Friday, April 18, 2008
Preparation for Passover
APRIL 17, 2008 - Akram Hassan (left) prepares meals at Kohn's Kosher Meat & Deli in Creve Coeur as Leonard Flaks (right in background) exits the kitchen.
Creve Coeur--Akram Ali-Hassan leaned against a walk-in refrigerator at Kohn's Kosher Meat and Deli Restaurant, taking a deep breath and rubbing his eyes.
Ali-Hassan, 54, had gotten about an hour of sleep the night before, and the night before that. A smudged Kohn's baseball cap perched on his head, and his white shirt, flecked with the odd food stain, drooped on his shoulders. He studied his worn hands.
"I scrubbed with these people for hours," he says. "My fingers are killing me." ast weekend Ali-Hassan and eight Kohn's co-workers spent about 14 hours, by his estimate, scouring and sanitizing Kohn's kitchen in preparation for Passover, which begins at sundown Saturday.
"We do the ovens, the stoves, the shelves," Ali-Hassan explained. "Everything is scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. They blow-torch the table tops, the tops of the stoves, all the ovens. Then we burn the oven on 550 just in case something got missed."
Every year Jews around the world go through a similar cleaning process, "kosherizing" their homes and businesses for Passover, which is celebrated with ritual meals and observed by more Jews than any other holiday.
"It's the Jewish spring cleaning," said Arlene A. Mathes-Scharf, a kosher food specialist who edits an online clearinghouse for kosher information, www.kashrut.com. "We go crazy."
Kosher dietary laws are observed year-round by millions of Jews, but during Passover week the rules become more stringent, forbidding the consumption and even possession of leavened grains, known as chametz.
To be "Kosher for Passover," food must be cooked in kitchens that have been kosherized especially for the holiday, and all chametz has to be either burned, sold or given away.
"It's not just the food," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certification agency in the world. "It's the dishes and the utensils. The ovens. Tables are covered with tape and Lucite. ... It's a lot of hard work."
And this year holiday preparations have gotten squeezed.
The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown Fridays, ending at sundown Saturdays. This year, because Passover begins on a Saturday, observant Jews can't do any preparation in the preceding day.
That means today will be especially busy at Kohn's.
The only area business that caters Passover seders — as the holiday meals are called — Kohn's spends about $1,000 cleaning and months readying for the holiday, when food sales spike and demand soars. This week food orders lined the shelves waiting to be picked up, and workers hustled, trying to avoid collisions.
"From January 1, I start dreading Passover," owner Lenny Kohn said. "It's just a whole logjam."
For the past dozen years the kitchen at Kohn's, considered by many to be among the country's finest kosher delis, has been helmed by Ali-Hassan — a Muslim, originally from the Palestinian West Bank.
"I was a student," he says, remembering when he first came to the United States as a 24-year-old. "Then I got stuck in the food business. I always liked food, and then it was restaurant after restaurant after restaurant."
In the early 1990s he opened a Middle Eastern store on South Grand Boulevard in St. Louis. When it burned to the ground in 1996, he never rebuilt, and instead started working in another kitchen. Kohn's heard about him and offered him more money.
"They said 'How are you feeling, with Palestinians and Jews?' " he recalled. "I said, 'If you don't like my work, I'll go.' And I've been here for 12 years."
Since then, food for the holiest of holidays, dinners for every Sabbath and the kosherizing of it all has fallen under his tenure.
Muslim dietary law, known as halal, shares some similarities with kosher laws. Both forbid pork and require particular slaughtering measures. (When some Muslims can't find halal meat, for example, some will eat kosher meat.)
But his job at Kohn's has required Ali-Hassan to learn the intricacies of kosher law — which foods to cook where, in what, and how — a skill he's passed along to fellow Muslims. Half of his catering team is Muslim, and two of the deli workers are, too.
In the days before Passover, the kitchen hums along peacefully.
"Nothing ever gets raised here," he says. "No politics."
Down the road from Kohn's, in Olivette, the cavernous Pratzel's Bakery smells sweetly of coconut and pastries.
The bakery is kosher, and to remain that way under kosher law it has two choices. One would be to clean the entire place of every speck of flour. "It's impossible," Ronnie Pratzel said. "We are permeated with flour."
The other choice is to close the bakery's doors and ceremonially sell the majority of it to a non-Jew for Passover, so the chametz is not, technically speaking, owned by Jews during the holiday week.
"If we baked in here," Pratzel said, "we'd lose our certification."
Many Jews go through the same process in their homes. Most of the time they rid their home of chametz by giving it away or donating it to a food pantry.
But, in the case of certain chametz — an expensive whisky, say — they may go to the Vaad Hoeir, area Orthodox Jewish legal authority, which then finds a Gentile buyer. When Passover is over, they reverse the transaction.
"The rabbi will be the messenger," said Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad. "They don't want to throw it out."
Of course, they also have the option of consuming the chametz before Passover, leading some people to engage in a kind of pre-Passover binge.
As hip-hop plays on the radio, bakers at Pratzel's pull trays of cookies out of ovens where they wait in racks.
"It's a very busy week for us," Pratzel said.
Then, for the next eight days, the bakery will be locked, until the rabbi comes at the end of Passover and opens the doors.