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Nothing to Eat on Passover!?

Growing up in Crown Heights, I vividly remember my late mother’s feverish preparations for the holiday. Most of what we ate was made in her kitchen, including the pastries, apple sauce, the gefilte fish and so forth. Our beverage of choice was Saratoga Geyser flavored with Kedem Raspberry Syrup. Our selection of wine was limited to the ultra-sweet Malaga and Tokay wines. It was no wonder that I would often hear people of that generation complain that there isn’t much to eat on Pesach, save for the potatoes, hard boiled eggs, and chremslach (pancakes or fritters made of matza meal or potato starch).

Fast forward to Passover 2017 when there is everything to eat. Elsewhere in this issue is a report that 52,000 (yes, you are reading this correctly) food items are certified as kosher for Passover this year, nearly double what it was in 2011. I am wondering what my mother would have said to “bread crumbs,” lughshin (noodles), croutons, and even pizza and bagels being certified kosher for Passover. True that the kosher food industry has come a long way but its strides on Passover are simply mind boggling. Oh how she would have kvelled at the thought of Coke and Pepsi for Pesach or for that matter almost 15 brands of potato chips. The next time someone says that there’s nothing to eat on Passover, just send them to a kosher supermarket.

BREAKING NEWS: Passover Sales Strong Nationwide; 52,000 Products Certified

Monsey – The number of food items that are certified kosher for Passover has reached 52,000, according to kosher food sources. The sheer number of products available for the holiday has prompted the Evergreen kosher supermarket here to erect a 9,000 square ft. tent in their parking lot to accommodate the unprecedented selection. A canopy passageway to the store allows shoppers to fill their carts with the Passover items in the tent and then add the refrigerated and frozen goods before checking out. Evergreen has a similar setup in their new Lakewood store, albeit with a 6,000 square ft. tent. According to the sources, the number of kosher for Passover items in 2011 was at 23,000, nearly half of what it is today. These numbers are very much in sync with figures released by Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrus division. In 2011, the OU certified 17,134 items; this year 32,077 which is double that number. Other certifications like the OK, cRc, Kof-K, and Star-K also saw the number of certified items soar.

Yakov Yarmove, the Ethnic Marketing and Specialty Foods at Albertsons Companies, said that sales were strong at many of the Albertson’s affiliated stores around the country.  He said that there was “good support for some of the new items from Manischewitz and Kayco/Kedem.” He added that “Lieber’s seemed to make a strong foray into the supermarket chains this year, as did Paskesz.” Mr. Yarmove noted that many customers waited to shop this year because of the way spring break fell out in relation to the earlier Pesach.

Last Sunday, Yarmove’s Highland Park Jewel-Osco hosted its annual Taste of Passover event. Many of the major brands had booths at the event. Customers loved the photo booth by Manischewitz, face painting and balloon animals for the kids, the model matza bakery by Chabad and the local klezmer band.

Passover Programs: a Tale of Two Cities

New York – With Passover now only a week away, some hotel programs are still fielding inquiries and taking reservations in a season that was a mixed bag in some areas, particularly Florida due to the Zika scare. An estimated 300,000 Jews will be spending either a part or the entire holiday in hotel programs throughout the world that some experts say has been “growing by leaps and bounds.” Some 200,000 Israelis go to hotels, mostly in Israel with as many as 20,000 believed to travel abroad. Estimates are that 80,000 American Jews participate in one of 70-80 programs in the US. An additional 20,000 are believed to come from Europe, South America, and Australia. While most programs reported at least 70% occupancy, there were several programs that floundered, including the program in La Jolla CA sponsored by the Prime Hospitality Group that was cancelled. Sources say that Prime is locked in a battle with the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines to recover some of the money deposited there.

Florida was particularly hit hard as many would-be vacationers were warned to avoid the popular Passover destination because of the ongoing Zika scare. Several programs were cancelled in the Miami area. Kosher Today has learned that physicians have subsequently distinguished between South Florida (largely the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale) area and Central Florida (Orlando). More than 1,000 villas and homes were rented in the Orland area for the holidays.

Perhaps most intriguing is the scope of the Passover hotel program which now includes luxury hotels in Mexico, Morocco, Africa, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, French Riviera, and Croatia. In additions to programs in luxury hotels, many smaller programs take place in other countries, including the US and Canada. Travel agents and other experts told Kosher Today that for most people “going away for Passover is more than avoiding the strenuous efforts to prepare a home for Passover. It is a combined holiday/vacation opportunity that many families take advantage of.”

Bingo Reshuffles Kosher Retail Landscape on Passover

Brooklyn – It was Friday morning, just eleven days before Passover, and most of the 365 parking spots at the new Bingo mega store at the edge of Boro Park were already filled. This was the first major holiday for the all kosher discount store concept that offered shoppers deeply discounted products for the holiday, from well-designed paper and plastic goods to virgin olive oil. With the exception of the store’s fresh deli section, all of the food was kosher for Passover, and for most of the largely Chasidic crowd the overflowing large carts were evidence of just how much of the holiday shopping was being done in the relatively new store. One cart was filled with more than 20 bottles of olive oil. Another cart had many boxes of the .99 price for 18 eggs. The savings were clear in every category. One observer noted that on a recent day, the store had an appreciable number of neighboring Asians although on this Friday the shoppers were predominantly younger Chasidic Jews, many with large families.

Sources told Kosher Today that several grocery stores in the neighborhood have lost as much as 25% of their customer base to Bingo. One retailer said that some of the customers do return because Bingo “simply does not have the variety” that the average kosher independent store has. One store advertised the sheer number of kosher brands to offset the limited selection by Bingo. In many cases, Bingo might feature one or two brands as well as its growing number of private label items. “Bingo has created a reshuffling of the customer base,” one distributor said, “and forced us to lower our margins to that base by insisting that we sell them at a certain price if we wish to be in the store.” From the conversations with people in the industry, it is clear that Bingo has shaken up the kosher landscape, much like the new upscale kosher independents shook up the retail scene, a trend that began with the opening of Pomegranate in 2008. There are reports that Bingo is looking at sites in Williamsburg, Monsey, and Lakewood. The Bingo success was very much noticed during last month’s Purim holiday and is one of the big stories this Passover.

At least one small Boro Park grocer has already closed and rumors were rampant that another long-standing kosher supermarket may very well be next.

Certifications Nearly Completed, Agencies Turn to Technology to Educate Consumers for Passover

New York – The production of thousands of foods for Passover begins many months in advance of the holiday with rabbis crisscrossing the globe for special Passover runs. For the past few weeks, many of the larger agencies turned to education, many publishing traditional Passover guides with information on how to prepare for the holiday as well as a listing of the products they certify. The agencies also sponsored seminars in local communities to inform and answer questions. Thousands use special hot lines staffed by rabbis to inquire about kashrus issues. At the MK in Montreal, the agency is offering special koshering services and a day on April 4th to consult with rabbis, physicians and pharmacists.

The Orthodox Union sponsored a webinar that saw more than 3,000 people participate live with large numbers tuning into the archived broadcast. Technology has most definitely changed the landscape of the pre-Passover education programs, according to the rabbis. Agencies like the OU, OK, Kof-K, cRc and Star-K have advanced apps that allow consumers to search for kosher items at their fingertips. One rabbi said: “Sure technology has made a major difference but we should not forget the more educated and inquisitive kosher consumer.”

Bourbon no Longer an Automatic, Faces Kashrus Issues

What happens if a Jew owns a share of the ownership in a bourbon company? Must the company have “sold” the products for Passover, as Jewish law requires and if it did not would it render all of the products as chametz that transgressed Passover? Why it is that bourbon once considered inherently kosher now needs kosher certification? The first issue was faced by the Orthodox Union which ultimately ruled that the 665 barrels in the company could be used. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rabbinic authority for the OU, came up with a resolution that segregated the 5% ownership of the Jew and ultimately concluded that the remaining product would not have to be destroyed. (Daf Hakashrus, April 2017).

The larger question was addressed in a front page article of the Wall Street Journal (March 24, 2017).  “Companies that once distilled just a few barrels of bourbon every year are now churning out dozens of other drinks—Sherries, brandies, flavored vodkas—which might not be kosher. They can contaminate the bourbon, Rabbi Litvin said, if the liquors are run through the same pipes or tanks.” The Litvins, a family that lives in Louisville, “have taken it upon themselves to keep bourbon kosher.”

Despite the fact that Jews are proportionately poor Bourbon consumers (it is an $8.5 billion industry), there has been a dramatic increase in demand in recent years, particularly by younger kosher consumers. “Alcohol consumption has definitely increased manifold,” said one kosher wine and spirits expert.  Heaven Hill, one of the largest liquor companies in the world, is owned by a Jewish family, but only a few of the bourbons—Evan Williams, the company’s largest brand, and the high-end single-barrel whiskeys—are still guaranteed to be kosher. The others are run through the same pipes and storage tanks as other products, including untold flavors of vodka, spiced rum and mint whiskey.

Transitions: Kashrus World Mourns Untimely Passing of Rabbi David Steigman, 67

Brooklyn – The sudden passing of Rabbi David Steigman, Senior Rabbinic Coordinator at OK Kosher, has shocked the kashrus world. Rabbi Steigman, 67, passed away while traveling in Italy for kashrus inspections. Rabbi Chaim Fogelman of the OK said that Rabbi Steigman was “a man of unparalleled character and knowledge.” Many in the kosher food industry praised the late rabbi as “being mild mannered, extremely friendly and a soothing influence under the most stressful situations.” He was considered a world renowned expert in all areas of kashrus, especially shechita (kosher slaughter) and alcohol productions. Rabbi Steigman worked at OK Kosher for 30 years and was respected and loved by all who knew him. Rabbi Fogelman in his personal reflections said that it was “an honor of having him as a colleague, for both kashrus professionals and employees of certified companies.” For the OK, the loss of Rabbi Steigman is particularly jolting as the rabbi had been a key certifier of the growing international presence of the OK.