Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Ahead of Passover, Strict Standards Transform a Brooklyn Neighborhood 

On any ordinary day, yellow school buses with the Hebrew names of yeshivas dominate the ultra-Orthodox landscape of Borough Park, Brooklyn. But in the days before Passover, large trucks parked along many of the sidewalks are far more striking, particularly those bearing signs with a Hebrew word obscure even to most Jews: Sheimos.

An appliance store called The Buzz sells families the latest gear to prepare their traditional meals.

Sheimos (pronounced SHAME-os) is a term for religious books containing the Hebrew name of God that need to be ritually buried in the ground.

As Passover approaches, Orthodox Jews strive to rid their homes of even the slightest trace of bread or other unleavened grain products known as chametz, almost down to the molecule. Bibles, prayer books and volumes of Talmud receive a thorough airing as well, and the most dog-eared specimens are often discarded. But Jewish religious law considers throwing them in the trash a desecration.

So parked all day on many streets in Borough Park and nearby neighborhoods like Midwood are trucks whose drivers will carry books to a cemetery upstate for a fee of about $8 to $10 a box.

Passover preparations transform a neighborhood like Borough Park just as the Christmas season transforms the nation's Currier & Ives villages or the jostling sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. Passover, the eight-day holiday that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, an event that defines Jews as a people, consumes many Jews who observe it, but in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods the degree of fevered stringency can be breathtaking.

It is evident in the stacks of food processors for sale at The Buzz appliance store, with their special "kugel blades" for making a starchy pudding that does not require bread, or in bakeries that make matzos by hand within an exacting 18 minutes, or in garages equipped with vats of boiling water where Jews immerse cooking pots that might contain chametz. It is also evident in a seasonal uptick in employment, because the neighborhood has no shortage of experts in the finer points of fastidiously keeping kosher who supplement their livelihoods during Passover.

"God in Borough Park is like steel in Bethlehem," joked Alexander Rapaport, a Hasid who runs Masbia, a soup kitchen organization.

The first item a customer notices when entering Gourmet Glatt, a sparkling new emporium that resembles a Whole Foods, is not food, but a tall stack of Easy-Off. That is because among the first things a Hasidic homemaker does before preparing holiday dishes is clean the oven two or three times to make sure not even a speck of chametz from the past year contaminates those dishes.

Once inside the market there are other signs of how the holiday, known in Hebrew and Yiddish as Pesach, is observed with scrupulous rigorousness. The shelves are lined with brown butcher paper so that Passover products are not exposed to the year-round boards. There are two counters of vegetables — washed and unwashed. Although the Talmudic injunction is a matter of interpretation, many Orthodox families prefer their carrots, beets, radishes and parsnips straight from the soil, with granules of dark earth still clinging. That way they can wash the vegetables themselves and be sure, or as certain as humanly possible, that no grain alcohol or leavened grain byproducts touched them.

For the same reason, Hasidim will buy only unwaxed apples — the store has such a bin — and eat only gefilte fish made of carp because it can be bought live, assuring its purity.

"On Pesach people don't want anything chemical, even if it's not chametz," said Rabbi Shmuel Teitelbaum, the store's mashgiach, or kosher monitor.

Hasidim from the Belz sect will not touch garlic during the holiday. Not because garlic is chametz, but because generations ago in Europe garlic was preserved inside sacks of wheat. Since their ancestors did not eat garlic, Belz Hasidim will not eat garlic. Tradition is tradition.

The other day, Mordechai Rosenberg, a 50-year-old Bobov Hasid wearing an astrakhan fur hat, was pushing a cart loaded with boxes of sugared cereal made from potato starch. He felt compelled to explain to another Hasid that they were for his grandchildren.

"I eat what my parents taught me," he said. "I won't even put jam on my matzo because it could have a little drop of water that will mix with the matzo."


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