For the past ten years, Maine-born Kenden Alfond has lived and worked on humanitarian and development issues around the world with the United Nations and other NGOs, a career that was set in motion by a volunteer stint in India with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS).
Several years ago, she launched her website, Jewish Food Hero, “to nourish the minds, bodies and spirits of Jewish women around the globe,” and she recently released her first cookbook, The Jewish Food Hero Cookbook: 50 Simple Plant-Based Recipes for Your Holiday Meals, available in e-book format. Alfond chatted with JFE® via email from Cambodia, where she currently lives with her husband and daughter.
Jewish Food Experience®: You have lived in several places around the world. What is it like to celebrate Jewish holidays and live Jewishly in places in which there may not be a strong Jewish community? What do you enjoy most about living Jewishly abroad, and what is the hardest?
Kenden Alfond: The hardest part of living in places without a strong Jewish community is feeling alone and isolated, but I’ve also had the opportunity to meet Jewish people from all over the world who have welcomed me into their community holiday celebrations.
In Geneva, Switzerland, I met a French Orthodox Jewish woman at a small neighborhood park. Our children were the same age, and we spent many afternoons together. Even though our religious observance and education was not the same, she and her family welcomed us into their home and synagogue without judgment.
She hosted Purim in her apartment and invited me to come with my daughter, and when I arrived women and children were sitting around a large table covered with hamantashen and other treats. It was a Megillah reading for women. After the reading, I gave her mishloach manot (Purim basket) filled with homemade vegan cake, local vinegar and homemade peanut butter. She always thought my vegan eating ideas were endearing. She looked at the items in the basket and declared, “I am saving the peanut butter for my mother because she tried the last batch you made for us and enjoyed it so much she took it home with her.” It was really touching how her community was so kind to our family.
I am always Jewish no matter where I go in the world. Judaism enriches my life so I intentionally bring Judaism into my home by celebrating the holidays, inviting non-Jewish guests to join us, continuing my learning and by teaching Judaism to my daughter.
JFE: What are some Passover foods and traditions that you’ve incorporated into your repertoire?
KA: I now maintain a tradition of eating matzah “straight up” during Passover rather than eating rich matzah variations [or with toppings] during the week of Passover. My favorite way to enjoy matzah is by eating it while I sip black coffee in the morning. By eating it alone, I can focus on Passover as a time of food simplicity for my mind, body and spirit.
JFE: What is it like to celebrate Passover abroad?
KA: Celebrating Passover abroad is exciting because it allows our family to participate in community seders in various geographic locations. We’ve participated in Passover seders in Republic of Congo at the only synagogue in Sub-Saharan Africa, Geneva, Vietnam and Cambodia. The order of the Passover seder is always the same. What is different every year and in every location is listening to the stories (and not just the rabbis).
Last year we drove over five hours to reach Phnom Penh. We celebrated at the Chabad communal seder with Russian Jews that work in Iran, French Jews that were traveling through Asia, Israelis backpacking after their army service, English Jews who had lived in Asia for decades and a non-Jewish woman who had studied Judaism in college and loves to be a part of the Jewish holidays.
JFE: How do you keep it plant based and exciting throughout the holiday?
KA: Eating plant based during Passover is simple. There are so many delicious, whole foods we can enjoy during Passover! In The Jewish Food Hero Cookbook: 50 Simple Plant-Based Recipes for Your Holiday Meals, the Passover menu focuses on the fresh flavors and whole foods. The menu starts with a Chilled Pink Cucumber Soup and ends with a Pistachio Apple Cake. The main dish is a satisfying and delicious Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie. The recipes exclude meat, dairy, eggs and highly processed foods, but they aren’t missing flavor! Instead, they satisfy your cravings by satiating each of the five basic tastes.
JFE: How does your work influence your Judaism and your family’s eating habits and/or vice versa?
KA: My work demands that I learn more every day about Judaism (which I wanted). This knowledge inspires me to live a life inspired by Jewish ideals. My passion for healthy eating inspires me to serve the global Jewish community by creating beautiful and simple resources that allow Jewish cooks to include healthier food on their tables.
JFE: What’s next for you in terms of global destinations and culinary explorations?
KA: Our family is spending Pesach in Japan this year. Luckily we arrived before, giving us time to enjoy Japanese bagels before beginning our week of matzah!