Tradition, camaraderie fuel annual bread-burning ritual

Passover: Jewish families and friends gather at a firehouse to toss their `chometz' before the holiday.

April 23, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

With flames shooting at least 4 feet in the air, and thick, pungent smoke billowing from the black metal trash cans set up outside the Glen Avenue fire station yesterday, Joseph "Yossi" Strimber approached, sandwich bread in hand, and began tossing slice after slice into the mini-inferno.

With the Jewish holiday of Passover fast approaching, Strimber and his family had spent Thursday evening searching every nook of their home in the Pickwick area of Baltimore County for any trace of chometz, the grain-based products forbidden during the eight-day holiday. Yesterday, he and two of his children, both teenage boys, tossed what they found into the fire - and completed a ritual steeped in meaning.

"While we do the search, literally, the symbolism is we are also searching for what is not pure in ourselves. ... That's the harder part," said Strimber, a lawyer. "This is the fun part."

Throughout the drizzly morning yesterday, Jewish families drove up to the Mount Washington fire station, jockeyed for spaces and emerged carrying plastic bags and cardboard boxes. With grandparents and teenagers in tow, and babies in their arms, they heaved the fruits of the past night's searches into the flames.

Some of the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 who came said a prayer. Others left quickly - for work or to continue their preparations for tonight's Passover seder, the prayer- and symbol-filled meal that starts the holiday.

During the eight-day stretch that begins at sundown tonight, those who observe the holiday are forbidden from eating, possessing or gaining any benefit from chometz, products made from grains that leaven when mixed with water.

Those who observe the holiday traditionally replace leavened products with matzo, an unleavened, cracker-like bread that symbolizes the haste with which the Jews fled Egypt during the Exodus, leaving no time for their dough to rise.

The "burning of the chometz" at the Glen Avenue station has been a tradition for more than two decades, bringing thousands to the Northwest Baltimore firehouse each year, usually on the morning Passover is scheduled to start.

But because the holiday this year falls just after the Jewish Sabbath, the ritual burning was moved ahead one day, said event organizer Bert Miller, an Owings Mills High School math teacher.

Miller said he approached city fire officials about a community-wide burning in the early 1980s after realizing that older people were having trouble fulfilling the precept and others might be inadvertently endangering their families. He recalled the argument that he presented to persuade the city's fire chief to agree to the use of the station's grounds - that there would be thousands of backyard fires in area neighborhoods otherwise.

"I was expecting him to say yes because of the clear benefits to community and society," Miller said.

In the years since, the burning has become a neighborhood event, enabling friends to catch up and young people to see their former teachers and classmates, even while performing the ritual, several participants said yesterday.

"I always see old teachers and old friends and people I haven't seen for years," said Dov Friedman, a New York City resident who returned to Baltimore with his wife, Abby, to spend the holiday with family. "It's really nice."

While chometz can be disposed of in different ways - some people temporarily sell it to non-Jews - the burning ritual is considered a mitzvah, or commandment, Miller said.

It is also a tradition to be passed down through families, said Joan Feldman, who came to the Glen Avenue station with her father and two of her children yesterday.

"There's also the sense of community here," said Feldman, a Pikesville resident who works in administration at Beth Tfiloh synagogue. "Seeing Jewish people of all levels of observance that stand joined by a shared, common practice is nice."

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