For decades, dozens of Orthodox rabbis would gather in a New York City synagogue on the morning before Passover and, one by one, sell millions of dollars worth of bread, pasta and other leavened products to one man.
That man, a real estate agent named John J. Brown, acted as the linchpin of a Jewish legal process that is crucial to those who keep the strict laws of Passover, which forbid Jews from owning or benefitting from hametz, or any products containing leaven. Because most observant Jews don’t want to throw away all of their hametz ahead of Passover, they sell it to a non-Jewish person, who sells it back when the holiday ends.
For thousands of Jews, Brown was that non-Jewish buyer. Every year from 1977 to 2019, he bought hametz from the congregants of dozens of synagogues in and around New York City, completing the sales via the synagogues’ rabbis.
Last year, the tradition was suspended because of the pandemic. This year, someone else will have to pick it up: Brown died in February at age 88.
“It meant an awful lot to him,” said Paul Jacobs, Brown’s son-in-law, who is Jewish and would often make the trip to New York City with him. “There was an extremely high level of mutual respect. It was a business transaction and John treated it as a business transaction, so that was part of it. John had this commitment to real estate and contracts and all that.”
But Jacobs said that to Brown, it was more than just another business deal. Brown, Jacobs said, had a lot of intellectual curiosity and would pepper his speech with Latin phrases as well as Yiddishisms he picked up in New York.
“There’s an element of fun to it,” Jacobs said. “He was trying to follow the rules of the Torah and the Talmud, but there was some creativity there.”
The respect was mutual. Rabbi Gidon Shoshan, the son-in-law of Rabbi Mordechai Willig, who orchestrated the sales with Brown, wrote on Facebook that Brown “was a legend in the Willig family, in the Riverdale Jewish community, and — for those that knew his name — actually an important role player in the lives of many thousands of Jews each Pesach for decades.”
Willig, who rarely speaks to the media, did not respond to a request for comment.
Willig and Brown met when Brown worked on the 1975 purchase of the Young Israel of Riverdale, where Willig was the rabbi. In 1977, the synagogue was looking for a new hametz buyer, and Willig thought of Brown, figuring he would understand the complex legal processes involved in the hametz sale.
“In Jewish law, real estate is a powerful lever for legal transactions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Hain of Young Israel Ohab Zedek of North Riverdale/Yonkers, who sold his synagogue’s hametz to Brown for more than a decade and is close with Willig. “So Rabbi Willig liked to have someone in real estate because they understand the power of real estate and the overall significance of real estate in Jewish law.”
Willig also was a leader at the Yeshiva University rabbinical school, and those he had trained also would come to sell their congregations’ hametz to Brown. The transactions would take place at around 10 a.m. on the morning before Passover, the last possible time when Jews are allowed to have hametz in their possession. Dozens of rabbis and Brown would crowd around a conference room table at the Young Israel of Riverdale while Willig read through the contract.
Afterward, Brown would pay for the hametz with bundles of coins — a few cents for each of the thousands of households whose food he was purchasing. This token sum was meant as an ostensible down payment on the goods he was buying.
Brown would then signify that he completed the transaction under Jewish law in a few other ways — by picking up and placing a pen down on the table, signing a document and shaking the rabbi’s hand. He repeated the same process with each rabbi. Eventually he became so experienced in the particulars of the Jewish practice that he began to teach newer rabbis how it was done.
“He always took an interest in them and would correct the novice rabbis who mixed up the order of the transactions, who would shake his hand before lifting up the pen,” Hain recalled.
In addition to buying the leavened products stowed away in people’s homes, Brown would symbolically purchase shares that people owned in businesses, such as hotels, that sold hametz over Passover.
Year after year, he also took temporary ownership of people’s pets: Jews are not allowed to benefit from hametz in any way, so they are not allowed even to feed it to their pets. To get around that restriction, many people sell their pets along with their hametz, so that the animals eating the forbidden food on Passover do not technically belong to them.
“A number of years ago, we started saying to Mr. Brown, you’re going to own a certain number of dogs, a certain number of cats,” Hain said. “[He] had good humor when it came to some of the more silly, some of the lower-stakes kinds of issues.”
Even after Brown retired and moved from Riverdale to Minerva, a town far upstate in New York, he would make the nearly four-hour trip back to New York City each year to buy hametz and see his old neighborhood. In return, Willig plugged Brown’s real estate business — telling people to mention his name when they called his former agency so he would get a cut. And rabbis who sold hametz to Brown would also give him a bottle of liquor as a gesture of goodwill.
As he was listing the kinds of leavened foods prohibited on Passover during the 2015 sale, which was filmed, Willig mentioned fermented products and said, “I would daresay, Mr. Brown, the alcohol fermentations are probably the more valuable of the items that are being sold to you.”
“Judging from the quality that I’ve seen around here, I would agree,” Brown replied.
Jacobs said that some years, Brown would return from the sale “with a box of booze, but John liked to drink and he had friends who drank. So did he have a huge bar? No, because it was enjoyed.”
(Jacobs pointed out, however, that though Brown’s spirit of choice was Irish whiskey, the rabbis would often buy him single-malt scotch, which he saved for his guests.)
Some years, the hametz sale was only the beginning of Brown’s Passover observance. After the sale, Jacobs said, he would drive down to Jacobs’ house in Washington, D.C., where the family would have a seder meal that night.
“It is kind of funny that, as the designated goy, he still did go to seder,” Jacobs said. “John always had a lot of respect for the Jewish community and the tradition.”
Brown particularly liked the coda to the process at the end of Passover, when he would sell the hametz back to its original owners — always feigning regret at not being able to complete the original multimillion dollar sale.
“He would describe some delight in the process by which he would appear in the final ceremony and apologize that he couldn’t come up with the money for the final transaction, so he had to give it back,” Jacobs said.
Last year, due to the pandemic, Brown was unable to come to Riverdale. When Willig attempted to reach him this year, he learned of his death. He’s now looking for someone to carry on Brown’s legacy.
“He said we have to find someone together to do this going forward, and hopefully this person will outlast my tenure in Riverdale,” Hain said of Willig. “For him, this was a moment where he sees it as an end of an era.”