The other day someone asked what my plans are for Purim. I think, like every other parent of food-allergic children, my heart skipped a beat and sunk to my feet . . .
By: Sara Atkins
The other day someone asked what my plans are for Purim. I think, like every other parent of food-allergic children, my heart skipped a beat and sunk to my feet. Not this time of year again! Purim should be filled with fun, excitement, and laughs, but for a family dealing with food allergies, it’s pure fear.
If we go to the Megillah reading, what nosh will be around? What will be in the mishloach manot (food baskets) that people send us? Will anyone bother to even send them to us? What do we do about the Purim seudah (festive meal)? Do we go to the community event or stay home once again? How do I make it so my children can feel the excitement and fun of the Purim holiday and not feel left out and depressed?
Three weeks before my middle son’s first Purim (four years ago), we learned that he was allergic to wheat and anaphylactic to eggs (this means a potentially deadly reaction if not immediately treated). At the time, we were still waiting to find out the extent of his food allergies. We knew of these two because he had eaten one of his older brother’s pancakes and had his first anaphylactic reaction. So, only weeks away from Purim and not fully understanding what was okay and what was not, we realized this was going to be a hard holiday.
Between doctor appointments and packing for our move to a new house, I accepted a friend’s invitation for the Purim meal. Purim night came and at the Megillah reading, I noticed my son become more and more blotchy, and soon he was breaking out in hives. Who knew what he was reacting to, but that ended the night pretty quickly. The next day, as the mishloach manot started arriving, my tears poured harder and harder as I realized that none of the Purim treats were safe.
Only days before, our allergist had restricted us from all of the top eight allergens (wheat, egg, peanut, tree nuts, shellfish (which are not kosher in any case), fish, soy and dairy). It didn’t leave us with much to eat, but it was just enough to get by, as long as I was cooking. At the Purim meal, I felt left out and anything but joyous. As a nursing mother, I too was on a total elimination diet from all his allergens and suspected allergens. This meant that I couldn’t eat any of the food, and food is so much a part of this holiday.
I decided then and there that the next year we would make the meal at home, as I wanted my son to get to be a part of the experience. His list of allergens had already grown from the year before to almost twenty fully diagnosed food allergies. We would start new traditions.
So when the next year came, at the Megillah reading, we sat outside and watched as everyone enjoyed the festivities. I had brought his safe cookies for him to eat, but as I looked at his face, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He knew he was missing out. The next day he refused to go with his father to deliver the Purim baskets, and even though we offered him as many of his safe cookies as he wanted, all he really wanted was his big brother’s hamantash.
That year, most people did not bother sending us mishloach manot, and let me know they just didn’t know what was safe. That’s when I got my bright idea to spend the coming year perfecting a mishloach manot that was safe for his allergens, and one that he could share with the community. It would bring awareness to other people and excitement for him.
By my son’s third Purim, his baby sister joined him in the food allergy world. By then we were pros at this. Though she threw us some challenges by being anaphylactic to foods like chicken and chocolate, I was still determined to make my son’s Purim the best ever. My son got all dressed for the Megillah reading, and with a beaming smile, grabbed his bag of goodies to share with his friends. He had handmade chocolates, gluten-free hamantashen, and boxes of apple juice. He also made his own gragger (noisemaker) out of materials that were latex-free and safe for him to touch, as the synagogue ones would be covered with his allergens.
His smile during the Megillah reading was infectious! He shook his gragger harder than I have ever seen, as if he was making up for the past years. And the best part of it, when it came time for everyone to be eating and having a grand old party, he chose to stay with his baby sister and make her laugh so that she would not feel left out.
The next day, he proudly delivered his mishloach manot to everyone in the community. It contained a message explaining food allergies, and how he had taken his own pushka (charity box) money and had given it as a donation in the name of his community to an online support group I am a part of, consisting mainly of Jewish families. It is through them I got the strength to continue, and to make events like Purim as special as they would be if we didn’t have food allergies.
That year, also, we didn’t really get any mishloach manot. But it didn’t matter, as we had found a way to make it exciting again. We realized it’s not really about the food, but about how we go mentally into the holiday. Last year we went into the holiday feeling completely joyous, and the holiday was truly a happy one.
So now, here we are again. Purim is around the corner. This year, my son has been counting down the days. My kids are constantly dancing and singing on top of their lungs, “Mishenichnas Adar, Marbim B’Simcha!”—when Adar comes in, we increase in our joy. He has his costume picked out, and he has been telling me all the different things he wants to put in his mishloach manot this year.