I have never kept kosher for Passover. My family is of mixed Jewish and Episcopalian heritage, and not very observant about either religion. My experience of keeping kosher for Passover came through my Jewish classmates who, for one week out of the year, would bring peanut butter, jelly and matzah sandwiches to school instead of buying food at the cafeteria.
When my brother was thirteen, he was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease often linked with type 1 diabetes. The only way to treat celiac disease is to go on a gluten-free diet, eliminating all wheat, rye, and barely from your diet. That year, I was struck by the fact that people who keep kosher for Passover are required to give up almost exactly the same grains as people on a gluten-free diet. Both diets are quite stringent. Observant Jews must clean their houses before Passover to ensure that no remnant of forbidden grain remains; people with celiac disease also have to avoid consuming even the smallest amount of gluten. You can guarantee than anything kosher for Passover is also gluten-free.
Except matzah. Matzah is a thin, dense, cracker-like food that observant Jews eat on Passover to evoke the unleavened bread eaten by Israelites as they escaped Egypt. It’s the only food containing wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats that can be eaten on Passover.
I’ve always assumed that Passover would be an easy time of year for observant Jews with celiac disease. They would simply avoid matzah (or foods made of matzah meal, like matzah ball soup) and pile their plates high with everything else on the table. But in fact this isn’t the case. As I did some research for my matzah review, I discovered that observant Jews aren’t only allowed to eat matzah on Passover–they’re required to do so. So what is an observant Jew with celiac disease to do?
I thought it must be possible to buy gluten-free matzah. Since gluten is the protein that allows wheat-containing foods to rise, the problem with most gluten-free substitutes is that they are much denser and flatter than the foods they imitate. This lack of fluffiness wouldn’t detract from matzah, which is by definition unleavened. So I set out to find a gluten-free matzah to include in my matzah review.
This was a more difficult task than I’d thought. I first called Mr. Ritt’s Gluten-Free Bakery in New Jersey, where my parents buy most of their gluten-free products. Mr. Ritt told me that he had decided not to stock gluten-free matzah this year because there was little call for it in his store’s new location, but he did know of two companies that did make it. One of them charged $30 for one box. (Gluten-free products are often more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts, but even so, this is steep.) The other company was less expensive but unreliable in their deliveries. Neither of these options sounded viable, so I tried calling my local supermarkets. Finally, I spoke to one employee who told me her store carried gluten-free matzah. I rushed to the market…only to find that the matzah in question was made of spelt, a (sub)species of wheat which is definitely not gluten-free.
There are some companies that sell gluten-free matzah online. I couldn’t order from one in time to receive the matzah for my article, but doing so would certainly be possible if you prepare far enough in advance. Still, if you have celiac disease and can’t find a gluten-free matzah before next year’s Passover, don’t panic. The requirement to eat matzah at a Passover seder is waived when it poses a real threat to one’s health.
Actually, there are lots of foods containing wheat that can be eaten by non-celiacs at Passover. Anything made with matzoh meal is fine.
We ordered the GF oat matzoh from Lakewood, NJ and it worked out great. Also, lots of Passover cakes, cookies and the like are gluten-free, labeled as such or as “non-gebrokts.” They’re made mostly from potato starch.