Passover/Easter Nutrition Tips

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There are several times during the year when we know that whatever good nutritional habits we have built up are going to be challenged. July 4, Thanksgiving, New Years, Super Bowl, etc., are all times when the rituals are accompanied by food…and lots of it.

Passover and Easter fall into that same category, but Passover has its own challenges. The Seder feast is two nights, not one, and the holiday itself goes on for a total of 8 days (7 in Israel). Typically during the rest of the year, I find that whatever progress I make during the week gets dented by Friday night; our typical Shabbat dinner is several courses of delectable food with delicious wines. If I “backslide” each Shabbat, how can I succeed at being healthy when the Seder meal goes on for hours and has lots of ceremonial foods that accompany the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt? And then there are the four mandatory cups of wine (or grape juice). What strategy is there to not overdo it?

As always, a little planning goes a long way. It makes sense to go easy during the day leading up to the big meals. Don’t fast, though, or you’ll come to the table famished and overeat. Rather, eat light meals and plenty of water.

At the actual meal, set some simple rules for yourself. At the Seder, it might be to drink four cups, but have them be small cups, or fill the plate once but don’t go back for seconds, or choose one dessert. This year, with social distancing we may actually get a break; there will be less food on the table since most families are celebrating in small groups. We may also get through the Haggadah (the book that contains the Seder ritual in the correct order) a little more quickly. Even so, we will still need to plan ahead so that we do not overdo it–especially two nights in a row.

During the week of Passover, there is a tendency to eat lots of carbs. Remember that much of what we eat during the rest of the year is fair game: fruits, vegetables, legumes (if you eat those on Passover), lean meats, poultry, and fish. No one says you have to eat tons of matzoh; as a matter of fact, according to Jewish law, we are only required to eat it at the Seder. Our psyche, however, tells us that we are being deprived of certain foods so we may snack a little more to make up for it. Don’t fall into the trap of grazing; those Jell Rings, Tam Tams and dried fruits add up.

Finally, if the week is not as successful as you had hoped, don’t get discouraged. Instead, hop right back on the good nutrition path. There are always occasions that are difficult when it comes to eating right. It is a part of life. Plan ahead, do the best you can, stick to it…and stay at home!

Happy Passover and Easter…or whatever you may or may not celebrate!

Not the Yeast Infection that was Expected

Passover @ Marilyn's 2007

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat Hagadol–the last Sabbath before Passover. The weekly Torah portion is Tzav, the second portion in the Book of Leviticus.

There is an interesting connection between Passover and the Tzav. Last week we were introduced to a number of offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought to the Tabernacle (and later to the Temples) for various occasions. That theme continues into this week’s Torah reading.

One of the offerings discussed is an offering of unleavened bread–matzoh! This is, of course, what we eat for the 8 days of Passover (7 in Israel) since we cannot eat anything with leavening in it. Lev. 6:10 notes that this offering for the priests is “most holy.” What makes it so holy?

A commentator, Kle Yekar, notes that matzoh is symbolic. In the rabbinic mindset, yeast is equated with sin and transgression. If you have ever used yeast, you know that when you put it in warm water to activate it, it begins to bubble. This is just like sin. It takes just the right mix of circumstances and it begins to bubble up too. Matzoh is, in a way, “sinless” bread and therefore most holy…and a symbol to the priests.

Kle Yekar explains that a truly righteous person is one who has never experienced sin; there are not a whole lot of people like this. Our tradition teaches that such individuals are actually at a lower level than those who have transgressed and then atoned. The act of atonement–of cleansing one’s self and reaching a higher level–brings one greater holiness and merit. This is reassuring to those of us who have faltered over the years.

Typically, we eat bread. The priests also used bread as part of the rites performed in ancient times. This matzoh offering, though, represents that the yeast has been removed. It has been “cleansed” in a way and that is what makes it most holy.

This idea also has parallels in the fitness world. It is always impressive when we strive to be physically fit. Some people are active in sports and exercise since youth; that is awesome! They are like bread. Many others, like myself, only came to it later in life after being out of shape; we are like matzoh…we have gotten rid of the leavening of bad habits, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor nutrition. Our accomplishments are all the more impressive.

As we approach Passover and get rid of the literal leavening in our lives, we should be inspired to remove the spiritual “yeast infection” too. We should never think that it is too late or that there is too much inertia working against us. On the contrary, the more spiritual yeast we remove, the greater the reward!

As If We Ourselves Were in Egypt

Alive

This evening at sunset begins the Hebrew month of Nisan; if it is clear tonight, you can see (or not see) the new moon.

Nisan is a very special month in Jewish tradition. It is the month that contains the holiday of Passover, the celebration of the Hebrew’s liberation from Egyptian slavery millennia ago. The entire month takes on certain observances–most of which eliminate mournful practices.

There is a lot of getting ready for Passover: cleaning, purchasing special foods that can only be eaten at Passover, getting rid of the food that cannot be eaten (because it contains leavening), and preparing for the festive Seder meal. It is a lot of work, complicated further by the current COVID-19 situation. It is difficult to go out and purchase the special foods. Many of us are used to hosting a lot of people for Seders; that won’t be happening. The whole thing is rather disconnecting.

There is also spiritual preparation for the holiday. For weeks leading up to Passover, there are liturgical additions on Shabbat that get us thinking about the meaning of the holiday. It is, of course, about freedom and redemption–and not just from Egyptian slavery, but every day in our lives and in history. We live our lives trying to make the world a better place–redeeming a broken creation and trying to restore the correct balance. In essence, this is what God was modeling to us when were brought out of Egypt.

It is difficult for many to relate to the story of Passover. It took place so long ago and so far away. Most people sitting at the Seder (unless they are Holocaust survivors, former Soviet Refuseniks, or former inmates), have never experienced slavery. We don’t really know what it was like for our ancestors. The Haggadah (the book we use to guide us through the Seder) tells us that each participant must see him/herself as if s/he personally went out of Egypt. How do we do that?!?

This year is the first time that many are getting a tiny taste of what it might have been like (with obvious big differences). We now know what it means to be cooped up in a small place unable to leave. We know what it feels like to not have a sense of what tomorrow may bring. In short, we realize that our destiny is not totally in our hands; this is always the case, but now we sense it more strongly.

This is not Egypt. There are parallels, though, and perhaps we can draw on them to make the festival more meaningful. We may not be able to control events around us right now (can we ever?), but as Victor Frankl pointed out, we always have a choice about how we want to face what is going on. Can we find purpose in this moment? Can we draw meaning from the inconveniences and suffering of COVID-19? The choice is ours.

We can sit and sulk. We can grieve. It is appropriate to do so. For a while. Then we must accept what is going on around us; we must adjust to whatever the new normal will be. We must rise above it. We must find ways to connect with others through new media. We must continue to take care of ourselves and the vulnerable in our midst. We must find ways to enrich ourselves. We must become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us.

None of us was in Egypt, yet every year we focus on the story to draw inspiration, courage and wisdom. Right now, we are not in Egypt, but that shouldn’t stop us from learning and deriving meaning from our experience today.

Happy Nisan! And stay healthy!

Fitness in the Passover Story

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The Israelites Eat the Passover,
illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)

Passover and fitness in the same sentence! Is that even possible? Most of us who observe the Passover holiday think of it as two nights of Thanksgiving Dinner-sized meals followed by carbs, carbs and more carbs. It is possible to eat healthy during Passover, but that’s not my focus here.

The Passover holiday commemorates the departure of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery as told in the Book of Exodus. The events described would have taken place thousands of years ago. The Haggadah–the book that contains the service for the Passover Feast (called a Seder) held on the first two nights–tells us that each of us should see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt. This is a tall order; many, if not most, of us have never experienced discrimination or oppression–let alone slavery. It is a challenge to try to put ourselves in the story.

The holiday is not just about the historical exodus from Egypt, though; the underlying theme is about redemption–the idea that where we are now is not where we need to be forever. The Hebrews’ situation seemed hopeless and yet, with God’s power, they were able to make their way to freedom; not only that, Egypt–the most powerful empire on the planet–was brought to its knees in the process. This sets a paradigm for us in the world and in our personal lives. The world we live in, with all of its problems, need not remain as it is; we can make it better–redeem it as it were. On a personal level, who we are today does not define who we will be tomorrow; we are always capable of becoming more and better than we are now.

Which brings me to Fitness and Passover…

Many folks look at their own personal fitness and say, “well, this is how I am.” “I’ll always be fat.” “I can never get in shape.” This outlook becomes even more rigid as we age. All the research on fitness, however, points in the opposite direction. Embarking on an exercise and/or diet program at any age is beneficial; we are always capable of improving our health. The prevailing notion was always that as we age there are certain functions that we must inevitably lose; study after study shows that we can maintain and even improve our muscle mass, cardiovascular health, endurance and reaction time–or at the very least slow the progression of their weakening. We all know individuals who were sick and frail who, after a period of rehab, were back to “normal” or even stronger than before their illness or injury. We know that we can transcend the situation in which we find ourselves; we can get better. The lessons of Passover echo this idea; they teach us that we are always capable of redemption. Although there are chronic diseases and conditions like cancer that we may not be able to overcome, we still have greater control over our fitness destiny than we may have thought in the past.

Another connection has to do with the idea of freedom which underpins the Passover story. The Hebrews were not liberated from Egypt simply so they could run around in the wilderness without a care in the world; the exodus had a purpose. The Israelites were forced to serve Pharaoh, which meant that they could not serve God. How could they focus on their connection to the divine when every day was a struggle to stay alive? The purpose of the Hebrews’ liberation was to allow them to serve God and follow the Lord’s commandments that they would receive soon afterwards at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were made free in order to serve; it sounds oxymoronic, but it is a profound idea.

Likewise, watching what we eat, exercising, and taking care of ourselves is for most of us not an end unto itself. We take care of ourselves so that we are able to do the things we want to do longer, more efficiently and more easily. We build strength and endurance in order to carry out the tasks of our lives. What are those tasks? Certainly much of our lives are taken up with grocery shopping, paying the bills, working, studying, folding fitted sheets (!), etc., and we need to be healthy enough to do that–but most of us look for a deeper purpose to our existence. If, in fact, one of our duties as human beings is to partner with God and our fellow humans in making the world a better place (redeeming it), we cannot do so if we are frail, weak, tired and out of shape. Ideally, we maintain and strengthen our bodies–which are vessels given to us by God–to be able to carry out our mission in the world (however you define that for yourself).

The work of redemption is not easy. It is slow, laborious and often frustrating–kind of like some of our workouts. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is not our obligation to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to excuse ourselves from the work of redemption. One of the ways that we can ensure that we are up to the task is to prepare ourselves spiritually AND physically. We are capable of changing the world for the better…but not if we don’t first change ourselves for the better–in spirit and in body.

Chag Sameach! Best wishes for a happy and fit Passover holiday!

The Mental Work of Working through Physical Recovery

It has been one week since my foot surgery and hopefully only another three until I can walk again.
The physical recovery has not been as difficult as dealing with emotional issues that come along with an injury/illness. The first few days after surgery were not that tough; the block on my lower leg meant that I did not feel anything below the knee–especially pain. Once that wore off, I began to feel the discomfort. I really wanted to avoid taking pain meds since I don’t like the side effects, so I’ve been icing and trying to take it easy with several doses of acetaminophen daily. Today I wanted to go to morning minyan (prayer services); I got up, showered, got dressed, but was in too much discomfort to go. Big bummer.

The past several days have been difficult since I am so accustomed to doing a lot of the work to prepare for Passover. For those unfamiliar, imagine two Thanksgiving Dinners two nights in a row, but having to start with all new ingredients. In the past, I did a huge amount of the work and my wife pitched in with some sides and desserts. We were so excited to be doing all the preparation for the Seders together this year, but it ended up being all her. I tried to help where I could, but I felt kind of useless.

That feeling was made worse when I started receiving all the emails from the gym that all my clients were being cancelled for the entire month. That is a tough situation for anyone, but when you are just starting out in the industry and trying to build your client base, it feels devastating (even if the real effect may be much less). Since I don’t know what my recovery will be like and whether I will ever be back to where I was nine months ago before the pain began, there is an added level of anxiety. Will I be able to get back to training as quickly as I want? Will I have restrictions? Can I be successful at this new endeavor in my life? All questions swirling in my head.

It is always nice to have an objective party to discuss these issues with, and I did that today. I have in my mind that these four weeks are just a total write-off, but I can use this time productively. I will spend the week studying and hopefully obtaining my Functional Aging Specialization. Getting ready for that basically requires me to sit on my butt and read…I think I can do that this week. I also have to take things one at a time; I think we can all sometimes get into a downward spiral and follow a rabbit hole into the worst-case scenarios. I have to stop myself and let things unfold as they do without getting ahead of myself.

What has surprised me is just how much this recovery from surgery is emotional as well as physical. I have to deal with not working out, which is my usual stress reliever. I have to consider the possibility that my body may not fully recover. I have to face the fact that I am aging; this doesn’t mean that I’m all washed up, but rather that I have to change my approach. Hopefully, that awareness will make me a better Personal Trainer in the long run–especially as I train those in my peer group.

Wishing everyone a Happy Passover, belated Happy Easter, and all the best in whatever you celebrate. I also celebrate the process of healing–physically and emotionally. But it is hard work!

Recipe Wednesday: Passover Vegetable Nut Loaf

Looking for a Passover entree for your vegetarians that has protein AND actually tastes good? I have had this recipe for more than ten years; it came from the VSR Newsletter Recipe…which does not seem to exist online anymore.

This recipe can be made into a loaf, or used as a layer of “meat” in a Shepherd’s Pie; I have even made small burgers out of it. Enjoy!

Passover Vegetable Nut Loaf

Serves 8

Ingredients:

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 large carrots, grated

3 cups of mixed ground nuts [I use a cup each of almonds, cashews, and pecans)

1 cup matzoh meal

4 tablespoons tomato paste

1 large onion, sliced thinly

2 1/2 cups vegetable stock

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Mix all ingredients, except vegetable stock and sliced onion. Grease ovenproof casserole dish; place sliced onions all over the bottom. Form nut and carrot mixture into a loaf and place on top of sliced onions. Bake 45 minutes. Baste with vegetable stock every 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes.

What a Vegetarian Wants…at Passover

Not this…well, at least not only this.

Passover is not that far away and if you, like me, are planning your menus for the week–and in particular for the Seders–you may be wondering if there are ways to feed your vegetarian guests (or self) that will be satisfying and delicious.

Unfortunately, most web searches turn up recipes that look great but are not necessarily healthy (fried) or that contain little or no protein. Some of them contain dairy products which would traditionally not be served at a meal where meat is being consumed. While others feast on chicken, brisket or salmon, vegetarians often get short shrift. At best it might be a vegetable dish, and at worst: “here Morrie, have some more Karpas!” Just vegetables won’t cut it. Plan ahead now.

Admittedly, finding Kosher for Passover plant-based protein sources is not easy. During the rest of the year, vegetarians often depend on legumes (peanuts, beans, etc.) for their protein, but many Ashkenazi Jews (those of Central and Eastern European descent) do not eat legumes on Passover.

Image result for legumes

Several years ago, the Rabbinical Assembly (the organization of the rabbis of the Conservative Movement) put out a Teshuva (responsum) saying that it is okay for Ashkenazi Jews to eat legumes (called Kitniyot in Hebrew); still there are many who avoid them. To read the responsum, click here:
https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/assets/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/Golinkin-Kitniyot.pdf. Note that there are also opinions in the Conservative Movement that do not permit Kitniyot.

If you are eating Kitniyot (and so might your guests) many of your problems are solved. Most recipes that are used during the year can be converted to Passover recipes; ask your local rabbi for assistance on this if you are not familiar with the rules.

For those who still do not eat Kitniyot, creativity is called for. Luckily, most authorities (even the most traditional) allow quinoa which is a good source of protein; tree nuts are also allowed. In the coming weeks as Passover approaches, I will share some recipes that I have used and are appropriate to serve to guests at a Passover Seder: fancy, protein-filled, and not too difficult to prepare.

Until then, make sure to ask your guests what their requirements are for Passover so that no one goes home hungry…which is, of course, one of the worst sins you can commit! 🙂