To me, sitting down Pesach morning with a cup of coffee, a box of matzah, a tub of sweet butter and a few different flavors of jelly is as essential to the holiday as the "Mah Nishtanah."
That poses a bit of a problem this year, since I've spent every Thursday night for the past 14 months at a Weight Watchers meeting.
Pesach can be a nightmare for anyone counting calories.
The holiday's foods are more laden with fat and emotion than any other time of year, and most people count on gaining a good five pounds over eight days.
That's what prompted Elaine Berman -- Sinai Temple member, interior designer, Jewish Federation volunteer, proud mother of Super Sunday Director Jody Berman, and Weight Watchers leader extraordinaire -- to hold her first ever pre-Pesach pep talk last Sunday at Weight Watchers' Westwood branch.
For the past eight years, Berman has inspired thousands of people to take off and keep off the pounds. She now leads 12 meetings a week, seeing about 400 people.
She says Pesach is probably the hardest week of the year.
"Pesach is like having eight days of Thanksgiving," Berman told the group of about 50 people, which included Chabadniks, Stephen S. Wise members and everything in between. "It's a very difficult holiday, and we have to take it with a common sense approach."
Passover launches a multipronged attack, throwing rich and delicious foods our way while weakening our emotional and psychological defenses.
"There's the whole deprivation factor," piped up one person at the Weight Watchers meeting. "I think there's so much I can't have that week, God forbid I should be hungry."
Just the novelty of all the prepared foods probably causes people to stock their pantries with foods they would never have the rest of the year, like five boxes of griddle mix, piles of chocolate bars, or, as Berman saw at one market, non-dairy kosher-for-Passover cheesecake (now really, how good could that possibly be?).
And don't underestimate the power of comfort foods. Nostalgia can wreak havoc on otherwise steel will-power. Whether its chocolate-dipped macaroons or schmaltzy chopped liver, what your mother or grandmother served is probably going to end up on your table.
But don't be afraid of lightening those recipes up a bit, Berman suggests.
"We still hold on to this idea that if it's not rich, if it's decaloried a little bit, it's not going to be as good," she says of Jewish eating habits. "We show our love and our prosperity with plenty."
Of course, that's a broad stereotype with major exceptions, and most people today are more conscious of fat and cholesterol. But on Pesach that awareness gets stored away with the chumetzdik dishes.
For Berman the challenge starts well before Pesach, in the "finishing-up frenzy" in the weeks before.
"I used to gain five pounds just cleaning my kitchen, because of my mother's words, 'it's an aveirah (sin) to throw food away,'" Berman says.
Those pounds set the stage for the rest of the week, well beyond Seder night, Berman says.
She acknowledges that it's nearly impossible to have a low-calorie Seder.
By the time the meal-your-mother-slaved-over hits the table, you've already filled up on matzah, charoset, eggs and potatoes. And just because you're full on brisket and kugel doesn't mean you won't sample the chocolate covered matzahs, marble sponge cake and Barton's candies.
But Seder is only two nights -- not eight days.
"The biggest change for me in not having Pesach cost me eight pounds was understanding that seder indulgence and required foods was one thing, but the rest of the week doesn't have to be matzah with greibenes (an Eastern European delicacy of chicken skin fried in schmaltz)," Berman says.
Most importantly, she says, "Pesach is such an important holiday to us. Make sure you enjoy it."
As for me, I probably won't have too much matzah with butter this year, since I'll have lots of other foods to tempt me. I'll be at one of these Passover hotels where there are around 12 meals a day -- kind of like eight days of Thanksgiving, on a cruise ship.
But I am empowered. I know how to exercise control. I will allow myself small indulgences to satisfy my natural cravings. I will exercise. I will use all my Weight Watchers tools to successfully navigate my way through the extravagant buffet breakfasts, the heavy lunches and dinners -- where there will be lots of beef, and always dessert. And of course, the multiple "tea rooms." Tables and tables full of crispy potato chips, salty nuts, carefully crafted pastries, thick, rich ice cream, candies in all flavors and colors and textures. And chocolate. Mounds and mounds and mounds of chocolate.
Sure, I'll be just fine.
Seven Tips for not gaining 100 Pounds in Eight Days:
1. The ritual requirements of Seder make a high-calorie night inevitable. But that doesn't need to carry over to all the other nights -- and days -- of Pesach, too.
2. Eat fresh, simple foods instead of all the prepared, packaged stuff. Indulge in expensive fruits and vegetables, make interesting salads.
3. Don't try to totally deprive yourself of the traditional comfort foods of Pesach. Just eat them in reasonable portions. Allowing yourself to indulge a little bit can empower you, and allow you to maintain control of your eating.
4. Don't try to lose weight on Pesach, just concentrate on not gaining more than a pound our two.
5. Try lower-calorie versions of your favorite foods. Use egg whites instead of whole eggs, and cooking spray instead of oil. Cut the fat in most recipes.
6. Drink lots of water and exercise.
7. If you do over-indulge on Pesach, forgive yourself and move on. Don't let the guilt throw you into an entire summer of unhealthy eating.
To sign up with Weight Watchers, call (800) 651-6000.
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