'A closeness to God' at Passover Being Orthodox in Baltimore


At Passover, the weeklong commemoration of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, religious law commands Jews to banish all traces of leavened grain from their possession.

To meet that requirement this year, an Orthodox Jew brought his wife's wedding rings to a Baltimore synagogue to dip them in a kettle of boiling water.

He explained: "With the rings on, [she] bakes."

Perhaps no Jewish holiday is observed by more Jews than Passover, which began Friday and lasts until sundown Saturday.

Even Jews who ignore Judaism the rest of the year often find themselves at a Passover table each spring with friends, relatives and a strange face or two -- a people gathered to pray, sing, drink wine, eat bitter herbs with unleavened bread and listen to the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery.

For most, it is a night of kinship and symbolism, a time to reflect on the good fortune of living in a free country or to ponder personal problems from which they hope to be freed.

But for Orthodox Jews, the observance is literal: a transcending of time back to the hasty exit from a wicked Pharaoh, some 3,300 years ago, an escape so swift that there wasn't even time for their dough to rise.

"Just to commemorate a day on the calendar, be it George Washington's birthday or something religious, is a shallow understanding," said Baltimorean Peysach Diskind. His first name is Hebrew for Passover, symbolic of the avenging angels who "passed over" Jewish homes as they slew the first-born sons of Egypt.

"We look at the calendar not as a line but as a spiral," he said. "When we land on Passover, we are actually standing on that same moment in time as the Jews who left Egypt. Granted, there's a dimension removing us from them, but we are there."

Extraordinary lengths

In fact, every Jew is commanded to experience Passover "as if they had just come out of Egypt," and the Orthodox go to extraordinary lengths to do so.

"We are obligated to feel as if we ourselves have gone out of slavery, but how do you [make] that tangible?" asked Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of the Agudath Israel congregation on Park Heights Avenue. "To an Orthodox Jew, the main part of Passover not the meal, it's fulfilling the requirements [to create] a period of elevation, a closeness to God."

To this end, Orthodox families clean their homes to remove every scintilla of leavened food, called "chometz." They yank the stove away from the wall, search purses for wedding rice, and vacuum in places a vacuum seldom sees.

The cleaning lasts for weeks. At Sinai Hospital, crews use steam hoses on the kitchen. Some families go so far as to use a blow torch to purge baking pans, later presenting entire cabinets of pots and pans for rabbinical approval before the ritual immersion in boiling water.

The Orthodox rid themselves of chometz several ways. Business inventories, such as cereal or liquor, are sold for nominal fees to non-Jews, with the understanding that they will be sold back after Passover. A jar of mustard might be given to a gentile friend. Scraps of bread, a lone waffle in the back of the freezer and vacuum cleaner bags thick with bits of crust are tossed out.

'Connect with God'

"We started weeks ago," Miriam Lowenbraun said last week, as she directed her husband, children and hired help in cleaning her Park Heights Avenue kitchen. "You connect with God every step of the way."

However intense, simple cleaning is insufficient, and the law is not fulfilled until each family burns some chometz.

Shortly after dawn Friday, hours before sunset ushered in another Passover, some 1,200 families brought more than a ton of scraps and crumbs to the Glen Avenue firehouse in Mount Washington to be burned or taken to landfills.

The fire burned all morning. As it did, local Orthodoxy's two Hasidic congregations prepared to make unleavened bread by hand at a South Baltimore matzo factory. From the aged and learned Rabbi Amram Taub down to first-graders with red cheeks and side curls, the West Street factory was lined with Jews for whom machine-made matzo would not do.

In the next room, a brick oven stoked with logs waited to receive the flat, round cakes. About every quarter-hour, a timer went off, warning the bakers they had a few minutes left to wash their hands and burn old dough before it began to rise on room temperature. No dough was left unattended.

"For us, there's a special [blessing] to make our own matzo," said Rabbi Yitzchok Neger, president of the Machzekai Torah congregation on Biltmore Avenue. "Our baking of the matzo puts us back thousands of years in Egypt. By experiencing that, we can actually praise the Lord for liberation."

Second Seder

At some Orthodox Seder meals around town Friday, spirited songs of praise marked by a beating of fists on the table lasted until 3 o'clock in the morning, long after most non-Orthodox Jews had eaten and gone to sleep. A second Seder was held Saturday evening and by the beginning of this week, the holiday had entered its less sacred middle phase known as "chol hamoed."

If they can manage it, the Orthodox will take the week off from work and plan family picnics or outings to museums or the zoo. Many remain in holiday or Sabbath dress, with male Hassidim wearing their traditional fur hats throughout the week. The Orthodox will "bid farewell" to Passover between their afternoon and evening prayers Saturday, when families gather for "the third meal" -- light food with songs, wine and Bible readings.

"On the eight days of Passover, an Orthodox Jew is not part of the Jewish-American culture or the Judeo-Christian culture, an Orioles fan or a psychologist," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Shomrei Emunah congregation. "On Passover, we experience pure, unadulterated Jewishness."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad