Perhaps no holiday tests the Jewish imagination to the same extent as does Passover. Each year, irrespective of locale, Jews are asked to explore their ancestral heritage by recreating the Passover story that traces the Jewish excursion from bondage to liberation. In fact, nearly all Passover rituals serve to commemorate the process of liberation, such as the abstention of leavened bread in exchange for Matzah and the necessity of eating the bitter herb as a testament of the harshness of slavery. With changing times, attitudes and norms, the celebration of Passover has, remarkably, remained a potent source of meaning for Jews everywhere; however, as ancient traditions interact with the modern world, the interplay of the two often creates unpredictable and seemingly paradoxical outcomes. One of the many vexing ironies in contemporary Judaism is that for a holiday that seeks to recreate its historic moment of destitution, the costs of doing so are overly cumbersome.
As a religion most commonly associated with laws and enactments, Judaism boasts a robust set of dietary restrictions. These restrictions place severe limitations on what and where practicing Jews can eat. They also serve as a frequent source of resentment from cost-sensitive Jews, who see the practice of keeping kosher as an expensive albeit necessary requirement. And if the prospect of keeping kosher seems daunting, Passover adds an even more rigorous dimension, with the restriction of flour, grains and legumes (for Ashkenazic Jews). In many regards, the same economic factors that keep kosher food products relatively expensive are amplified each and every Passover.
Recent efforts to monitor prices at two local and popular Los Angeles kosher markets yielded some not-too-surprising results. For one, Passover price hikes were seemingly product specific. Nevertheless, in monitoring a basket of goods that bear seemingly no qualitative difference between Passover kashrut policy and regular non-Passover kashrut, including Edam Cheese, a pound of Chicken, tomato sauce, a 2 liter bottle of Coca-Cola and a tin pan, the Passover price was just above 15% more expensive at $21.44 compared with non-holiday pricing of $18.21. While the results are lacking a sufficiently large sample size and have a considerable margin of error, they certainly reflect many of the frustrations Jews face in preparing for Passover. For a holiday that spans eight days, including four days that revolve around large family-oriented meals, even the most marginal changes in price fluctuations can have serious consequences.
Largely insulated from the greater Jewish community, the UCLA Jewish community is often immune from many Jewish-specific problems. For starters, organizations and Jewish infrastructure on campus ensure that kosher Shabbat meals are provided free of charge for all. However, Passover marks a clear departure from this policy. This Passover, students were asked to cover the partial-costs of meals at Hillel and Chabad, ranging anywhere from $15 to $18 for lunches and $18 to $25 for dinners. While many students familiar with the free Shabbat meal policy saw the deviation as troubling, the problem harkens back to the market forces that seemingly drive the cost of Passover food higher.
Inasmuch as it seems expedient to point fingers — blaming grocers, manufacturers and even the organizations that supply rabbinic approval of food products — the true source of overly expensive food lies in a series of unique economic factors specific to Passover. For one, along with the celebration of Passover is an inherent growth in demand for foodstuffs. Not only does Passover require incessant cooking, and often entertaining guests, but it also demands that those celebrating purchase entirely new cooking ingredients without the ability to fallback on pre-Passover cooking supplies, such as spices and oils. This means that not only is the typical household cooking more for Passover, but it also needs an atypically large amount of supplies and ingredients. Therefore, basic laws of demand and supply would seemingly place upward pressure on prices.
Moreover, relative to non-kosher foods, kosher foods appear extraordinarily expensive. This apparent contrast can also be explained in economic terms. The American food manufacturing and processing industry is remarkably efficient, utilizing a concept economists like to call ‘economies of scale’ — whereby the production of large quantities of anything is done more cheaply than the production of a few. Much in the same way, Nabisco can cook a batch of cookies at a fraction of the cost it would take to do so at home. This same principle can be applied to Passover food production. Relative to the American food industry and even that of the annual and regular kosher industry, Passover food represents a much smaller and constricted market. It is an industry consisting of only several million consumers and lasts just over a single week, ensuring that food processors and manufacturers cannot utilize economies of scale to reduce prices. However, the grocers are also intimately involved in the process of setting prices.
In perhaps the most Bazaar-like shopping experience in America, whereby a cacophony of foreign languages and exotic smells bombard customers, shopping in any of the kosher markets that line the intersection of Pico and Robertson is rightfully a unique experience in its own right. Passover is no different. Inasmuch as the discordance and chaos of Passover shopping might leave a shopper with the impression of disorganization and bedlam on behalf of the grocers, prices are actually set by seemingly complex market interactions. On Passover, grocers take considerable risks to ensure sufficient inventory for shoppers. Embedded in the higher-than-average pricing is the fact that grocers are often stuck with surplus Passover food after Passover, when the demand is just about gone altogether.
Ultimately, the question remains: what response does a 17% price hike in kosher for Passover food warrant? At its most rudimentary level, price gauging and profiteering seem like probable culprits. However, with further inspection, the mechanisms that control the cost of food are far more complex than initially perceived. It is important to understand that the nexus of Judaism and contemporary society has the tendency to create many peculiarities. Similarly, yet on the other end of the spectrum, stands a report from the Wall Street Journal of the exorbitant and luxurious Passover retreats that depict the extravagance and often six figure price tags of renowned Passover getaway programs. These retreats, too, are reflective of the strange condition of contemporary Judaism. While there is no fault in continuing to kvetch over rising prices, it is important to not let the seemingly unreasonable conditions around us deflect our attention away from the meaning of Passover. After all, spending a bit more for a holiday that asks you to consider your history of having less seems fitting.