A Modern Passover Hero You've Never Heard Of
Plus: Resources and readings to enhance your holiday, and our first Ask Me Anything
According to traditional Jewish law, Jews are forbidden from eating and owning leaven—chametz—for the eight days of the Passover holiday. This prohibition is easy enough to observe if you don’t have much food in the house. But if you have limited means or otherwise can’t afford to just throw out all your chametz for Passover, it can be quite costly. And it’s downright prohibitive if you run a business—say, a grocery store or food manufacturer—where tossing all the chametz could capsize the entire operation.
Judaism solved this problem as it has solved many problems: with an ingenious Talmudic loophole. Instead of insisting that Jews dispose of their chametz, rabbinic law permitted them to “sell” it to a non-Jew, who would “own” the chametz over Passover, only to return it after the holiday. With this symbolic transaction, the prohibition of owning chametz could be observed without bankrupting believers.
When I was around 7 or 8 years old, my father—a Modern Orthodox synagogue rabbi—took me to see how this actually happened in practice. The sale transpired at a curious conclave of rabbis from far and wide who convened in New York to sell their congregants’ millions of dollars of leaven to a single gentile, a real estate agent by the name of John J. Brown. That year, my dad wanted me to see this process firsthand, and to meet the remarkable non-Jew who made it all possible. He was a kindly man who happily accepted the presence of a small child at this business transaction with a smile.
I’ve always meant to revisit that moment and interview Brown himself for an article. The story would practically write itself:
MEET THE GENTILE WHO OWNS MILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF AMERICA’S JEWISH FOOD—FOR EIGHT DAYS A YEAR
I won’t get the chance to write that article, because John Brown died last month, peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 88. His little-known service to the Jewish community, clearly a point of pride, made it into his obituary. Here’s an excerpt:
John Joseph Brown, 88, died peacefully overnight at his home in Queensbury on February 6, 2021. John was born in New York City on August 28, 1932, the son of Anastasia Regis Phelan and Lloyd Stanley Brown of New York City and North Creek, NY.
He grew up in Riverdale-on-Hudson, but always felt most at home in his family's Adirondack house on the North Woods Club Road in Minerva.
John attended public school in the Bronx. During the Korean War, he was honorably discharged from the Army after a short period in 1953, and he graduated from Fordham University in 1956.
He found his calling in the real estate business, working with Mary Walsh and then Robert E. Hill in Riverdale, where he became a fixture in Fieldston Real Estate and Property Management, his career through the rest of the century. His encyclopedic knowledge of every house and its history in Fieldston was frequently solicited, long after this retirement. John was honored, for decades, to serve as the non-Jewish buyer of “chometz,” or forbidden bread products, during the Passover period from rabbis and congregants around the world. He performed this duty until 2019.
While I was composing this newsletter, JTA’s Ben Sales published a characteristically excellent piece about Brown and how he came to occupy this role for over 40 years. You can read it here.
There are all sorts of kindnesses we can perform in this world, some more obvious than others. John Brown made it possible for thousands of people of another faith to celebrate their festival of freedom every year. He did it for free, and most of his beneficiaries never even knew his name.
Now you do.
May his memory, like his life, be a blessing.
Speaking of modern Passover heroes, my dad has a new book out that I highly recommend for your seder: The Superhero Haggadah. Alongside the traditional text in Hebrew and English, the book offers 164 full-color pages of original commentary, art, and essays that draw surprising connections between the texts of Jewish tradition and the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has question prompts for the kids and deeper dives for the adults, and imparts a tremendous amount of insight in a deceptively simple package.
Those of you familiar with my dad’s work as a writer and educator know that this will not disappoint. (Just ask the tens of thousands of people who own his beloved Hogwarts Haggadah.) This book is particularly special to our family because of its backstory. In 2019, my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He had to undergo some of his harshest treatment under the specter of the coronavirus in New York. To take his mind off things, my siblings compiled a list of Marvel movies and watched them with him. One thing led to another, and well, my dad is on the mend and now there’s a book.
We all pitched in to make it happen. This might seem like a light-hearted endeavor, but producing a quality haggadah is serious business!
Passover is just over a week away, and the book is currently 22% off on Amazon—a temporary discount set by them, not us—so if you’d like a copy (or three!), now is your chance. We hope it brings you as much inspiration and joy as it brought us.
Passover Reading and Resources
As is now tradition for this newsletter, here are some fun, functional, and enlightening items to enhance your holiday experience.
If you’re a more recent arrival, you may appreciate 2020’s edition of this newsletter, whose message speaks to Passover under a pandemic, and 2019’s edition, which discusses how “Passover” may actually be a mistranslation of the holiday’s Hebrew name, and how the original understanding of the title is arguably even more meaningful.
Tablet has a fantastic online feature collating 20 different charoset recipes from around the world, with varieties spanning from Kurdish to Ethiopian to Italian.
Last year, anticipating the eerie silence of a pandemic Passover seder, I created a Passover playlist to recapture the sounds and songs of the evening. The full thing features an array of musical and Jewish traditions, from Ashkenazi to Sephardi to Jack Black. Like a family seder, not everything in it is for everyone, but there should be something in it for everyone. Listen to it all here.
Tablet has created an array of resources for those making Passover at home, from a series of Seder Academy tutorials you can watch here, to videos of famous chefs showing you how to make easy kosher-for-Passover delicacies.
Last year, my friend Rabbanit Leah Sarna compiled a Minimalist’s Guide to Passover and Seder, with guidance for everything from assembling a seder, to preparing your apartment, to making easy kosher-for-Passover foods. She’s updated it for 2021, and you can find it here.
Several other friends were involved in putting together this collection of Ideas for the Solo Seder.
You can also pick up Tablet’s own haggadah here—and if cost is an issue, please be in touch about your needs. We’re truly happy to help. Just reply to this email.
Ask Me Anything on March 22
Next Monday, we’ll be having our first Ask Me Anything thread for paying subscribers! The email will go out that morning to those folks, and if you’re one of them, you’ll be able to comment with your questions at your convenience over the course of the next couple days, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
We’ll talk about everything from Passover to the Israeli elections happening the very next day, as well as anything else that’s on your minds. If you’re not already a paying subscriber and want to join us, you can sign up or upgrade your free subscription here:
See you there!
Thank you for reading this edition of my newsletter. If you liked what you read and want to support this work, please do share and subscribe. Gift subscriptions also make excellent afikoman presents! (To me, that is—I can’t speak for the recipient.)