Barley and the Jews

Dan Brosgol
Director, Prozdor
March 19, 2014

New England in mid-March is a mishmash of gray and mud; it’s not the prettiest landscape. I daresay that snow cover is somewhat more attractive, but as we get ready for spring, mud will have to do.

As the earth awakens and begins to yield its fruit, and the crocuses wait for the first warm-ish day to prematurely bloom, Passover looms on the less-than-one-month horizon, with its promise of carbohydrates, wine and sugary fruit slices. Your local supermarket no doubt already has up the matza displays, and has probably has sent the turkey and brisket flyers off to the printers.

While Passover certainly gives us an annual celebration of slavery, freedom and uplifting songs, it’s worthy of noting that one of the lesser-known angles of the Passover festival is that it’s traditionally associated as the festival marking the annual barley harvest. This is the principal reason why we count the Omer using measures of barley.

For all you barley lovers who like mixing the hearty grain into soups, stews, and yes, beer, it’s the grain that keeps on giving. Outside of Passover, barley, with its unique texture and nutty flavor, is a great variation on the usual rice-and-pasta rotation, and can also be subbed in to place of quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur and the like. On Passover, though, it’s forbidden to Jews, who are prohibited from eating certain types of grains(wheat,spelt, barley, oats and rye) and kitniyot, so we tend to spend our most festive and food-based holiday avoiding it at all costs. Too bad.

As an everyday runner, I’m a carb addict, and each Passover thoughtfully and consistently make the demographic transition from Ashkenazi to Sephardi so I can enjoy the blessings of kitniyot during the holiday. But barley is off the table. 

Again, too bad.

But besides the carb fix, and the lovely connection to Passover, there are several wonderful reasons why barley is an excellent Jewish food.

First, barley is the ultimate survivor. It has been grown and harvested for over 3,000 years. Call me crazy, but that’s how old Jerusalem is. Coincidence…maybe.

Second, barley has a very short growing season and the barley plant rarely is taller than three feet high. If you were, like the Jewish people, in a position to try to be unnoticed, a small, fast-growing plant that can survive harsh weather is ideal. Better yet, it’s easily transportable.

Third, geographic diversity. Barley can survive in a wide range of climates (including the arctic), and from its origin in central Europe is now grown all over the world. Similarly, the Jewish people have grown from a nomadic Mesopotamian sheikh named Abram to a 15-million strong nation. As the old saying goes, wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish. And there’s probably a barley field.

Fourth, alcohol. Barley is a core ingredient in scotch whiskey. And beer. And Jews certainly love both. Whether or not you want to push the envelope and enjoy either on Passover is entirely up to you.