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Not only Jews seek out kosher foods made just for the holiday

Passover goodies Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe Skokie include (from left) holiday cookies mandel breit cinnamalmond mandel breit chocolate marshmallow-filled frogs locusts

Passover goodies at Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie include (from left) holiday cookies, mandel breit cinnamon almond mandel breit, chocolate marshmallow-filled frogs and locusts, chocolate covered matzo and raspberry macaroon slices. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 5, 2012 8:03AM

They call matzo the “bread of affliction,” but for many, Passover food is a sought-after treat.

During Passover, which starts at sunset Friday and runs through April 14, Jews in Chicago and worldwide avoid yeast breads and eat matzo, unleavened crackers made from just flour and water, to commemorate the hardships of the biblical Exodus. Matzo is just the beginning of complex dietary rules that mean religious Jews replace their entire pantries for the week, and even some non-Jews stock up on kosher-for-Passover specialties.

Some 30,000 different products were produced specifically for Passover 2012, estimates Menachem Lubinsky, editor of and producer of Kosherfest, a kosher foods trade show. Passover is a $2.5 billion to $3 billion industry, he says, with scores of new items annually.

“Almost everything you can buy year round now has a Passover version. It’s not just matzo, gefilte fish and borscht anymore,” says Sanford Abramowitz, manager of Hungarian Kosher Foods in Skokie, the Midwest’s largest kosher supermarket, which stocks a vast selection of commercial as well as house-made Passover foods.

“Passover is the most widely observed holiday in the Jewish calendar,” says Lubinsky. At least 70 percent of America’s approximately 6 million Jews celebrate the holiday, he says.

Non-Jews also buy Passover goods. Some participate in Passover seders, Lubinsky says, with Jewish friends or to reenact Christ’s last supper, while others have dietary restrictions that mirror Passover’s.

And there are folks who just love Passover treats, notes Yakov Yarmove, corporate business manager for ethnic marketing and specialty foods for SuperValu Inc., who buys kosher foods for Jewel Food Stores and other supermarkets. He says holiday goodies such as coconut macaroons, chocolate-coated jelly rings and candy fruit slices are big sellers that people of all denominations look forward to all year.

Making foods kosher for Passover is a big production, says Linda Neiman, owner of Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie, whose Passover products, sold nationwide, include cakes, cookies and gluten-free, marshmallow-filled chocolates shaped like frogs and locusts, representing two of the 10 plagues of the story of Exodus.

“We start producing for Passover as early as January,” Neiman says. The company turns over one of its two production facilities completely for Passover foods. All equipment must be specially cleaned and inspected and only kosher-for-Passover ingredients can be brought in.

To make kosher-for-Passover foods, manufacturers omit three categories of ingredients: 1. Chometz:

This generally means processed food that’s not been specially made for Passover, but specifically, it refers to anything made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats. Matzo is the only grain-based food permitted during Passover, and it must be completely baked within 18 minutes from the time the water hits the flour. Jews may not own, eat or benefit from chometz during Passover, lest they be severed from their souls. 2. Kitniyot:

To ensure no one ate prohibited grains by mistake, some 13th-century rabbis forbade other foods that might be ground into similar-looking flour, including legumes, rice and corn. The ban on such “kitniyot” applies only to Ashkenazim, Jews whose forebears came from the rabbis’ European homelands. That encompasses the vast majority of American Jews, so nearly all U.S. Passover foods omit kitniyot. Sephardim, whose ancestors hailed from Spain and the Middle East, don’t observe this restriction, so a growing number of Passover products, especially Israeli imports, contain kitniyot.

3. Gebrokts: Other historic rabbis had concerns that matzo might be improperly baked. If such a matzo became wet, they reasoned, it would be chometz, so they directed that Passover matzos should be eaten dry. Products made from matzo and common holiday dishes like matzo balls and fried matzos are therefore off- limits to those who avoid “gebrokts,” wetted matzos. Only a small minority of Jews, mainly ultraorthodox Hasids, follow this custom, but they’re an influential market for specialty manufacturers, who make a wide selection of “non-gebrokts” cookies, cakes and other baked goods.

Agencies such as the Chicago Rabbinical Council and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis confirm that kosher foods meet the rules. The organizations don’t always agree, so products labeled kosher in one region won’t necessarily be certified in another. Determinations also change from year to year.

Recently, for example, rabbis found out that quinoa may be intercropped with forbidden barley, so this year only one brand was deemed acceptable, according to Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, kashrut administrator of the CRC. And due to a conflict between a new California state law and rabbinical certification, there’ll be no kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola for sale in the Golden State this year, Yarmove says.

Since the rules about kitniyot forbid high-fructose corn syrup, Coca-Cola and other pop bottlers reformulate for Passover with sugar, something preferred by cola connoisseurs. “There are a lot of people who come in looking for the ‘kosher Coke,’ as they call it,” Abramowitz says. To meet demand, Hungarian Kosher trucks in Passover Coke from New York, enabling them to supply canned and caffeine-free versions not produced by local bottlers.

People who must avoid foods such as wheat, corn and gluten stock up on kitniyot-free, “non-gebrokts” Passover foods. Passover is the only time you can find hot dogs without corn syrup, Yarmove notes.

“Many Passover products are gluten-free, some by accident and some by design,” says CRC Rabbi David Cohen. While regular matzo contains gluten, “non-gebrokts” goods are guaranteed gluten-free.

Passover celebrates freedom. With thousands of holiday products on the market, says Lubinsky, “You’re free to eat.”

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.

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