By Merav Levkowitz
For those of us with food allergies and intolerances, social events tend to be awkward and isolating. So many Jewish events revolve around food and involve eating in social settings or at the houses of others. Though many Jews are used to accommodating kashrut, vegetarianism, and lactose intolerance, which is common among Jews (but irrelevant during a kosher meat meal!), it can be uncomfortable to ask even the most accommodating host to modify his/her menu or recipes and cook differently, especially when old family recipes are at hand. Celiac disease is one such dietary restriction that requires extra attention and is rising in the prevalence in general and especially among Jews.
Celiac disease is, in a nutshell, an autoimmune digestive disease in which the body is unable to tolerate gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. The exact cause of Celiac disease remains unknown, but it is genetic and often triggered by environmental factors or intense physical event like illness, pregnancy or severe stress. In response to the offensive gluten, the immune system attacks and destroys the villi, the finger-like projections that line the inside of the small intestine and absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. Celiac disease that goes undiagnosed can manifest itself in a wide range of deceptive symptoms, including digestive issues, fatigue, infertility and seizures, among others, and can ultimately result in malnutrition and elevated risks for many illnesses and infections. Once diagnosed, the only way to treat it is to maintain a diet that is strictly free of gluten, which, in addition to being found in the primary grains mentioned above and their products, hides in many other products, like sauces, dressings, food fillers, lip gloss, and envelope adhesive.
In the Jewish world, a gluten-free diet means no challah, matzoh balls, sufganiyot (doughnuts), or even latkes (potato pancakes). Even with the increased awareness and greater supply of specialized products available in stores, maintaining a gluten-free diet often gives the impression of perpetual Passover. We Jewish Celiacs get used to reading labels and asking questions religiously, hosting, testing gluten-free recipes, cooking for ourselves and knowing that we will have to satisfy ourselves solely with the aroma of most challot. Although we cannot eat matzoh, during Passover we bask in the joy of knowing that for eight days our friends and family may get a small taste of what we experience year-round. Still, there is a feeling of loss that comes with not being able to participate in many Jewish rituals, mitzvot, and family traditions.
But with Hanukkah approaching, there is hope for Celiacs and our friends to reclaim the holiday this year and make it safe and enjoyable for all! Try out these flourless potato latkes and gluten-free sufganiyot, and check out this line-up of other gluten-free Hanukkah recipes. Hanukkah is, after all, about rededication and miracles and what better way to celebrate this than by sharing doughnuts that are safe for everyone?! Happy cooking, and happy Hanukkah!