As Passover begins, Baltimore Jews cleanse homes of leavened bread

Annual burning helps observant Jews mark holy festival

  • Jews gather at Pimlico Race Course to burn breads and grains as part of a tradition that marks the beginning of Passover.
Jews gather at Pimlico Race Course to burn breads and grains… (Monica Lopossay, BALTIMORE…)
April 18, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

Hundreds of Baltimore Jews gathered at the Pimlico Race Course parking lot Monday morning to dispose of the last of their stores of leavened bread, or chametz, banned during Passover, which began Monday evening.

On an overcast morning, families lugged bags filled with cereal, toast and pita bread to a corner of the parking lot, and little boys wearing jeweled yarmulkes pelted bits of bread into a line of fires burning in large drums.

The ritual burning — a tradition going back millennia — took place under the watchful eyes of the city Fire Department and the event's volunteer chairman, Bert Miller, who wore a yellow hard hat and gently reminded the devout to avoid burning anything made of plastic.

Miller said he has organized the burning since 1982, when he noticed that some families were disposing of their bread with unsafe fires.

"Before I started the project, people did it in their backyards or their barbecues," Miller said. "I'm sure we save about two or three serious injuries every year, in addition to facilitating the observance for the elderly and those who live in apartments."

The event is sponsored by Star-K Kosher Certification, a Baltimore-based company that puts its stamp of approval on foods that adhere to Jewish dietary laws.

City government, Miller said, provides bicycle racks to serve as barriers between the crowd of families and the fires, as well as support from the fire and police departments. Traffic police directed cars into the parking lot Monday, and a firetruck was parked nearby.

Families also brought palm fronds used in last fall's observance of Sukkot to add to the fires. After throwing in the last of the bread, they gathered in small groups and recited the "Kol Chamira," which relinquishes the observant of any last bits of leavened bread in their homes that they might have forgotten or overlooked.

Tsiona Cohen, a Baltimore resident who brought her three young children on Monday, said attending the chametz burning served as an educational experience for her kids.

"You want kids to learn hands-on about Judaism, what we do and why we do it," Cohen said. "This is one of the highlights of their year."

Cohen said she plans to mark the beginning of Passover with relatives visiting from out of town.

Yehuda Tenenbaum, a 16-year-old volunteer, made the rounds Monday morning asking for donations to help offset the day's expenses.

By 11 a.m., Tenenbaum's large yellow bucket was more than half-filled with bills, and he said he was satisfied with the day's earnings.

"There's a lot of work put into it," he said, estimating the burning costs around $2,000 each year.

Baltimore resident Andrea Dolny arrived at the burning late in the morning, and said she sees symbolic significance in the burning tradition. She will mark Passover with her children and grandchildren, she said, retelling the story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt.

"It's a renewal," she said. "You take out the old, and bring in the new."

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