A Picky Eater’s Passover

Time for a secret: I have never fully kept Passover.

I go to both Seders, and usually, I lead my family’s prayers and love our traditions. I enjoy retelling the story and am always up for watching The Prince of Egypt even though I’ve had the songs memorized since I was a kid.

But that’s where it stops. Unlike most Jewish people I know, I do not keep the dietary laws of Passover.

The main way that my OCD has manifested over the years is extreme food pickiness thanks to emetophobia. I joke that I eat like an overgrown toddler, and there are indeed many elements of toddler eating habits that make their way onto my plate: I tend to separate foods (no milk in my cereal), I prefer the same foods over and over, I need convincing to try new foods, and my repertoire of things I eat is very limited.

It was a big thing that set me apart from my peers, which was what bothered me the most about it. As a kid, I wouldn’t eat pizza, mac and cheese, chicken nuggets or fish sticks, nor would I drink soda or fruit juice. I wouldn’t eat lunch, choosing to be hungry rather than eat what my school had for offer. This was noticed, pointed out, and ridiculed, but still, I couldn’t get rid of my anxiety around trying new foods.

This didn’t change when Passover rolled around. Each year, as I practiced the prayers and listened to my parents and other adults complain about giving up bread, I felt immensely guilty. I couldn’t do it. As someone whose diet consisted solely of plain bread products until I was fourteen, I was simply unable to cut chametz (leavened bread) out of my diet for eight days.

I was thankful that my family’s Seders were small, so that only my parents and Nana could see me eating pasta while avoiding eye contact with the Seder plate. I snacked on matzah to try to participate, but all of my major meals involved leavened bread.

For a long time - and still, to an extent, today - I felt like a bad Jew who was disrespecting the holiday. During the Seder, the stories I loved to read aloud all led to eating of matzah instead of bread, and I couldn’t even make it through the first dinner without my OCD ruining everything. I couldn’t be like the other kids I knew who would substitute meat, veggies, and more for the bread in their diets. I just couldn’t.

Over the years, I slowly got better at trying new foods. Sometimes, the progress was slow - a dollop of tomato sauce on a big plate of pasta, spread out to the point where I could barely taste it. Other times, it was overwhelmingly fast - a friend sitting on top of me so I couldn’t move as she pushed a slice of pizza in my mouth. In college, where I had the option to try a little bit of different things in the cafeteria, I learned to like orange juice, granola, and salad.

Although I’ve wanted to make a more major change to my diet for years, it’s only in the last year that I’ve felt ready to take a bigger step. I’d gotten to the point where I don’t panic as much when I’m faced with new foods, and my desire to eat like a “normal” person felt stronger than the nagging thoughts at the back of my mind telling me a new food could make me throw up.

Nine months ago, I started a journey of exposure therapy to get me used to new kinds of foods. I worked with a nutritionist who helped me learn about different kinds of foods that I never knew even existed, and she helped me find ways to get around the roadblocks in my way. I learned how to put foods of different textures together, add a new ingredient to a familiar dish, and more. I tried some new foods on the phone with my parents or a friend. I became determined to try each new food three times, and only say I didn’t like it after not liking it all three times.

I’m not quite at the place where I can have a true chametz-free Passover like I eventually want. I’m definitely limiting my consumption of leavened bread a lot more than I was, and I make sure to not eat it around other people who may feel tempted or offended, but I still squirrel away protein bars and pasta whenever I have a moment to myself.

This year, I’m trying to look at Passover as a time of self-improvement, a time where I can be more conscious of my food choices and also the journey I’ve been on - not quite epic like the Exodus from Egypt, but still a journey I never thought I could make, and one that has definitely made my life feel a lot freer.

Whether you’re celebrating Passover the traditional way or in a way that works for you, I hope you have a wonderful holiday - Chag Sameach!Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.