Rituals: The Passover Rite of Being Temporarily Kosher

We’re less religious than ever. So what’s with the line this month at local delis?

I have a good friend who doesn’t attend synagogue, but she never misses the Seder dinner. I tease her for that, and she points out that I’m not exactly Ms. Perfect Attendance at church, so what am I doing knee-deep in an Easter Egg hunt?

Most of my friends don’t make the time for organized religion anymore, but we still want our religious holidays. Passover is one of the primary family holidays in Judaism, commemorating the Jews’ emancipation from slavery in ancient Egypt. It’s celebrated with specially prepared food, each one a symbol for some aspect of the holiday tradition and story. Which means that in the week before April 22, when it begins this year, thousands of the county’s Jews are busy shopping and cooking. For those who don’t normally follow strict dietary guidelines but would like a kosher meal, they descend on the county’s two small kosher market/delis for their Passover week food. For the stores, this is a windfall and a backbreaker.

“Almost every observant Jew will do Seder, whether they’re religious or not,” says Maryan Goldberg, above, owner of Kosher Bite Deli & Meat Market in Laguna Hills. “Everybody has a mama who remembers.”

The 49-year-old Goldberg’s long hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. She wears jeans and an oversized blue Kosher Bite T-shirt as she talks with me in a watered-down New York accent (she’s been here 24 years). It’s late morning, and the DMV customers who stand in a long line across her parking lot are streaming in for coffee.

I try the cabbage roll and the matzo ball soup; they’re flavorful and fresh. If I lived closer to this place, I’d start to look like a cabbage roll stuffed with a matzo ball.

When Goldberg arrives at her shop prior to Passover week, people are lined up waiting for her doors to open. She spends the week “cleaning the store top to bottom,” ridding her shop of leavened-grain products, known as chametz. For Passover, Jews eat matzo instead of bread; the flat, crackerlike matzo symbolizes how their ancestors packed and fled Egypt so quickly, they couldn’t wait for the bread dough to rise. Similarly, Goldberg must use Passover-only pots, pans, spoons, and bowls to prepare the holiday food. This intensive cleanup is a tall order for a small deli whose main business the rest of the year is sandwiches for the DMV crowd.

Customers leave the store the week before Passover with bags of “kosher for Passover” meats, cooked brisket of beef, whole roasted turkey, potato kugel, chopped herring and liver, matzo ball soup, charoset (fruit and nuts), and macaroons.

You’ll find an even larger kosher-for-Passover grocery inventory at OC Kosher Market in Tustin, where ridding the store of chametz and stocking for Passover means emptying about 75 percent of the inventory. It’s a medium-sized store, 3,900 square feet, with a deli, a butcher, and an extensive grocery section in five aisles.

Most of the year, owner Clive Wolder runs a full-service grocery. But “there aren’t an exceptionally high number of very religious people in Orange County,” he says of those most likely to buy kosher.

To grow his business, he now delivers kosher food to travelers at area hotels. For Passover, Wolder shuts down the kitchen two weeks ahead of time and devotes all the space to kosher-for-Passover foods. Wolder orders his products beginning in December.

In the checkout line at OC Kosher Market, I meet Linda Rattner Nunn, a retired paralegal from Yorba Linda. When she arrived in the county 34 years ago, she says, there were few options for synagogues or kosher food. Now there are many synagogue, and she can find what she needs for the Seder without traveling outside Orange County.

“The Seder is a lot of work,” says Rattner Nunn, dressed in a long skirt, a brown felt hat, and wire-rimmed glasses. “It’s cleaning the whole house. It’s decorating. There’s a lot of food you have to buy in advance. There’s a whole list of what you have to do. Why do we go through all that work? Because rituals like the Seder are important. I don’t care what the tradition is, your children will remember it. They will remember the feeling of family on that day.”
I learn from another customer in the checkout line that Passover, like so many rituals, is immersive. It’s something Jews see and hear and smell and touch and taste. It’s also something they feel and think. Alex Ribakoff, a retired 62-year-old lawyer who lives in Irvine, calls Passover his central family holiday. For his family, the best part of Passover is the play-acting and discussions that are part of the Seder dinner.

The family discussions can be thought-provoking: “You joke, you laugh, you think, you argue,” he says. They discuss what it means to be slaves one year and free people the next: “What do we need to be liberated from?”He adds, “The food is fun the first two days, and then your palate gets tired. You’re saying, ‘When do we get to the Holy Land?’ ”

The Pew Center tells us we’re losing our religion. From 2007 to 2014, the number of people calling themselves religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16 to 23 percent. But from my little perch here, I see something intriguing.

We’re losing our religion, but it’s clear we’re not ready, and probably never will be, to give up the rituals that go with it.

Visit the Delis!
Kosher Bite Deli
& Meat Market
23595 Moulton Parkway
Laguna Hills

OC Kosher Market
688 El Camino Real

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