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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Conscience of Kosher: Baby Moses, Bugs, and an Eight Dollar a Plate Wedding

(I have to apologize for my absence. I was away in New York and did not think to leave a note. As usual, my thoughts today are more impressionistic than objective.)

Thursday 11pm. Central Avenue, The Five Towns, New York.

My brother and I walked into a kosher shwarma shop filled with men and meat. There are Yeshiva students and Kollelman and several middle-aged fathers treating their middle-school sons.

A spit of Shwarma turns slowly, dripping fat and grease. A mist of vapor wafts from a vat of cholentbeef-chunks and bone jutting from the surface. Yet my eye is drawn to the cashier's counter where several hundred pigs-in-a-blanket rest tantalizingly on a large baking tray. In Hebrew--and to avoid aspersions to pork--the expression is Moshe b'Tayvah: 'Moses in his Basket.' And after my long and nearly food-less flight from Los Angeles, it was with great difficulty that I fought the urge to stretch forth my hand over the Nile and to adopt just one little Moses. But I remembered the Law engraved in stone: Thou Shall Not Steal.

Meanwhile, it was not a moment after this resolution had begun to chasten the growling protests of my stomach that I witnessed (to my horror and sickening jealousy) the hand of another stretch forth and snatch a piping hot Moses and pop the blanket (pastry crust, sausage and all) into a bearded mouth.

My brother turned to the Cashier: "Are they free?"

"No, 50 cents each."

Another customer spoke: "What if I just take one?"

The cashier, perhaps seeing the shadow of club and caveman in his customer's meat-crazed eyes, muttered. "Just make sure its only one."

But the flood-banks had been opened. Another hand darted in and kidnapped a Moses. My brother looked at me: "No wonder why they're 50 cents each."

I decided to buy two, one for each of us. I don't like having to overpay on account of others' indiscretions. But it seemed right to reward self-control with sausage.

Later, while waiting for a grilled chicken laffa at the pick-up counter, I observed another hand reach over the counter and sink into a large bowl of fries. I stared at this fellow, shocked by how a single individual can have so little respect for ownership, propriety, or even modern hygiene. He must have registered something of my horror. "Why are you looking at me as if I am crazy?" he asked. He had a point. In the city of the insane, the man who takes his medication is thought to be mad.

The following day, my brother and I went Jewish book hunting in Borough Park. My brother considers most of Brooklyn to be a giant mental hospital. I disagree. It's more like a mental hospital  inside of a prison that leases office space next to a sewage plant. But one shouldn't judge, a good many New Yorkers assume that Los Angeles has more rehab centers than Starbucks coffee shops and anyone who is unemployed can simply become an 'extra' on a movie set. After buying close to our weight in Jewish books, we head to a Borough Park bagel shop.

My brother ordered a falafel. But after the previous night, I didn't want to see anything fried ever again. I ordered a bagel as did the woman behind me, but she was attended to first. There are unwritten rules in certain New York food establishments: 1. There is no such thing as sequential service. The person who orders after you is just as likely to be served first, so too is the family of eight that walked in twenty minutes after you did.  2) There are no such things as lines. People call out what they want. If you try to make a line, people will cut.

Back to our story.

The Sandwich-Man asked the Woman: 'What kind of bagel?'

Woman: 'A white one.'

Sandwich-Man: 'Is this one white enough?'

Woman: 'Yeah, can you order me a cab?'

(I exchanged a look with my brother that says: 'Can you really order a cab in a bagel shop?' Well, yes, apparently.)

Sandwich-Man: 'What company?'
Woman: (muttered something)

Sandwich-Man snatched a hand-held phone and shoved it over the counter: 'Here.'

Later, my brother tells me that that was a very polite conversation. But back to our story.

Sandwich-Man to me: 'So what do you want on your bagel?'
Me: 'Do you have cream cheese?'
Sandwich-Man: 'Yeah, we got cream cheese.'
Me: 'Do you have lox?'
Sandwich-Man: 'Got that too. Anything else?'

I looked at the rather dead looking iceberg salad. "Do you check the lettuce for bugs?"

Sandwich-Man: 'Of course we check it for bugs.'

But the honest word of a Sandwich-Man is not enough in Borough Park, so the owner of the store rambled over.  "Four rabbis check it for bugs--an Ashkenazi, a Sephardi, a Hasidic rabbi and the Mashgiach."

The owner sports a smart salt-and-pepper beard, a dark velvet skullcap, and a buttoned white shirt with several smudges. The twinkle in his eye assures me that even he thinks four lettuce-checkers is a little absurd.

"I am sure they did," I say, "but who checks the rabbis?"

On Sunday, I attended a very special wedding of two very special people in Riverdale, NY. Now, as both bride and groom are vegetarians it was no surprise that the food was dairy. What was a surprise were the baskets laid out in the lobby, asking guests to donate to one (or more) of three causes: 1) An organization that feeds hungry children, 2) a wedding fund for poor brides and grooms, and 3) a social justice organization.

After the ceremony, a very modest meal was set-up breakfast buffet style. (The highlight for me were the French toast and pancakes.) The message was obvious. There are other worthy places to invest money. It is not necessary to have endless trays of sushi and sashimi, speared roast beef and of course, piles and piles of pigs-in-a-blanket.

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