June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I can’t be the only guy who gets uncomfortable when people call me “rabbi.” People think it’s hilarious to call non-rabbis that, but you can’t call me “doctor” if I’m not a doctor. You’re going to mess people over.

The only time I ever abided people calling me rabbi was when I worked in kashrus. I am not making this up. I was actually a part-time mashgiach for like a year, back when I was in kollel.

And for all of you who are like, “Where? I have to know where not to eat,” it was a nursing home. No, I’m not telling you which one.

See, there was a local nursing home where the mashgiach had a morning job as a rebbi somewhere, and he would hire yeshiva guys to fill in. And to wear a white lab coat, which I actually stole from the office and borrowed for Purim that year.

Anyway, I came into the nursing home, and I told the rabbi, “I don’t really know so much halacha. Is that a problem?”

I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something that boiled down to, “Don’t worry; you don’t have to know halacha to be a mashgiach.” Or at least a backup mashgiach. I was just a stand-in. It’s like how you don’t have to know much about parenting to be a babysitter. Just keep the kid alive until the parents get back.

“Basically,” he said, “most of what you have to do is make sure that the fleishig keilim stay in the fleishig kitchen and the milchig keilim stay in the milchig kitchen.”

And I said, “How do I know which keilim are fleishig and which keilim are milchig?” Because I know that in my house, you only know if you live here. And not even everyone who lives here knows.

And he said, “Everything’s covered in spray paint.” You have red spray paint and blue spray paint and everything is painted, like minor vandalism. Like a kitchen in a very bad neighborhood.

And I asked, “Well, if something is in the wrong room, what do I do?” And he said, “You confiscate it. Bring it into the office and leave me a note.”

Basically, what I did was a very specific type of hashgacha. Hashgacha pratis, if you will.

I had my own office. Well, it was the rabbi’s office, but he wasn’t there when I was. It was a tiny basement office with no window, next to the kitchens, filled to the brim with confiscated items. These were not just from me. It was (at least) from the guy he hired before me.

In fact, there was one day that I found the milchig cart in the fleishig kitchen. I had to confiscate the whole cart and figure out how to fit it into this tiny office. I had to take the chair out of the room, and then put it back in on top of the cart.

And officially, the story was that the mashgiach would at some point kasher everything that was in the office. Or replace it with new spray-painted items. I have no idea. Except that the entire year I was there, he never kashered a single thing. I actually don’t know what became of the cart. That, the mashgiach somehow got rid of. I don’t know the details, because he didn’t leave me notes. This was a one-way relationship. But the workers would knock on the door of my office, and say, “Can I have that pan? It’s right there. I can see it behind you.”

“No. Take it up with the rabbi.” Slam!

Okay, I didn’t slam. The room was too full.

And they’re like, “What does he want to do with it?”

“He needs to dip it in boiling water.”

“It’s a soup ladle. That’s exactly what we were going to do.”

“No, he needs to dip the whole thing in. Including the handle.”

“That’s going to happen too, probably.”

The staff hated me. They thought I was just some hoarder kleptomaniac who was coming in every day to steal heavy-duty kitchen items for my newlywed apartment. Like, “Where did the spatula go? It was right here a minute ago.” And I’d have to walk out with it under my coat.

That’s why I had the big coat.

And this was after I had to crawl around the kitchen first thing in the morning, getting underfoot, lighting pilot lights that were already on working just fine while they were running around trying to make lunch.

And there was no training on the pilot lights; I had to figure out where the fires were on my own. Or maybe there was; I don’t remember. But just because you know where a fire is when it’s on doesn’t mean you remember where it’s supposed to be when it’s off.

So every morning, I’m crawling around, trying not to get stepped on, with a big question mark over my head. So my white coat was brown on the knees; it was dirty on the inside from quietly smuggling spatulas out of the kitchen… You think the rabbi washed the coats? I don’t know. He never kashered the keilim.

So I’m not sure I would call what I did “kashrus.” I don’t really think a job in kashrus is for me. At any given moment, it’s either boring, or something’s going wrong. Boring is good. It’s like when you’re checking lettuce and you don’t find any bugs, you’re thinking, “What am I doing wrong?” and if you do find a bug, you’re thinking, “There are bugs! On the bright side, I guess I’m doing something right, although just because I found one bug does not necessarily mean that I didn’t miss any of the others. Maybe I should go back, now that I know what they look like. Keep this one next to me as a reference.”

Similarly, as a mashgiach, there’s the stressful thought of what are the chances that I will be passing through exactly the right kitchen the moment before something bad happens?

It really is all about hashgacha pratis.


Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for Hamodia and other magazines. He has also published eight books and does stand-up comedy. You can contact him at [email protected].

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