JWR Pesach
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

The pyramids Jews still in Egypt

He may not be Joseph -- and not even Moses -- but U.S. Amb. Dan Kurtzer has a big staff. And, as an observant Jew, his house is kosher, too.

By Marcia H. Kay

IMAGINE TEACHING the household staff of the American Embassy in Egypt the laws of Kashrus while at the same time telling them why eggs, although a product of an animal, are considered pareve.

That's what Rabbi Moshe Schreiber did when he traveled to Cairo to kosherize the kitchen of Daniel Kurtzer and his wife, Sheila. Kurtzer was recently appointed America's ambassador to Egypt. The Kurtzers, observant Jews, knew they needed the hands of an expert to kosherize both kitchens in their new home.

One kitchen, the main one, is used for entertaining. The other is used by the Kurtzers as their personal kitchen.

They also knew it wouldn't be easy in a country where kosher meat and other kosher staples are almost non-existent. In fact, they brought their first meat with them. Schreiber, with a well-packed suitcase, actually brought their first Shabbes meal.

Future kosher orders will be made through the U.S. commissary system, which is headquarted in Philadelphia. The closest United states commissary that carries a selection of kosher products is most probably in Europe.

The routine of kosherizing the embassy's kitchens was much like that used in kosherizing one's own home, Schreiber says. Many of the appliances in the kitchens were new and required no kosherizing.

The refrigerator wasn't new and needed to be kashered," explained Schreiber, using the Hebrew term for "kosherizing."

The kitchens have two refrigerators each --- one for meat and one for milk.

The stoves and ovens did need Schreiber's koshering touch.

But cleaning the appliances was the easy part.

Teaching a staff of Egyptians, many of whom had never met a Jew in their lives, was something Schreiber initially approached cautiously. But, he discovered, his fears were somewhat unfounded.

"They were very friendly and cooperative," he remembers. "There were no philosophical discussions" about the whys and wherefores of Kashrus.

Schreiber explained the prohibition of mixing meat and milk together, not only in the cooking phase, but during the actual meal. "That was a bit of a surprise," he says.

He also taught about the need to keep meat and milk dishes, pots, pans and silverware separate. "We placed signs all over the kitchen in Arabic."

Explaining what types of foods are pareve presented the most problems. "If milk comes from an animal, then they wanted to know why milk isn't considered a meat product," remembered Schreiber. Honey, a pareve product, comes from a bee, which is not considered kosher. In the end, Schreiber just made a list of which products were pareve.

A blech, a piece of metal that covers the stove and stays warm for use during the Sabbath, was fashioned by the embassy staff. Schreiber explained the need to keep one burner on during the Shabbes, which, in turn, keeps the blech warm. He also told the staff that all preparations for the Sabbath should be complete by 4 pm on Fridays.

The hardest part for the staff, Schreiber says, will be remembering all the details."

When his mission was complete, Schreiber took a few days to see the country. "It opens one's eyes to see life in Egypt. The Egypt Museum is a thing by itself. The whole Torah comes alive."

Although this was Schreiber's first trip, "it felt like I was there before. I had heard about it in [the Torah]. We tell it to our children."

Marcia H. Kay is the managing editor of the Washington Jewish Week.


© 1998, Washington Jewish Week