If your fellow employee took off a day or two for Passover last week, he or she is a serious Jew. If they took off Monday and Tuesday this week, for the “last days” of Passover, those are fully observant Jews who probably eat only kosher food.
Although there are many Jews who are more careful what they eat for Passover than all year round. Mister Zupnik of Chicago, a world-class mathematician who once served as a Jewish ritual slaughterer in Iowa, told me a wonderful story some years ago. A man who did not keep kosher all year round approached him for chickens for Passover. “I don’t understand,” Zupnik said. “If you avoid leavened bread (chametz) on Passover, that makes sense. It is a more severe prohibition than non-kosher meat. But if you eat such meat all year, why change for Passover?” “On Passover I use the dishes I inherited from my mother,” the man answered. “I cannot eat non-kosher food on my mother’s plates.”
The arc of the kosher food industry is a story that is beginning to draw attention. When I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, the Jewish companies that sold only kosher products were doing less business each year. The immigrant generation was dying, and most of their children had not committed to continue the traditional limitations on cuisine. A number of the old concerns went belly-up and others were bought out. Manischewitz survived, largely because of a visionary advertising strategy, using Sammy Davis Jr. as a spokesman and appealing to the broader society to sample their products. (Among their items is the Tam Tam cracker, sold in every supermarket in the country, one of the few absolutely unique culinary inventions in American history.)
Since the beginning of the 1980s, all that has changed. The return of many Jews to traditional observance opened new markets. In addition, many young people, especially among the Orthodox, were inspired to repopulate the depleted post-Holocaust ranks and had large families. Now the companies that survived the lean years are wallowing in the fat years. The volume of kosher products sold increases significantly each year, with the Passover season being the most active. A whole new set of dishes comes out and all the cooking is done without bread or cake or mixing flour with water in any way. (Matzos are made of flour and water without yeast and must be completed within 18 minutes from kneading to removal from the oven.)
Some fascinating anomalies have emerged from this phenomenon. One involves Coca-Cola, which has a huge surge of sales at Passover each year. A rabbi involved in kosher supervision told me why fifteen years ago, but I did not publish in case Coke wanted to keep it…er, bottled up. Now the New York Post went public, so I can follow suit. Here is the story: in the 1980s, when Coke made an abortive attempt to change its flavor, the consumers forced them to return to the original. For a while they bottled both, calling the old one Classic Coke, then they gave up the new experimental flavor entirely. But in that shuffle, they did make one change. They stopped sweetening Coke with sugar, using the less expensive corn syrup instead.
Connoisseurs who can tell the difference were devastated. Then they made a discovery. Ashkenazic Jews (hailing from all parts of Europe except Spain) do not eat corn products on Passover, a custom they adopted because corn bread can be confused with bread of the five major grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt). So the kosher Coke run for Passover cannot use corn syrup. As the years go by, more and more Coke freaks are lining up to buy a year’s supply of sugar-flavored Coke. All of which helps the kosher consumer by encouraging large companies to take the trouble to become certified.
Incidentally, kosher food is not blessed or enhanced by any religious ritual. The supervisor (often, not always, a rabbi) is merely responsible to see that only permissible ingredients are used. This means that certain tightly guarded industrial secrets are known to these certifiers, because they must identify all the ingredients. When Proctor and Gamble invested a billion dollars in the fat substitute, Olestra, only a few executives and a few scientists knew the formula. But so did a thirty-year-old Yeshiva graduate who had to sign off on their kosher seal.
One last anecdote. On Tuesday night after sundown, when Passover ends, the kosher pizza stores in Jewish communities around the country will open with a vengeance. People who have not had any real doughy product in eight days will be lining up out the door to pay the 12 to 15 dollars a pie. So a charity in New York came up with an idea. They auctioned on e-Bay the first pie out of the oven in a noted Big Apple eatery, with the proceeds to helping families pay their food bills. The winning bid: 731 dollars. An unconventional fundraiser, perhaps, but ethically fine, acceptable, even… kosher.