Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Kosher for Passover

The traditional Seder plate. All of the food here is symbolic of the Hebrew slaves departure from Egypt and of course, kosher.
I had a moment with our Rabbi last night at the evening prayers. For those of you who don’t know we are amidst Passover right now, and here in Pinsk this means eight days of temple going and giving it the old college try at keeping kosher for Passover. Kosher for Passover is a different deal than general kosher because it also precludes the use of wheat or wheat flower as well as grains in general (It is bit more than just leavened bread) which are known in Hebrew as chametz. Chametz is the reason why we eat Matzo and not bread on this holiday. Chametz is against the rules.

The conversation with the rabbi concerned how much preparation I could do up at our farm. In general on the first two days of Passover any kind of work is prohibited and the days are treated as if they were Shabbos, the day of rest. This is also true for the last two days, but the intermediate days known as Chol Ha-moed are more or less free days, and some work is permissible. The operative phrase here though is some work, because there are still quite a few restrictions.

I had already spoken to Rabbi Berman about this and had received a much easier ruling to deal with. The deal is that Christian Pascha (Orthodox Easter) is coming next Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The locals will do no work on those days and immediately after starts the planting season which means that every single dacha farm from Ukraine to Estonia will be going full-on come Wednesday and there will not be a single horse, plough or man available for days or even weeks. Jewish Passover restricts me from doing any work Wednesday and Thursday and Shabbos wipes out my Saturday so this left only Monday and Tuesday free. At first he had advised against doing any farm work, but then I told him about how the Passover schedule had left us only three days this week to work with he gave in and said that I could go ahead and get the field plowed.

But Rabbi Fhima took a much harder line against my askance yesterday. He even pulled out the Talmud and quoted where it specifically says that you may not lay any fertilizer on your field during these days and you may not even allow your sheep and goats to wander out onto the field where they might let a few fertilizer plops drop on their own. R’ Berman argued I my defense saying that R’ Fhima was being a little fast here and that the situation was going to play hell with our season if we didn’t get at least get the tractoring done. R’ Fhima finally relented (Thank G-d) advising me to at least make sure that tractor driver wasn’t Jewish.

So basically you can see how perilous being an observant Jew can be sometimes.

Another good example of this came on Friday night. Now Friday night starts our Shabbos and really, no work is allowed on this day and this is a serious deal to be sure. But this isn’t to say that you can’t be friendly. So after temple on Friday, I fund myself walking home with a friend. Well, we had not ever spent all that much time together and neither of us had anything particularly to do, and so we began to speak about perhaps sitting down together and sharing a small libation in honor of the friendship. This is of course a normal thing to do, neither of us had any particular objections to doing a little drinking, having 100 grams or so (Russian slang for a shot-glass of vodka) makes for a good social lubricant and so after haggling about whether we wanted to drink beer or vodka, we decided on both and happily marched over to the local liquor store for a couple of bottles.

“Wait a minute,” I said as we were still across the street from the store, “we have a problem. How are we supposed to transport the bottles back to my house? We are not allowed to carry. And for that matter, I can’t even pay because this is also not allowed.”

“I can do that.” My friend chirped in, “My mother wasn’t Jewish, only my father. I can do whatever I want.”

“But you are so serious. You always wear a yarmulke and tzitzit (prayer tassels, fringes on a male's prayer shawl that are worn under his shirt).”

“I didn’t say I liked the situation, I only said that I could if I wanted to.”

“Oh.” So we went up the steps and I handed him a 20,000 note. “I can’t pay either. I basically shouldn’t have even had this money on me, but it was in my pants when I put them on.” He nodded at me that he understood. We picked out a bottle of what was labeled as grape juice vodka and two bottle of beer and he paid and pocketed the change. He carried the bottles back to our apartment.

“Just a second,” I said as we got to the house, “give me a second to make sure that Tatyana is decent. You know, female modesty and all.”

“Of course.” I made sure to knock instead of ringing the bell. Egor answered the door. I saw that his desk was full of papers and the light was on. I was about to get angry that he had not finished his homework but Tatyana was flying down the corridor to defend him. Her story was that he played in a chess club tournament that afternoon and had been late because of that. He hadn’t had a chance until now to do his homework and so he was fast at work. I glanced at my friend in the corridor.

“But he is working and writing.” I whispered, “It’s Shabbos already.” She gave me a blank look. All the lights in the house were off but I could see the television running in the bedroom. I made an imploring face at here but she still didn’t get it. “Can you at least put something on; I have a guest in the corridor.”

As we were taking off our shoes I made a point of telling him that I had yet to fully realize Shabbos here and as a for instance there were still several things that I still did such as turning on and off the lights. I understand that the rabbi’s just leave theirs turned on all the time but I have not yet allowed myself to do this because of the cost. I mean I live in Belarus. He said he completely understood.

We went into the kitchen and I pulled out a couple of shot glasses and made sure to rinse them in cold water. The thing of it is,” he started, “I really don’t find the restrictions of Shabbos to be all that much of a problem.”

“They say that eventually you are supposed to find great joy in them.”

“Exactly, and sometimes I really feel like I can feel this.”

“Well here.” I gave him a glass of grandpa’s famous homemade for a starter. “Feel this.”

“La Chaim” He offered.

“Wait a second.” I stopped him. “You know, the trick of Belarusian drinking is that all of the drinks must be done as a toast, but more specifically, we have to agree on what we are drinking to. You can’t lie or the emotions get all tangled up and you have a bad sitting.”

“I completely agree,” He answered, “ but in Jewish toasting, it is always best to simply say La Chaim, which means “To Life.”.

“I understand what La Chaim means; I was just thinking we were going into this first glass a little quickly. Actually I had something I wanted to say. I am not opposed to the toast; I just wanted to say something as well.”

“Please, I am sorry, go right ahead.”

“No, it was just that I wanted to say something about this vodka. It is really old, 30 years in fact, and I wanted to say that it will probably be the best vodka you have ever had in your life. It is completely painless, there is never a headache and the feeling you get from drinking it is rather exquisite. I would probably value it at about $1000 a bottle. So you know, I just wanted to say this before we started throwing it back like it was nothing.” The remark about the money had him blinking.

“Is it really $1000 a bottle?”

“No, it’s not from the store. I really don’t know how much it costs, but I am just saying that it is really old and really good and that we should take some notice of this before starting out. Actually, it has a name.”


“Yea, it is called “I love you.” Not just love, but seriously: I love you. It has this name because of how it treats you. You’ll understand once you try it.”

He looked at the glass with a measure of new interest. He looked at me to see if I was now ready I nodded that I was and he offered another La Chaim. I repeated the toast and we drank. Warm silk. He sat there allowing the liquor to do its will inside him. He started to smile at me.

“You’re right about this. It is amazing.”

“I love you.”

“It’s a good name.”

“I think so. But it’s a shame we have to move over to this other stuff.” I got up and went to Tatyana for her to open the bottles for us. I then laid out some matso and some fish that was in the refrigerator.

“You know, we didn’t say a broche (prayer) before drinking.”

“No, we didn’t. That’s not good.”

“No. I think vodka would be "baruch ata Adonai, eluheinu melech haolom, shehakol negea bidvaro".”

“Yea, I agree, anything to drink but for grape juice or wine is shehakol.” A grim moment because of the failure to remember to bless the vodka before drinking it. .

We talked about the synagogue for a bit and about the school. We gabbed a bit about the rabbis and I mentioned I was studying Tanya with R’ Dovid on Sundays. “Do you really get to study with him one on one?”

“Yea, it’s great. The guy is brilliant. He always comes up with something you have never heard before. And you can see that he really loves it and believes.”

“What is Tanya?”

“The Tanya is a book about the soul and about how one goes about dealing with being Jewish. It was written by R. Shneur-Zalman, the Alta Rebbe of the Lubevich dynasty, You now, ChaBaD.”


“Yea, it’s cool. I like it.” We both then lifted our beer bottles. He offered another La Chaim, but I argued that we shouldn’t bother toasting with the beer. That was what vodka was for. Beer should be taken as needed and nothing more. He argued back that a toast was simply a sign of friendship and togetherness and perhaps I should just accept the gesture without protest. I thought this a good enough argument, so I lifted the bottle towards him, we clicked and had a drink and this is when a really horrible thought struck me.

“Oh shit!”


“What are we doing? This is beer.”

“Yea, so?”

Belaruskaya beer. Definitely not kosher for Passover
“Chametz! Beer is the definition of chametz. It’s made from barley. Chametz. And not only that, it all nothing but fermented barley! This is the quintessence of chametz!”

“Oh shit.” He said. I jumped up and poured the bottles down the sink.

“What in hell were we thinking?”

“This is really bad.” We sat looking at each other for a moment.

“Ok listen,” I said, “We have two ways to go on this. On the one hand, we can tell people and it will be a funny story, kind of.”

“What do you mean “kind of”?”

“Well, when you tell stories of other people’s stupidity it is funny. When you tell them on yourself, it is more stupid.”

“I see what you mean. What is your other option?”

“We make it our secret. We never tell anybody what we did. It never happened and that’s all.”

He sat thinking about this for a while. “Look,” he said, “obviously we have made an error innocently. I mean beer is kosher normally, it’s just not kosher for Passover.”

“Yes, and neither of us is such an expert on Judaism.”

“We try!”

“Yea, we try. We definitely try. There is no question of that.”

“None at all.”

“So absolutely this was an innocent mistake.”

“Yes, a stupid innocent mistake, but an innocent mistake nonetheless.” We both felt much better.

“OK, I agree.” he said, “It’s our secret. But for sure, we add this in when we do the Shemoneh Esreh”

“Done.” We shook hands on it.

We sat quietly for a moment. “You know,” I piped up, “I wrote this interesting piece for my blog today…”

“You wrote today?”

“Yea, I wrote for my blog. You know, the BEING HAD Blo…”

“You wrote on Yom Tov?”

“I’m sorry…?”

“Today was the second day of Passover. Writing was absolutely forbidden.”

“What are you talking about? It said very specifically in the prayers that there was to be no work done on the first day. It didn’t say anything about the first two days.”

“That’s in Israel. In Israel they only celebrate Passover seven days and have only one Seder. We have two Seders on the first and second nights.”

“But wasn’t today the third day?”

“Use your head; two Seders and tonight. We start the holiday at sundown.”

“Oh no.”

“That’s right.”

“I am not doing very well at all am I?”

“They say keeping kosher is a really hard thing to do.”

“Well we definitely blew it tonight.”

“Yea we did.” There was a pause and then I reached for the bottle of vodka.

“Well, at least we have this bottle.” He nodded agreement as I poured out to shots of the grape juice vodka. “La Chaim!”

“La Chaim.” We drank. Drano going down rusty pipes.


“Makes grandpa look really good about now, huh?”

“Absolutely.” We sat the grimacing for a moment and then suddenly he blurted out: “Oh Shit!”

Brestskaya Vodka. Normally kosher, just not for Passover.
“What now?”

“We can’t drink this either.”


“Read the label: This is made from Zernovogo (grain) spirits.”


“Chametz!” This was getting to be too much.

“I am not pouring that bottle down the sink no matter how crappy it is.”

“Nobody expects you too.”

“Nu.” We sat staring at each other for a few minutes. “Do they sell kosher wine over at the store?”

“It’s closed.”

“Right.” We sat in full silence for about five minutes. We were both pretty irritated. Sometimes you know that social lubricant is kind of needed.

“Well,” he said standing, “I guess I’ll be going.”

“Yea. I am sure we will have better luck at this next time.” He started to put on his coat. “Say, exactly how many laws did we break tonight anyway?”

“Well, let’s see: We carried, we bought, and you wrote and used the computer...”

“Right, that too.”

“We turned on the lights, the beer, the vodka…”

“We blew the broche.”

“Yea, the broche.”

“So how many is that?”

“Um, seven... eight with the broocha”

“Good grief.” I said. “But listen; let me prevent you from making a ninth.”


“Maybe you shouldn’t carry my change from the beer and the vodka. Perhaps you should let that stay here with me.” He gave me a harsh look and then dug into his pockets and found the bills. We shook hands and I closed the door after him.

This was not the sort of night I had in mind. I cleaned up the kitchen and once I had, I wondered if having cleaned up was work. It probably was. I went into the bedroom, got undressed and tried to get to go to sleep but couldn’t. I don’t know if I was irritated about the beer and the vodka or about how lousy I was at trying to be kosher for Passover. After about 15 minutes I sat up in the dark unable to sleep.

“This is ridiculous.” I thought to myself. But it was no use. So with whatever resignation came with the action, I picked up the clicker and turned on the TV.


Of course what was playing was Mel Gibson’s “Passion of Christ”.

More soon…