Wednesday, May 11, 2016

May 11, 2016--Kosher Pot

My first job was delivering groceries for the owner of Friedman's on Church Avenue in East Flatbush.

I worked for tips--a dime was the usual gratuity with the very occasional quarter from the few more successful gentile neighbors like Mrs. Smith, wife of Dr. Smith who owned the nearby pharmacy. He wasn't an actual doctor but that's what we called him, especially at those times when he would dispense medications without a prescription, remove a cinder from someone's eye, or dig out a splinter with a hopefully sterilized needle. For these we preferred to think we were in a doctor's hands.

In truth, rather than delivering cheese, dried goods, and paper products, I preferred to linger with Mr. Friedman and, when there was a lull, when we were the only two people there, listen to him tell stories about the "old country." Very much including the pogroms he experienced when he was my age. I was eleven at the time.

I tired to imagine what that would have been like and how I would have fared. Not feeling good about my robustness, I suspected I would not have endured as I could not find anything within myself to match his powerful will or survival instincts.

One bleak afternoon, with the skies threatening and the store lights half extinguished, since no one was shopping, haltingly, I confessed this to him.

With his liquid eyes fixed on me, he put his hand on my shoulder and in his thick accent assured me how I would "be surprised." And he confessed, "About myself I used to think the same way. Now, look at me. I'm here. Such as it is, I live."

He shrugged, smiled enigmatically, and spread his arms to their full span as if encouraging me to examine him and thereby find assurance that I too had what it takes. As if to say, "This is all I am. As is also true for you. Just flesh."

One afternoon, a few days before the first night of Passover, Mr. Friedman asked if I could stay late and help him with something. I felt honored by that as it was clear that whatever it was he needed to do would require just the two of us.

I said I very much wanted to but needed to ask my mother if it was all right. "About how late will you need me?" I asked, knowing that would be her main concern.

"Maybe to eight o'clock."

I ran the two blocks to our apartment and, gasping for air, told my mother about Mr. Friedman's request. Without asking why, which I would not have been able to say, she said, "Make sure you take a sweater. When you come home it will be cold out."

I raced back to the store with my long-sleeve sweater tied around my waist.

"Come with me to the back," he said. That was his sanctuary. No one was allowed to go behind the curtain that provided privacy.

There was a cot, small light, and a battered table on which there were copies of the Daily News, the New York Post, and a cigar box that he moved close to the light so I could see what it contained.

"You know about Passover?" he said.

"You mean the matzoh and Four Questions?" There was a lot more I could have added.

"I mean about kosher."

"I know that we eat only things that are considered kosher for the seders."

"So you know about kosher for Pesach?"

"I'm not sure I know what you think I know," I said avoiding eye contact.

"How there is kosher and then there is kosher."

He could see I was confused so he said, "There is the regular kosher for every time of the year except Pesach. And then there is kosher for Passover."

"I know about that," I said, feeling good that I understood. "There are even separate Passover dishes."

"So, tonight," he said, smiling more than I had ever seen, "Tonight you will make kosher."

Again, I was confused. Sensing that he said,"In this box," he tapped the cover of the cigar box, "is what you need to make kosher. For Pesach."

"Make kosher? Don't the rabbis do that and . . ."

"Gonifs," he snorted. "Criminals."

"You mean the rabbis?" I was shocked to hear him say that. I always thought . . .

"With their hands out they come around schnorring."


"To make kosher for Passover. Take the matzoh meal. Does your mother make matzoh ball soup?"

"She does, but . . ."

"It's supposed to be made especially for Passover. Not the matzoh meal we have in the store for the rest of the year."

"And . . . ?" I was surprised at my persistence, that I just didn't stand there nodding my head, pretending I understood.

"Two kinds matzoh meal. Mashuggah."

"So . . . ?"

"So, tonight you are making the matzoh and the dairy kosher for Pesach."

"Me? How?"

"With this box." He handed the cigar box to me. "With the labels in the box. Take one out."

I opened the lid slowly for fear that it might emit some dangerous emanation. But instead I found a benign stack of Kosher for Pesach labels.

"Go back outside," Mr. Friedman said, taking hold of my shoulders and turning me firmly toward the curtain that led back to the store. And with my back to him, just before giving me a gentle push forward, said, "Go and make kosher. I'd rather pay you than those gonif rabbis."

And with that, as if in a Hasid trance, I headed to the aisle where the matzoh products were shelved and from the top shelf down affixed Kosher for Pesach labels on all the boxes.

From the back room, Mr. Friedman called to me, "And don't forget the milk and cream in the refrigerator."

I was reminded of this passage-to-adulthood experience when reading the other day in the New York Times about how the Orthodox Union, the group that presides over the kosher laws in America--decides what is or isn't suitable to be considered kosher and thereby secure the coveted OU label--is struggling with how to think about the inexorable movement in American to make marijuana legal--for both medicinal and recreational purposes.

They have apparently agreed that since marijuana is not used to cure illnesses but to ameliorate pain and nausea, that for orthodox Jews to use it for those purposes it must be judged to be kosher, which, among other things means that the pot plants must be grown in an insect-free environment since, with few exceptions such as for locusts, insects are not kosher. (Fired locusts, FYI, is a popular snack among Israelis.)

If it were to be used to cure illnesses, even if the medicine contained bacon fat, it would be permissible. The kosher designation would not be necessary. The rabbis can be quite flexible when it comes to certain kind of meds.

So, representatives of the OU are making the rounds of those marijuana farmers who are seeking their endorsement in order to expand their businesses.

One thing Orthodox Union leaders have already decided is not to consider recreational use of pot to be eligible for kosher-bosher designation. So, when in Colorado and looking for some Alice B. Toklas brownies, don't expect to find packages with the OU seal. You're on your own.

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