As Shavuot approaches, I can almost taste the cheese blintzes. But I can’t actually taste them, because I’m allergic to dairy.
And that’s just the beginning. I also can’t eat wheat. This means the traditional Jewish foods for a lot of holidays are forbidden to me. No cheesecake for Shavuot. No sufganiyot for Hanukkah. No breaking the Yom Kippur fast with bagels and cream cheese. No challah for Shabbat.
My food issues began at birth. As a child, my favorite meal was “cheese soup” poured over toast; I often felt slightly ill after eating it, but it never occurred to me that feeling sick after eating wasn’t normal. Other foods gave me painful rashes, ear infections, hives, but doctors never connected these symptoms to allergies; one told me I’d outgrow these problems by age 13, while another suggested I avoid hazelnuts. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I discovered my extensive food allergies, including an allergy to dairy. I was not surprised, but I was crushed.
What about the holidays? Having to change my diet—and eliminate foods that had once been staples of my life and Jewish celebrations—meant I had to find a new way to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and doing so would challenge my relationship with Judaism. Every event at my temple centered on food—Shabbat dinners, bread and juice at Shabbat services, the oneg on Friday nights, fundraising dinners, or special programs to learn to make challah or blintzes.
What saddened me the most was losing the connection formed with others over food. My food restrictions made it challenging to be part of my Jewish community. At Shabbat services, I can’t eat the challah everyone else eats. At temple potlucks, I can only eat the food I’ve brought, since the foods people bring aren’t ingredient-labeled. I stopped attending those potlucks, but this cost me the chance to meet people and form new connections. These allergies have high costs.
I had lived for decades with health problems before my diagnosis, but a crisis finally prodded me to find some solutions: When my father nearly collapsed on me after a friend’s brunch in late 2015, I drove him to the ER thinking he had the flu. A doctor diagnosed him with sepsis. He nearly died. The stress of his subsequent hospitalizations, rehab, and doctor’s appointments over a six-month period marked a turning point in my own health, too. I felt run down and exhausted by near-daily hospital visits, by poring over lists of his medications, by ensuring the hospital actually fed him (they didn’t, not always), and by researching his diagnoses so I could speak intelligently to doctors about them.
Once my father’s health stabilized, I turned to investigating my own health. I found the process like peeling an onion. As soon as I peeled one layer and unearthed a problem, I would think that was the one issue to address. However, again and again I found one problem connected to another. This slow process led me to an allergist, where tests revealed allergies to milk, wheat, corn, peanuts, soybeans, beef, eggs, and chocolate.
Since I didn’t believe the test results, I ignored them. I had eaten many of these foods—corn, peanuts, beef, eggs, and chocolate—quite often for years and never noticed a bad reaction to them. It turns out that the body can mask allergies so that you don’t realize a food you eat every day is the culprit in causing your health issues. When I did finally give them up, my ear infections subsided. Surprisingly, my non-food allergies also eased. The cat no longer caused me to have itchy skin. Pollen season came and went without causing me fits of sneezing. Although I’d once been diagnosed with asthma and gone to the ER for it, my lungs were now clear, and my breathing troubles disappeared.
Over the past year, I’ve come to terms with my situation. I’m hardly a gourmet, but I’d picked up some basic cooking skills and a willingness to try new foods to expand my choices. I shifted my focus from eliminating foods to seeking out foods to add to my diet: dandelion greens, lamb jerky, oysters. After finding no gluten-free bread in local Jewish bakeries, I searched for gluten-free challah recipes and found one that my wheat-eating family found acceptable. Since bread without gluten can’t be braided well, I bought a special challah pan to at least give the appearance of braids.
When a challenge came my way, I figured out how to address it and gained a little power back over my life and its food challenges. I bring my own food to dinner for my book group. My husband has adapted to cooking breakfasts and dinners I can eat. But I still felt alone in my struggles with food, and I felt like I’d always be fighting with myself over the right way to handle the food-oriented Jewish holidays when the safe-for-me foods were not considered religiously correct.
Shavuot still leaves me in a quandary: I haven’t discovered an acceptable replacement for the traditional dairy foods. I’ll make blintzes for my family, but I can’t eat them myself since I can’t have eggs, wheat, or dairy. Instead, I’ll make pumpkin pie bites and zucchini lemon sorbet for myself to celebrate the holiday. These foods are not traditionally connected to Shavuot, but I pretend they are—because they are, now, for me.
Community forms around food, and I haven’t figured out a way to connect during the holidays that doesn’t include food at all. Instead, I connect with my family and the community despite the foods. Occasionally, my 10-year-old daughter runs up to me at an oneg to show me a pastry that delights her. I share her delight at the treat, and she runs off, happy I’ve listened; what she really wants, I’ve learned, is my attention. At a Purim carnival, my daughter and I filled hamantashen with fruit filling. Even though I couldn’t eat them because they contain wheat, I enjoyed connecting with my daughter and creating something with her. Both of these are happy memories for me, and I hope they are for her, too.
But even as I’ve tried as best I can to maintain my connection to other Jews around food, I’ve made new connections along the way—with other people who have food allergies. We form our own underground community at events. We help each other find the gluten-free dessert someone brought or warn each other away from a salad laced with dairy. So, even as I’ve learned to not let my food allergies hinder my social and spiritual life, I’ve built new connections and found an additional community that understands exactly why there’s more to Shavuot than cheese blintzes.
Deborah A. Beverly lives in Maryland and is co-editor of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.