Who's buying your hametz?

Agents conducting these sales should not automatically discount the possibility that the buyer may be Jewish.

By BARRY NEWMAN
April 1, 2007 21:23
4 minute read.
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Todd was blond and ruddy-faced. He started each day with a breakfast of steak and eggs, and most Saturdays would find him in the company of a couple of six packs, glued to a television, watching souped-up cars race around a track at breakneck speeds. Despite our differences, though, I thoroughly liked him and was sorry when he decided to leave the New York-based company we were both employed with for a position in Atlanta. And despite my discomfort at going into bars and cocktail lounges, I joined a number of other co-workers one evening in a Manhattan watering hole to hoist a few and wish Todd the best of luck in his upcoming venture. I was on my third Jack Daniels, I guess, when Jewish subjects became the topic of conversation around the table. With practiced patience I responded to the usual questions - explaining that kosher means more than food that has been blessed by a rabbi, and that the benediction I made before my first drink did not exactly translate as "Bottoms up." An eyebrow or two was raised in skepticism as I went through some of the workarounds that have been developed over the centuries to deal with Shabbat restrictions, and I managed to suppress a smile when someone asked if I wear my yarmulke while in the shower. But it was when the topic of intermarriage was brought up that Todd nonchalantly told me that his wife's late grandparents were in fact an intermarried couple. Recalling that Todd had become a father for the first time not too long ago, I quickly sobered up. "Just out of curiosity, Todd," I said, "tell me, do you by any chance know which of your wife's grandparents happened to be Jewish?" "Her grandmother," he replied, smiling ever so slightly. "Her maternal grandmother, to be exact." I thought for a second, mentally climbing down the branches of Todd's family tree. "Look," I slowly ventured, "this really isn't any of my business, but are you aware that your son is, according to Jewish tradition, Jewish?" Todd nodded. "Yeah, so I heard," he answered, "Sheila's uncle said something about that a few months ago. Doesn't make any difference, though, since neither of us are much on religion. "Oh, and if you're wondering - yes, we did have Michael, you know, snipped. But not because of the Jewish thing. We did it for health and hygienic reasons, in the hospital by a doctor." Before I had a chance to say anything further he changed the subject, and the rest of the evening was spent comparing the cost of living between Georgia and New York, the nature of the company he was soon going to be working for and the stock car race track not far from Atlanta where he intended to be a regular visitor. I THOUGHT of Todd and his son a day or two ago amid Pessah preparations, when the start of the annual sale of hametz was announced. Somebody wondered if it wouldn't be preferable for the Rabbinate to sell the national hametz to one of the many Christian Evangelicals living here rather than to an Arab, as is usually done. You know, as a gesture symbolizing the trust and friendship that has been developed over the years between that group and the State of Israel. Actually it wouldn't be, a rabbi explained, pointing out that the historical tapestry of Europe, in concert with intermarriage, played havoc with Jewish lineage and descent, and Jewish genealogy has been subject to more than a little confusion. Although not unheard of, Jewish-Muslim intermarriage is far less acceptable in Arab culture and tradition. Selling the hametz to an Arab thus greatly lessens the risk that a Jew is in fact doing the buying. The sale that takes place is, of course, more than a technical loophole that prevents the necessity of throwing out or giving away hametz-based products before the start of Pessah. It's accomplished through a complex and legally binding contract in which the party of the second part must be a non-Jew, and not merely a non-practicing Jew. I WONDER, though, how careful our agents conducting these sales are about this very important condition. In the United States, for example, intermarriage and non-denominational secularism is nearly the rule rather than the exception, making it not at all unlikely that the non-Jewish partner buying the pasta, cookies and pretzels may be Jewish to the core. It's Pessah, in fact, that puts a unique twist on the ongoing and seemingly endless "Who Is a Jew?" argument. A lot has been written over the past year or so on the subject of Jewish demography, and various reports have been issued with conflicting numbers of precisely how many Jews there are. I haven't, admittedly, studied these reports, but what I have noticed is that they focus mainly on those Jews who raise their hands in one way or another to be counted. A crack in the fissure, though, finds more than a few who are 100% Jewish in the eyes of the Torah, but regard themselves as anything but, or may not even know they are. My hope is Todd's son Michael is not among them. I'd like to think that the 26-year-old has somehow or other been made aware of his roots and is now engaged in readying his home for tonight's holiday. And as he gives his rabbi the power of representation to sell the hametz on his behalf, he'll smile and just casually suggest that a bit of caution be exercised when entering into the agreement. "After all," I can hear him saying. "there's probably more Jews out there then you're aware of. You wouldn't want to inadvertently sell the hametz to one of us, would you?"

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