Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
April 11, 2003
Pesach with no matzah balls is one Oaklander’s vision of a ‘living food’ seder
by LIZ HARRIS
This is hard to imagine, but Robin Silberman used to go hungry at Passover dinner.
No gefilte fish, boiled eggs or matzah ball soup for her. Forget the potato kugel or brisket. Thank goodness for charoset and salad, but no thanks to the sponge cake.
Silberman, you see, eats only living foods. As in raw fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grasses and grains. “You can’t cook anything,” explains the Oakland resident. “Nothing over 115 degrees” — the temperature a dehydrator needs to dry out foods.
“My frustration was going to seders and not having anything to eat,” explains the freelance technical writer.
She’s been working to change that, and the fruits of her labor have produced the self-published Living Foods Passover Haggadah. Silberman has come up with her own modified version of the narrative, plus 28 recipes, from appetizers to desserts.
“I went to bookstores and plowed through regular Jewish cookbooks,” she says. “I looked at recipes and thought, ‘How can I change these?'” It took years of experimenting, and even now she’s not quite perfected all her concoctions. For example, her mock gefilte fish, made mostly of cashews, almonds and pine nuts, almost works, though the amount of green onions needs to be halved, she warns.
On the other hand, after conducting demonstrations and tastings, she is confident of her coconut-almond macaroons and her two kinds of tsimmes — one Ashkenazi-style, the other tropical. Both contain a good measure of carrots, sweet potatoes, prunes and fruit juice.
There’s even a matzah recipe, developed by a fellow living-foods practitioner who isn’t Jewish. Made of carrot pulp and flax seeds processed in a dehydrator, the “matzah” was initially concocted as a “crisp.” Just so happens it makes a great substitute matzah, attests Silberman, who plans to cater a seder for 10 this Passover.
So how did someone who grew up in an Orthodox, kosher San Francisco home end up shunning bread and butter, eggs, shmaltz and the “fired food” culture?
The turning point came 20 years ago, when Silberman met Ann Wigmore at the first Whole Life Expo in San Francisco. Wigmore, a Lithuanian emigre who subsisted mostly on weeds during World War I, became an advocate for raw foods after settling in the United States. She established the Hippocrates Institute in Boston, where she lived, and she lectured and wrote extensively on the topic of raw nutrition.
Silberman, bothered by digestive problems at the time she met Wigmore, was intrigued. “I had one of those light-bulb moments,” she says. “I said, ‘This is what I need to do.'” She attended Wigmore’s institute and “in two weeks I felt my digestive system working in a way it hadn’t worked for the previous 30 years.”
Returning to San Francisco, Silberman joined a support group called S. F. LIFE (San Francisco Living Foods Enthusiasts), the second-oldest such group in the country. Eating raw foods is not an easy choice, Silberman explains. “It’s difficult to socialize.”
In Western culture, “there is so much societal pressure around eating, that it becomes a very unsupportive environment” for people like herself. As a result, many, including Silberman, drift in and out of the living-foods culture. “Most who stay, get in it for health reasons,” she says. Though adherents believe a living-foods diet can improve one’s health, “medical doctors don’t want to hear about it,” she says dismissively.
When you eat raw foods, “you’re getting all the enzymes in the food. You’re getting all the nutrition.”
Looking back on the Jewish foods she used to eat, Silberman practically shudders. “There’s nothing healthy about shmaltz, face it.” Most of the kosher food manufacturers use hydrogenated oils such as cottonseed and palm, she claims. Couple that with the egg- and dairy-rich kugels, the pot roasts and other favorites, and “it’s like a heart attack waiting to happen, you know?”
Her telling of the Passover story also departs radically from the norm, incorporating a living-foods slant. “For those of us who are Jewish living-food practitioners,” she writes in the introduction, “this seder is a double blessing: We celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt, and our new freedom from fired food.”
Before writing her Haggadah, Silberman studied many others. “I must have 15 to 20 haggadahs at home — from [the] Maxwell House coffee one to women’s haggadahs to gay liberation… I found what was unifying all of them, and kept all the basics, but presented them from a different perspective.”
Some aspects, of course, remained sacrosanct. She dared not tamper with such perennial favorites as the song “Chad Gad Ya.”
“I haven’t been able to rewrite that,” she says, erupting in giggles.
Before abandoning blintzes and chopped liver, Silberman had moved away from her parents’ Orthodoxy. After high school graduation, she went to live in Israel in the late ’60s to the early ’70s, and made a profound discovery. “I saw you can be Jewish and secular.
“I thought, ‘If you can live in Israel and be secular, what am I doing?’ So I became a cultural Jew.”
She views Passover “as a really important holiday, from a cultural perspective.”
As for the duality of her Haggadah — celebrating emancipation from slavery in Egypt and from cooked foods — she simply says, “celebrating your freedom I think is really important.”
Silberman concedes, however, that some may look at her askance. “People who are not into living foods might find it a little strange.” She doesn’t mind.
Already looking ahead, she says, “I would like to write a living-foods prep-book for all the Jewish holidays.”