the context of eating at other people’s homes on Passover, is that even under halachah, there is no issue with using kosher-for-Passover utensils that have come in contact with kitniyot, which is not true of Passover-kosher utensils that have come in contact with chametz.

“Kitniyot cannot become chametz,” the teshuvah says. 

Additionally, derivatives of kitniyot — such as rice oil — remain fully acceptable for Ashkenazim who continue to hold by the custom.

The teshuvah guides the reader through the historical rabbinic debate on the topic, highlighting those who believed in the custom, those who thought it stringent but nevertheless thought it should remain, and those who thought it was a mistake.

Rabbeinu Peretz, for example, wrote in the 13th century that there’s no doubt kitniyot is not chametz, but added, “Were we to permit kitniyot, [people] might come to substitute and permit [grain-based] porridge.” And while Peretz noted the Talmud allows rice on Passover, “This was specifically in their day, when all were fluent in the laws of prohibition and permission.”

But Jacob Emden, an 18th-century German-Jewish scholar known as Ya’avetz, wrote that his father, Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, would “rant” against the custom of avoiding kitniyot, largely on the basis that they are “available cheaply and easily,” and that their exclusion forces Ashkenazi Jews to bake and consume more and more matzo, increasing the chance that they’ll inadvertently consume chametz. (In those days many families baked their own matzo, which requires sharp precision.)

Ya’avetz wrote that his father, also known as the Chacham Tzvi, awaited the day when scholars would abolish the custom but did not support doing so “without the agreement of the majority.”

But even with a majority agreement, the teshuvah notes, rabbinic authorities cited the opinion of Maimonides, perhaps the greatest rabbinic scholar in Jewish history, that “only a greater court than the originators” has the authority to reverse not just law, but custom, too.

In justifying its ruling, the Conservative responsa begins by casting doubt on the possibility of mixing chametz with kitniyot “in the present age when we purchase our flours, rice and beans in discrete packages, well-marked as to their content, under governmental supervision.” A footnote, though, does caution against buying in bulk on Passover from any grocers that dispense food from bins, such as in some natural food stores. 

While acknowledging the importance of maintaining customs, the teshuvah’s authors note that while some Jewish communities “insist upon dressing as did the Jews of Poland several centuries ago, in our community that has been allowed to change.”

The ultimate rationale behind the Conservative committee’s ruling comes down to the practicalities of economics and nutrition, and their belief that “resistance to change is the sole reason not to consider a change” in this custom.

With the growth in vegetarianism, the authors argue, beans, for example, “serve in the absence of meat as a significant source of protein.”

“It’s about time!” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote in an email to the Journal when asked about his thoughts on the ruling. He said he understands “the force of custom,” but, as a vegetarian, he has been eating kitniyot over Passover for years.

“It was based on a misunderstanding and lack of information, so to my fellow kitniyot consumers, welcome to a Pesach no less kosher and much more nourishing,” Wolpe said.

“We now have many more people who are vegans, and we also have people who are known to have gluten allergies,” Dorff notes. “For them, what is permissible on Passover is much more restrictive than it is for the rest of us. Especially for vegans, there was really nothing to eat on Passover. There was really very little, if you do not allow kitniyot.”

“The positive mitzvah of joy on the holiday will not be well expressed on the depleted table of those who do not eat fish or meat, or even cheese and eggs,” responsa authors Reisner and Levin write, adding that the halachic aphorism that the Torah wants to protect the Jewish people’s money is relevant in increasing access to relatively inexpensive foods, like beans and rice, and thereby alleviating the financial pressures many Jews feel when shopping for expensive Passover products.

Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., the lone holdout on the otherwise unanimous committee, said he doesn’t believe the decision to lift the restriction on kitniyot is justified by the teshuvah’s reasoning. Peltz said law and custom are changeable, but only when done to “address an ethical dissonance between halakha and the prevailing values of our generation,” which he believes is not the case here. He wrote this with four other rabbis in a January op-ed for the South Jersey Jewish Voice.

In an interview with the Journal on April 11, Peltz said he thinks the economic benefits of allowing kitniyot are limited, as they won’t replace the most expensive Passover food items and because many kitniyot products still require a special kosher-for-Passover certification. He said he could also foresee the ruling creating a division among Ashkenazi Jews, even as it may help bridge a divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

“Kitniyot is not law. It is tradition, and I think that’s something that’s very powerful for people, and I think by throwing off the tradition for everyone en masse, by making that statement, I think it does more harm than good,” Peltz said.

The Reform movement has never prohibited kitniyot. Rabbi Leora Kaye, program director for the Union for Reform Judaism, said the reasoning is simple: “Kitniyot is not chametz, and therefore there is no prohibition against eating kitniyot.” Like Dorff, though, she understands that avoiding kitniyot is an “integral piece” of how some Jews observe Passover.

Kosher-for-Passover-certified kitniyot products have become increasingly available in the United States over the past few years, particularly since the Orthodox Union announced in early 2013 that it would certify products with kitniyot that are kosher for Passover. In Los Angeles, some kosher grocers, such as Glatt Mart, Elat Market and Cambridge Farms, sell kitniyot products on Passover, while others, such as Western Kosher, do not.

Dorff said that, based on the preponderance of Passover kitniyot products available in stores in Israel, he expects they will become more and more common in the U.S., as well.

“If Israel is at all a model for us, my guess is that not only this year but in [future] years, there will be more and more of those things,” Dorff said. 

Rabbis expand the Passover menu — but will Conservative Jews bite?


On Passover, Lynne Sandler will be passing on the beans and rice.

Sandler, a member of Conservative Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, said she won’t take advantage of her movement’s ruling in December that permits eating a category of food called kitniyot that includes rice, beans and other legumes.

These foods have always been eaten by Sephardi Jews on Passover, but have banned by Ashkenazi rabbis since the 1200s.

“We won’t be doing anything different this year,” Sandler said. “We’ve lived our lives without it.”

But others are relieved by the lifting of the kitniyot ban by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By dispensing with a custom whose roots in Jewish law are relatively recent as such things go, they argue, the ruling responds to modern concerns over nutrition, finances and even Jewish unity.

All three factors are weighed in the teshuvah, or ruling, which passed with 19 rabbis in favor, one opposed and two abstaining.

With many Jews complaining about the high cost of eating during Passover, and the lack of healthy packaged foods, the committee’s ruling referred to the “extremely inflated cost of products under Pesach supervision.”

It added: “Were kitniyot to be permitted, beans and rice could be served with vegetables and dairy to largely supplant the demand for other packaged products and more expensive sources of protein for those who chose to do so, an option that is significantly limited today.”

Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland, a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, said the ruling is in line with long-standing Jewish law about protecting the consumer.

“The cost of everything is greater on Passover,” she said. “The ruling helps relieve that burden.”

There are also health issues, Grossman said.

“Passover foods are high in fat and cholesterol,” she said. “And meat is expensive and environmentally questionable [when produced] in bulk.” A less restrictive diet would help those with heart disease, Crohn’s disease or colitis, she added.

The eight-page ruling also discussed unity among the Jewish people.

“In Israel, we’re seeing a coming together of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions,” Grossman said. “Pesachdik in Israel includes kitniyot.”

The Conservative movement in Israel has permitted eating kitniyot since 1989. Even some Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis in Israel have been lenient with followers.

The Torah mentions five types of grain that can become leavened, or chametz, if they remain in water for more than 18 minutes: wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. These grains are banned on Passover, except as matzah.

But why are kitniyot — rice, millet, beans, lentils and the like — banned, since they cannot become chametz?

A number of reasons arose in Ashkenazi communities in the 1200s. One is that rice and legumes are sometimes mixed with wheat; to avoid an accidental mixture, kitniyot was banned altogether.

“Another is if we allow kitniyot porridge, we will eat grain porridge because both are cooked in a pot,” Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative authority in Israel, wrote in a 2013 teshuvah. And if rice or bean flour can be baked into bread, someone might mistakenly think that it is all right to eat bread on Passover made from wheat or rye flour.

“None of these reasons appear cogent, however, in the present age when we purchase our flours, rice and beans in discrete packages, well-marked as to their content, under governmental supervision,” according to the Conservative ruling. “In such a marketplace there should be no concern of confusing a permission of kitniyot with one of grains and it should be eminently possible to prohibit one while permitting the other.”

Even before the ruling, the Conservative movement already permitted eating kitniyot for vegetarians and vegans, said Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

“But you have to consult a rabbi to make sure you’re eating kitniyot and not chametz,” he said. “Our daughter is a vegetarian, so we’re familiar with her eating kitniyot and using our Pesach utensils.”

Eating kitniyot on dishes and utensils set aside for Passover does not make the utensils — or the house — not kosher for Passover, Arian said.

In its ruling, the committee also pointed to “our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions [and] more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us.”

But some worry the ruling may make things look a lot less restrictive than they actually are.

Although U.S.-based Sephardic groups issue lists of kosher-for-Passover rice and frozen legumes, “my concern is that people will take this as permission to buy anything off the shelf, look at the ingredients, say that it looks OK and eat it,” Arian said. “But practically no processed kitniyot products are certified.”

A standard bag of rice, for example, needs to be checked for chametz before the holiday begins.

“I can’t imagine us actually doing that,” Arian said.

Sandler said that when she lived in Israel, she used to spread rice on a piece of paper to remove stones.

“I don’t know if I could even find chametz in it. It’s not worth the hassle,” Sandler said. “We can live without it for a week.”

Sharon Samber, a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., welcomed the loosening of the strict kitniyot rules.

“It makes life easier, and you need as much of that as you can on Passover,” she said.

The focus on the minutiae of the holiday often comes at the expense of Passover’s larger meaning, Samber said.

“I hope this helps us focus on the more meaningful parts of Passover — discussing what it means to be free and who isn’t free today,” she said.

For others, heeding the minutiae actually enhances the holiday.

“I will probably stick to tradition,” said Marcie Lerner, a member of Kehilat Shalom.

“Just like there are traditional Torah-mandated foods for Passover, there are familial and traditional foods that help keep heritage and memories alive. Also, old habits die hard.”

For now, memory may be the biggest barrier to bringing kitniyot back to the table.

“Look, if I don’t have those jelly fruit slices, it’s not Pesach,” Arian said. “The rest of the year they’re disgusting. So I can’t imagine sitting down with corn on the cob, but someone else might.”

David Holzel is the managing editor of the Washington Jewish Week.

Sen. Robert Menendez’s rock star moment at AIPAC


Sen. Robert Menendez hands down got the most enthusiastic reception of any speaker so far at AIPAC’s annual conference.

I’d say you could barely hear the New Jersey Democrat on Monday night but for the whoops and shouts, except that Menendez has a preacher’s style and his rich tenor and rolling cadences rode the cheering like a rodeo cowboy. He was in control, and everything he said was crystal clear.

When it came to standing ovations, he definitely bested Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who was no slouch when it came to earning cheers.

So what happened?

Well, for one thing Menendez is the Democrat who puts the “bi” back in partisanship, a one-man bulwark against the notion that hewing to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Iran-skeptic precepts makes you a Republican.

His tough talk was just the tonic for a lobby battled by perceptions that it is increasingly identified with the GOP.

“The fact is — the U.S.-Israel relationship and security of the Israeli people is much more important than any one person or any speech to Congress,” he said. “It is sacrosanct, untouchable. It transcends faith, party affiliation or political philosophy.”

Menendez has his name on both pieces of legislation AIPAC activists are taking to Congress on Tuesday: one that would add sanctions should Iran walk away from a nuclear deal and one that would subject any deal to congressional review.

“I can tell you one thing,” he said. “As long as I have an ounce of fight left in me, as long as I have a vote and a say and a chance to protect the interest of Israel, the region and the national security interests of the United States — Iran will never have a pathway to a weapon. It will never threaten Israel or its neighbors, and it will never be in a position to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Not on my watch!”

The most pointed reason for the joyous reception Menendez got, though, was the release he offered AIPAC activists after two days of making nice about the tensions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over “Speechgate.”

Netanyahu spent Monday morning insisting that tensions over the speech he arranged in secret with congressional Republicans, and the pushback from congressional Democrats and the White House just didn’t matter. What mattered, the prime minister said, was the U.S.-Israel relationship, which was solid, and Iran, which was dangerous.

That evening, just before Menendez strode out, the crowd was polite for Susan Rice, the national security adviser who last week said that Netanyahu’s speech was “destructive” of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Then Menendez came, and polite was so last half hour.

First he took on his own party.

“And, when it comes to defending the U.S.-Israel relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone — not Israel’s political enemies, and not by my political friends when I believe they’re wrong,” he said.

Then he took on Rice.

“I may agree with some Democrats that the political timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation to speak to Congress tomorrow may have been unfortunate, and that we must work fervently to keep the US-Israel relationship a strong bipartisan endeavor,” he said. “But I take issue with those who say the prime minister’s visit to the United States is ‘destructive to U.S.-Israel relations.’

“And tomorrow I will be proud when I escort Prime Minister Netanyahu to the House chamber to give his speech! To show him the respect he deserves from every American who cares about our relationship with the only true democracy in the Middle East.”

The crowd went wild.

Letters to the Editor: Settlements, Rice, Jewlicious, Secularism


The Two-State Solution

David Suissa has been writing a brilliant monologue, telling Los Angeles Jews that Israel’s settlements are legal and Israel’s enemies are so very afraid. The problem with his monologue is that it will convince no one who is not already convinced.
 
Legal or illegal, we all know that the presence of settlements makes contiguous Palestinian territory ever more difficult and thus the possibility of a two-state solution ever more contorted and disruptive for Israel. Two out of three Israelis believe that a two-state solution is imperative for the future of a Jewish democratic Israel, and far more than two in three American Jews concur; two thirds also believe that it is not on the horizon.
 
But if the strategy — not the tactics — is to search for a two-state solution, then the settlements are unwise at least. I personally believe that they are catastrophic, not because I believe in the peace process but because I think that a divorce between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the only way to preserve a Jewish and democratic state.
 
But keep telling us, my dear friend David, what we want to hear and we may end up like the Republican Party without appeal to any demographic except our own.
 
Michael Berenbaum
Los Angeles
 
David Suissa responds: If someone accuses me unfairly of being a thief, and then tells the whole world that I’m a thief, I’m going to push back and defend myself, even if it’s not “practical” or “strategic.” If Israel doesn’t start defending itself against these lethal accusations, it will become the most boycotted and delegitimized country on the planet. And that’s not good for the Jews or for the peace process. Please read my complete response to critics here.

Rice, U.S. Champions of Human Rights?
 
How dare Condoleezza Rice defile the podium at UCLA by lauding the United States as “a worldwide champion of human rights,” when she personally approved the use of waterboarding, prohibited by the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994 (“Rice Dissects American Policies,” March 8).
 
According to a declassified 2009 Senate Intelligence Committee report, in July 2002 Rice approved the CIA’s request to subject alleged al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah to waterboarding and personally conveyed the administration’s approval to CIA Director George Tenet. The next month Zubaydah was illegally waterboarded at least 83 times.
 
The Senate Armed Services Committee also released an exhaustive report detailing direct links between the CIA’s harsh interrogation program and abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. While Rice admitted that she had attended meetings where the CIA interrogation request was discussed, she omitted her direct role in approving the program in her written statement to the committee.
 
Instead of giving high-priced lectures, Rice should be huddling with her lawyers preparing her defense to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
 
Stephen Rohde
Chair, ACLU Foundation of Southern California 
Founder, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace

Jewlicious: He Gets It
 
I found Rob Eshman’s article about the recent Jewlicious Festival insightful and encouraging (“Whatever Works,” March 15). It took just one visit and Rob got it. He understood clearly the Jewish outreach value Jewlicious brings to our Jewish community. And while I think it’s important to mention that The Federation and Valley Alliance have been supportive of Jewlicious in the past, there has been very little organized or overall support of Jewlicious. If reaching out beyond the usual suspects and reinvigorating Jewish life for young people is a priority, it would be a tragedy if this turned out to be the last Jewlicious Festival.
 
Larry Cohen
West Hills

Prager on Secularism
 
In the first sentence of his article, Dennis Prager writes, “Most non-Orthodox Jews venerate secularism” (“Secularism,” March 15). If I were a rabbi at a Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or nonaffiliated temple, I think I would be quite surprised to find out that I am really a closet atheist who is hostile to religion. And I would be even more dismayed to learn that “most” of my congregants are just as deluded as I am. 
 
Michael Asher
Valley Village
 
Dennis Prager responds: First, “most” does not mean “all.” Second, “non-Orthodox Jews” does not mean “non-Orthodox rabbis”; they compose a fraction of 1 percent of non-Orthodox Jews. Third, sarcasm is not argument.

Corrections

The article “Slavin Library to Close” (March 22) incorrectly indicated that the decision to close the Slavin Children’s Library was made jointly by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and BJE, Builders of Jewish Education. The decision was made exclusively by Federation.

Iran shrugs off latest U.S. sanctions, trade suffers


Iran castigated its U.S. adversary on Tuesday over new financial measures to disrupt Iranian commerce, and a default on payment for rice purchases highlighted the encroachment of sanctions on the staples of everyday life.

Lawmakers in Tehran vowed to ban crude exports to European countries even before an EU oil embargo takes effect.

The U.S. sanctions, targeting Iran’s central bank and giving U.S. banks new powers to freeze Iranian government assets, were the latest in a tightening web of international measures aimed at forcing the Islamic Republic to scrap sensitive nuclear work.

“It is an antagonistic move, psychological warfare which has no impact… There is nothing new, it has been going on for over 30 years,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, referring to three decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility.

Rice exporters said Iranian buyers had defaulted on payment for 200,000 tonnes of rice from their top supplier India in another sign that Western financial sanctions are disrupting trade, even in one of Iran’s food staples.

While a plunging rial has made forward purchases costlier, the sanctions are hampering Iranian traders who have used Dubai-based middlemen to keep paying Indian rice suppliers.

Grain ships are docked outside Iranian ports, traders are not booking fresh cargoes and exports of staples to Iran such as maize are falling due to problems collecting payment from buyers. Maize is used widely to feed livestock and shortages, when they work their way through, could force farmers into stress slaughter.

Graphic by Reuters

Tension with the West rose last month when the United States and the European Union targeted Iranian oil exports in their efforts to halt Tehran’s suspected quest for an atomic bomb.

Mehmanparast said the pressure would not deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear program it says has only peaceful purposes. “Our history has shown that sanctions, which are totally illogical, have accelerated our nation’s progress,” he added.

REPRISAL SANCTIONS

Stung by U.S. President Barack Obama’s latest financial jab, Iranian MPs promised to speed passage of a bill to oblige the government to ban oil exports to some EU states well before the 25-nation bloc phases in its own embargo in July.

“The draft bill has been almost finalized. It will oblige the government to immediately cut oil exports to the EU. The bill also will ban import of any goods from the EU,” lawmaker Parviz Sarvari told Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

Washington and its allies have been cranking up pressure on Iran to cut off the government’s access to capital and oil revenues with the goal of pushing Tehran back into negotiations to resolve the nuclear stand-off through diplomacy.

Mehmanparast said Iran would soon write to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about resuming talks with big powers, although he added that its nuclear rights were “not negotiable.”

The last talks in January 2010 failed because of Iran’s refusal to halt its sensitive uranium enrichment work, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council and six world powers.

Washington and Israel have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve Iran’s nuclear row.

Iran has warned of a “painful” answer, saying it would hit Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf as well as block the vital Gulf oil shipping route through the Strait of Hormuz.

The measures authorized by Obama on Sunday are likely to slow Iran’s trade with Asia by making payments more difficult, traders said on Tuesday, although the more determined can still find a route through Middle Eastern intermediaries.

U.S. sanctions now encompass all Iran’s financial institutions and oblige financial bodies doing business in the United States to block and freeze transactions with a suspected link to Iran. Previous sanctions had only required American banks to reject those transactions.

TRADE HEADACHES

Asian importers of Iranian crude, fuel oil and iron ore will find the measures snarl payment, already often routed via Middle East middlemen. Iran will have to take more payment in illiquid currencies, raising costs and piling pressure on its rial.

On January 26, Iran announced an 8 percent devaluation of the rial and said it would enforce a single exchange rate, aiming to stamp out a black market where the dollar’s value has soared due to fears over new sanctions imposed by the West.

“Iranian cargoes I can get, that’s not a problem. But how to pay is a problem,” said an iron ore trader in New Delhi.

Vijay Setia, president of the All India Rice Exporters’ Association, said the Iranian default had prompted him to ask the Indian government to step in. “It is a serious issue and we do not rule out further payment defaults by Iran,” he said.

Setia said India should not send any more rice to Iran on credit, adding suppliers such as those in Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan had already stopped doing so.

Iranian fuel oil shipments through Singapore are slowing as sanction worries deter traders, while some Iranian iron ore exporters are accelerating loadings to China for fear of even more difficulty procuring ships and payment later this month.

Iran’s economy is already so weakened that its oil exports are more valuable than its imports of food and consumer goods, making it difficult to offset its exports by paying for imports.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Ratnajyoti Dutta and Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi; Writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Janet McBride

Rice, Powell and Albright: Friends in ‘Retirement’


Revolutions spreading through the Middle East added timeliness and weight to the convening of three former secretaries of state by American Jewish University (AJU) on Monday evening, Feb. 28, at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk. Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, all active authors and advocates on the international scene, joined AJU President Robert Wexler onstage to agree on just about everything, and bicker over only a few matters.

The agreement came largely over responses to the current wave of populist uprisings in the Arab world. “This is not an American story,” Albright said of the game-changing, riotous public protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Jordan. It is also going to unfold over a long period of time, she said: “There is much I admire about our media, but they are covering this like a short sports event. This is a long story.”

Powell admitted some surprise—and then again none at all—at the fall of Mubarak and the newly minted instability elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. “People have been talking about freedom for years,” he said. “It’s not as if we didn’t press them. But who could have anticipated that a young man who immolated himself would have started that?” He was referring to Mohammed Bouazizi, the university-educated, unemployed Tunisian fruit-peddler who set himself on fire in public in an act of desperation, igniting equally desperate cries for freedom through the Arab world.

“We knew that these autocratic regimes were isolated from their people,” Rice agreed, “that they weren’t delivering for their people.” But, she said, you can’t see in advance what spark might start a revolution. “What we tried to do was to say to these regimes, ‘Start reforming now.’ ” And, indeed, there was the feeling, for example, that with the elections in Egypt in 2005 some progress toward democracy was being made, but then in 2006 Mubarak took back all that he had given up.

When Wexler asked the three what kind of regime might be expected to govern a new Egypt, Albright expressed optimism: “This is a very intelligent population,” she said, predicting that a moderate Islamist government, along the lines of Turkey, would arise. “That’s where we can be helpful, she said, by providing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of governance.” This is not a time to fear the fanatics, she said, “This could be al-Qaeda’s worst nightmare. … But democracies have to deliver, to help with foreign aid, with jobs. “It is in America’s national security to help the economy in Egypt,” Albright said.

Powell pointed to the deep interests that Egypt’s military has in maintaining stability, but also control: “I think you’re going to be seeing the military governing for quite a while,” he said.

Wexler asked Rice about her 2008 trip to Tripoli to meet with Muammar el-Qaddafi, which led to the reinstatement of the dictator in international good graces. Rice expressed no regrets, even in retrospect knowing what she knows now, and said the trip was made on the condition that Qaddafi give up his weapons and offer a settlement for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. “It is better that he is not sitting there now with his weapons,” Rice said.

On Israel, there was not much disagreement, either. “If I were Israel’s defense minister or Bibi Netanyahu,” Powell said, “I would try to determine how porous the border with Israel is.” Added Albright: “I think Israel has every reason to feel anxious now,” but she added, “in the long run, I truly believe Israel’s security is much better off with democracy than with corrupt dictatorships.”

For her part, Rice said she hopes that the Israelis will reach out to continue the peace process: “I would like to think it’s possible to push for a deal,” she said. But there is also, “a longtime problem on the Palestinian side,” because of WikiLeaks, which hurt the leading Palestinian negotiators, as well as other factors. “Israel should be doing everything that they can to support the current leadership in the West Bank,” she said. “This is not a time for inactivity.” Albright called the current situation in the West Bank a public-private partnership,” and called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “remarkable.”

The disagreements among former U.S. dignitaries came over Iran, as well as the foreign diplomacy of President Barack Obama.

When Albright suggested that Iran is gaining influence in the region, Rice retorted, “I think Iranians have a lot of trouble.” She said their nuclear program has isolated them, their economy is not strong, there have been splits among the clerics and, she said, “I think we shouldn’t underestimate that 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30.”

To Albright’s concerns over Iranian ties to Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Powell’s concern over what he sees as growing Iranian influence with respect to Iraq, Rice said, “The posture of the U.S. about what we think of Iran matters. I think it’s time to stop painting the Iranians as 10 feet tall, and talk about them as what they are.”

But it was when Wexler brought up Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir that the disagreement over the face Obama is showing the world came into dispute between Albright and Rice. Albright said that Obama is seeing the nation as a partner among nations, which seemed to anger Rice. Repeatedly calling the U.S. an “exceptional nation,” she said Obama should see the U.S. as a leader and not just one of the pack. Albright retorted that as an immigrant herself, no one could be more proud of this country, to which Rice pointed out that as a black woman raised in Birmingham, Ala., where she was not allowed to go where whites went, she knew what America could offer. “America has to lead,” she said, “because we surely have something special to say.”

Powell interjected that the United States would be wise to seek out partnerships, and Albright said “I am now concerned that we are turning inward.”

With so much wisdom coming from the stage, Wexler’s final question sparked both introspection and humor. He asked the panel what they might do over, if they got one opportunity to do so.

Rice said she would have focused more on a comprehensive immigration bill: “I don’t know when immigrants became our enemies,” she said, sounding profoundly moderate.

Powell referred to the moment when he told the United Nations that the war in Iraq was necessary, based on what he now knows was faulty CIA intelligence. “I would ask the president to have Condi give the speech at the U.N.,” he said to laughter. “But after that, immigration.”

And Albright ended the night with her regret over work she did as ambassador to the United Nations. “I regret,” she said, “that I didn’t push harder on what was going on in Rwanda,” she said of the massive genocide that occurred there in 1994. “I can explain it,” based on what else was happening at the time, she said, “But I regret it.”

Political realities may doom Olmert’s peace push


With his Kadima Party just weeks away from electing a new leader, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making a concerted last-ditch effort to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Olmert has drawn up a detailed peace offer and presented it to U.S. and Palestinian leaders. After being shown the plan last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described it as “very generous.”

Although the Palestinians say wide gaps remain, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert reportedly agreed in talks Sunday to make every effort to wrap up a full-fledged peace agreement by the end of the year.

But both sides are skeptical.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who are involved in a parallel negotiation that is conducting line-by-line drafting of a final-status agreement, estimate that the process could go on well into 2009 and beyond. They say the effort must be given all the time it needs.

Warning against the danger of rushing things, Livni said artificial deadlines could lead to frustration on the Palestinian side and spark a third intifada. Alternatively, time pressure could lead Israel to compromise on vital interests.

Right-wing opposition to the Olmert-Abbas talks go even further. Opposition leaders have questioned the very legitimacy of Olmert’s conducting a vigorous peace drive so close to the end of his term. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu described Olmert’s peace plan as “morally and substantially flawed” and warned that it would strengthen Hamas.

There are problems on the Palestinian side, too.

Abbas’ term could end early next year, leaving the Palestinians with a more radical leadership before an agreement is finally wrapped up.

What’s worse is that as long as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, the chances of implementing any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are virtually zero.

Olmert’s latest proposal deals with four core issues: territory, security, refugees and Jerusalem.

On territory, he offers the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank, with Israel retaining large Jewish settlement blocs in the remaining 7 percent. As compensation, the Palestinians would get an area equivalent to 5.5 percent of the West Bank in Israeli land close to the Gaza Strip, and a land corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank, linking the two in a single Palestinian state.

On security, Olmert proposes that the future Palestinian state would be demilitarized and barred from building military alliances. Israel would have early warning stations on the Samarian hills in the West Bank, a temporary army presence in the Jordan Valley, a presence at border crossings, control of airspace over Gaza and the West Bank, and access to the main east-west corridors in the West Bank.

On refugees, Olmert categorically rejects the so-called Palestinian right of return: Palestinian refugees would be entitled to return to the Palestinian state in unlimited numbers, but not to Israel proper. Still, there is a small concessionary loophole in the Olmert proposal: 1,500 to 2,000 Palestinians would be allowed to “return” to Israel proper every year for 10 years for “humanitarian reasons.” In other words Israel could, at its discretion, allow the immigration during 10 years of 15,000 to 20,000 Palestinians.

Although Olmert insists that Jerusalem has not been on the negotiating agenda — the Orthodox Shas Party has threatened to topple the government if Jerusalem is so much as discussed — the prime minister does include a temporary solution for the city in his proposal.

The final Israeli-Palestinian document would include reference to “a joint mechanism with a fixed timetable” for resolving the dispute over Jerusalem. Olmert aides refuse to elaborate but say there would be elements in the joint mechanism “attractive to the Palestinians.”

This apparently refers partly to an offer by Olmert to involve other Arab and international parties — including Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, the Vatican and the international Quartet grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — in seeking a permanent solution for Jerusalem and its holy places.

The Palestinians, however, argue that Olmert’s proposals do not go far enough, and they insist that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions remain wide.

Some analysts suggest that the only realistic way forward would be through American bridging proposals. But the Americans are unlikely to be forthcoming: During a visit in June, when Rice asked for a paper highlighting key points of agreement and disagreement, both sides refused on the grounds that that kind of hands-on American intervention would not be helpful at this stage.

“We and the Israelis told Dr. Rice that the decisions are required from Palestinians and Israelis,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told JTA. “I am sure the Americans, the Arabs and the Europeans will stand shoulder to shoulder with us in order to implement whatever we agree. But the decisions are for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Officials close to Olmert argue that even if it can’t immediately be implemented, a joint Israeli-Palestinian document on permanent-status issues would constitute a historic breakthrough.

“We believe it would become a galvanizing point for all the moderates and offer an alternative to the Hamas-Hezbollah-Tehran paradigm,” Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.

Regev believes that not only would the deal win wide international support and boost the moderates in the Arab world, it also would help resolve the problem of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

“If we are successful in delineating to a great degree of specificity where the final borders will be, then obviously we will continue to build in the settlements on our side and not in those on the Palestinian side,” he said.

In other words, immediately upon signing the deal, Israel would regard settlements on its side of the border as part of Israel proper, with no extrinsic restrictions on development and growth. Those on the Palestinian side, by contrast, would be seen as living on borrowed time and slated for evacuation.

For any agreement to stand a chance of implementation, its advocates would have to find a way around Palestinian rejectionists — including Hamas in Gaza — and around Israeli opponents. In both cases, opponents may press for new elections, which would serve as a referendum on the peace deal.

That does not bode well for a peace deal. Hamas is unlikely to allow elections in Gaza unless it is sure of winning. On the Israeli side, polls suggest the right-wing opposition will win the next general election.

Should either of these likely scenarios occur, the “shelf agreement” the Olmert administration is working on probably would be shelved indefinitely. That would leave Olmert’s 11th-hour effort to set a new peace agenda, like many others before it, dead in the water of Middle Eastern realities.

Atoning for the sin of rushing dinner to get to Kol Nidre


I consider Yom Kippur eve the sandwich holiday. Not because I would ever serve my family and friends sandwiches before going to synagogue on the eve of a solemn fast. I see the start of Yom Kippur this way, because it’s sandwiched between two days of Rosh Hashanah celebrations and the Day of Atonement. Not to mention the eight-day festival of Sukkot, which rushes in four days later.
 
With the emphasis that night, as it should be, on getting to Kol Nidre services on time, sometimes little thought is given to this very important meal whose menu should be in perfect balance to ready people for the fast ahead. Ideally dinner on Yom Kippur eve should be hearty but light, nourishing but satisfying, tasty but not too luxurious. The challenge is daunting at a time when school and fall activities have just begun, and the Jewish calendar is so full.
 
I recall one year when I was still peeling potatoes an hour before eight people were expected for dinner on erev Yom Kippur. I panicked, fearing that we’d never get to Kol Nidre services on time.
 
Fortunately my husband always comes to the rescue whenever I’m in a jam. He microwaved the potatoes, threw together a salad and broke into a sweat basting the chicken. I set the table, barking orders, as our 9-year-old daughter scampered to her room to avoid my tension. I swore I’d never do that again. Since then, I’ve given much thought to organizing this special dinner to save time, lower stress and serve foods that will facilitate a meaningful fast.

 
With Yom Kippur beginning this year on a Sunday night, people who observe the Sabbath have additional considerations. If possible, they should complete the bulk of their organizing and food preparation by Thursday, leaving Friday free to focus on Shabbat cooking. After Friday evening, their next opportunity to address the Yom Kippur eve meal is Sunday morning, when the countdown begins. Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, I’ve solved this dilemma by imitating a staple of women’s magazines — the make-ahead menu. The day after Rosh Hashanah, while I’m sipping coffee and drizzling honey over a piece of challah, I start planning for Yom Kippur eve. I fine-tune my menu and compose a shopping list.

 
On each of the following days, I prepare a dish and freeze it, or I make most of the steps in the directions, refrigerating foods until I’m ready to proceed. On the day of Yom Kippur eve, I have only a few last-minute touches to handle. I glide into the holiday with a sense of serenity, a far cry from the frenzied person I used to be. For peace of mind, I now serve the same menu every Yom Kippur eve. It meets my most important criteria: healthy, appealing and easy to execute. This menu can be expanded to include additional dishes, but it’s filling enough to stand alone.
 
Inspired by Greek Jews, who often partake in stewed chicken and tomatoes before the Yom Kippur fast, I created my own version of this traditional dish. The chicken is sautéed and then poached in plum tomatoes, which simmer into a sauce that moistens the chicken. However, this dish is fairly bland and doesn’t cause undue thirst the next day. The ample tomato sauce calls for a bed of rice. Throughout the world, chicken and rice are served on Yom Kippur eve, because they are filling and easy to digest. However, many people, particularly when pressed for time, have difficulty finessing rice, which needs some tender loving care. They end up with a sticky ball of starch, rather than a pot of fluffy rice. My recipe, relying on a bit of olive oil, comes out perfectly every time.
 
Roasted Autumn Root Vegetables are a medley of seasonal produce flash-cooked at a high temperature. You can prepare this dish three days in advance, finishing it quickly just minutes before serving dinner.
 
Filled with dried fruits, flakes of oatmeal and a dollop of honey, Baked Stuffed Apples is not an indulgent dessert. For that reason, it’s a nutritious and appropriate way to end the pre-fast meal.
 
When it comes to Yom Kippur eve, my motto is to do as much as possible as soon as it’s feasible. On the morning after Rosh Hashanah, finalize your Yom Kippur eve guest list. Decide what you want to serve. Select which linens you will place on the table. White is traditional on Yom Kippur. If you’re using the tablecloth and napkins from Rosh Hashanah meals, make sure they’re washed and ironed or back from the dry cleaner on time.
 
If you’re expecting a crowd, you may have to expand your dining table. Know in advance how many leaves you’ll require. If you need a folding table, make sure it’s clean and in good condition. If you have to borrow a table and chairs from a family member or friend, organize this well in advance.
 
I suggest setting the table after breakfast that morning. Eat lunch in your kitchen or on the living room coffee table. To make life easy, order a pizza. Although it goes against my creative nature to be repetitive, under certain circumstances, it makes sense.
 
On Yom Kippur eve, I’m a big proponent of the preset menu, one you can follow year after year. Select a combination of recipes you can manage. Of course you can make reasonable substitutions, such as casseroles or other make-ahead dishes. But with so much going on, Yom Kippur eve is not the time to strike a new course or leave things to chance. It’s the time to be methodical and calm, to guide yourself and your family into a peaceful fast.
 

Poached Chicken Breasts and Tomatoes

 
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more if needed

British theater group Stan’s Cafe uses piles of rice to bring statistics to life


It’s nearly impossible to comprehend very large numbers. Take the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. How does one go about understanding the magnitude of 6 million?

One way would be to visit the Skirball Cultural Center, where the British theater company, Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “kaff”), will perform its latest piece, “Of All the People in All the World,” from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.

Upon entering the museum, visitors will receive a grain of rice, representing themselves. Then, they will walk into a room filled with 300 million grains of rice – one for every person in the United States. The rice will be divided into piles, each one illustrating a statistic, such as the number of people who have walked on the moon or the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One grain of rice will stand for one person.

And there it will be, among all the piles: a large mound with 6 million pieces, representing each individual Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.

The performance piece will take place during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of reflection known as the Days of Awe.

“We specifically chose to do it in the Days of Awe,” said Jordan Peimer, director of programs at the Skirball. “What better way to understand your place in the world, your role in life, than to begin to understand the fabric of life on earth?”

The piece will open with 150 labeled piles of rice, illustrating serious statistics, such as the millions of people with HIV in Africa, as well as pop culture trivia, such as the number of people who watched the last episode of “Cheers.”

Over the course of the show, five actors, dressed as factory workers, will manipulate the piles to illustrate various truths, including the number of passengers on the Mayflower and the number of people per police officer in Los Angeles.

Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the actors, to share their own stories and discuss the demographics to which they belong. Occasionally, the performers will measure statistics suggested by visitors on the spot.

Peimer said he had been following the innovative Stan’s Cafe troupe for a while, waiting for the right time and the perfect piece to bring to the Skirball. When he saw the rice performance at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year, he knew he had to bring the show to Los Angeles.

The performance will be the second stop, after Portland, on the troupe’s first U.S. tour. Since premiering in Coventry, England, in 2003, the show has toured throughout the United Kingdom. It has also traveled to Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany, whose daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, praised the show, saying “The knowledge gained is astonishing.”

The actors tailor each performance to the country, city and building in which they perform. They decided the Holocaust representation would be just right for the Skirball.

“To hear the statistic of the number of people who died in the Holocaust is one thing,” Peimer said. “To see all of those people represented and to have you [represented as a single grain of rice] in relation to them is a very potent thing.”

The troupe will also lead workshops for students from Brawerman Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School, La Ballona School and Thomas Starr King Middle School. The children will research statistics and build mounds of rice to illustrate their findings.

James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, who co-founded the group 15 years ago, said he came up with the idea for the piece when he was on tour with another performance in 2002.

“Each time we touched down, we found another city full of people bustling about their business, for whom it would be no appreciable loss if the U.K. and its 59 million inhabitants, including Stan’s Cafe, didn’t exist,” Yarker wrote in an essay on the group’s Web site.

“This parochial small island boy was beginning to get a sense that the world was far, far bigger than he had ever imagined it to be,” Yarker continued, speaking about himself in the third person, “and he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to understand how many people he shared the planet with.”

After considering sand, sugar, salt, pebbles, peppercorns, spices and more as a way to represent large numbers of people, Yarker settled on rice. “We needed grains that were small, cheap, robust and which wouldn’t roll around,” he said on the Web site. Rice “also has powerful resonance, being a staple food for much of the world and looking vaguely humanoid in close up.”

For piles with fewer than 200 grains, the group typically counts each grain. For larger piles, it weighs the rice. The Skirball will provide not only the scales for weighing the five and one-half tons of rice that will be used during the performance but also the rice, which it bought for less than $2,000 from local wholesalers. The grains will be recycled for animal feed when the exhibit concludes.

“We’ve never done anything like it,” said the Skirball’s Peimer. “I hope it makes people think about their place in the world, and I hope it makes people pause to remember the grain of rice that they are.”

The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours (12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday). Admission will be free on Thursday and Sunday. Other days, general admission will be $8, $6 for seniors and free for members, students and children under 12. For advance tickets call (866) 468-3399.

Holiday Halvah


Wheat Halvah

Among Persian Jews, halvah is the traditional Purim food. Here are two recipes, one using flour, one rice.

Fariba Sameyach, a preschool teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, shared this recipe, along with a delicious sample of halvah, a sweet and perfumy Persian Purim delicacy.

As with all traditional recipes, it’s hard to nail down exact ingredients that are usually measured by taste and eye. Watching an experienced halvah-maker is also the best way to get the technique down, so that the flour is browned to just the right color and the batter is just the right consistency.

1 1/2 cups flour, 1/4 cup oil, 1 1/2 cups boiling water,

3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp ground saffron, 1/4 cup rose water

In a nonstick pot on medium heat, roast the flour until light brown. Stir constantly to avoid burning. Remove from heat and sift the flour in a separate bowl.

Pour the oil into the same pot, still on medium heat. Add the sifted, browned flour and keep stirring. Add the boiling water, sugar, cardamom and saffron, and keep stirring until the flour absorbs all the liquid. Add the rose water and keep stirring for another five minutes. While hot, spread the halvah on a flat dish. With the back of a spoon or your hands, flatten the halvah on your dish. When cool, cut into diamonds or squares. Nooshe Jan. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Rice Halvah

6 cups white rice, 6 cups water, 1 cup vegetable oil, 1/2 cup rose water, 2 tbs. crushed cardamom, 3 cups sugar, 2 tbs. ground saffron

Garnish:

1/2 cup fresh almonds, small amount of butter, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp. saffron

Soak the rice overnight in cold water until the grains soften.

In the morning, drain the water, then crush the rice into a fine paste. Stir-fry the rice in a pan without oil until the paste turns golden. Add the cup of oil, then fry the rice until it’s light brown.

Add six cups water, sugar, cardamom, rose water and saffron. Cook over a slow fire, stirring constantly, until the rice takes on a pasty consistency.

Pour the paste into a serving dish and leave at room temperature to cool. It will harden into a jello-like consistency.

Peel the almonds, slice them into strips and stir-fry with the butter, sugar and saffron. Use as garnish to decorate the halvah.