The synagogue board meeting was scheduled to begin at eight o’clock. All the chairs were lined up at the majestic oak table in the old board room, with a typed agenda arranged before every place by Mel Landau, the shul secretary. Most of the synagogue had been renovated in 2005, but the board room was still in its 1960’s glory, with red shag carpeting and flowered wallpaper. Why pay to redo a room that is used once a month for an hour?
Normally, of the ten board members, six or seven would show up to any particular meeting, to make sure there was a quorum for voting. But tonight everyone was in attendance, and most surprisingly, everyone was on time. And it was a closed meeting; no non-board shul members were invited. That usually meant that a controversy was brewing.
Last year there had been the seating scandal (should there be eleven or twelve seats per row for the High Holidays?) that turned out to be quite a kerfuffle. Three years ago the flooring fiasco nearly caused a breakaway from the shul (carpeting versus tile in the all purpose room). But this night’s meeting had the potential to be the most contentious of all time, and that’s saying a lot. For the debate at this meeting involved something sacred to almost all of the shul board members: cholent.
In the early days of Congregation Bnai Jacob, when the shul met in the Grunhaus’ basement, Adelle Grunhaus made the cholent for all the kiddushim. One crock pot fed everyone, and the entire congregation loved her recipe. It had a nice old world taste.
After the first synagogue building was purchased on Elm Street, there was a small kitchen put in, and the sisterhood made the cholent. Mrs. Grunhaus was still active, so the resulting stew adhered relatively closely to her recipe. But as the years rolled by and the old building was knocked down to accommodate the synagogue’s present edifice, the new kitchen allowed for a more advanced cholent assembly line. First three large crock pots were employed to feed the growing membership, then it grew to five pots, and finally over ten crock pots were used to feed the burgeoning synagogue population. As the number of pots grew, the number of recipes also increased, and different members gave the cholent their own interpretations.
At first, the cholent eclecticism was regarded as a positive. So what if one recipe used beer, and another employed jalapeno peppers. This was the great melting pot known as America, and diversity was welcomed. But as time went on, the synagogue members began to yearn for uniformity. They wanted to know what they were getting when the Kiddush committee member scooped a brown steaming ladle of cholent onto their straining paper plates.
Soon the community divided into two camps. No one wanted beer or jalapenos in their cholent. Even salami and hot dogs were shunned. And don’t even consider anything radical, like maple syrup or Pepsi. Perish the thought of prunes! The crowd wanted simple, straight forward cholent. Beans, barley, potatoes, flanken, spices. But still, there was a controversy.
The issue was the potatoes. The older members of the shul felt that Idaho potatoes were the only kind one should use in a cholent. The younger members preferred Maine potatoes. And this was no laughing matter.
As shul president, Bert Kantrell called the meeting to order. Mel Landau reviewed the last meeting’s minutes which were approved unanimously. A few small issues, such as repairing a crack in the parking lot and ordering new machzorim for Yom Kippur were reviewed, and then they went on to the meat of the meeting.
I guess you all know why we’re here tonight,” Bert began. “This issue has become a serious hot potato for our community.”
Bert paused for laughter, but none came, so he moved on. “The chair recognizes Marvin Schlossberg.”
Marv Schlossberg was the first president of Bnai Jacob forty years ago, and had served on the board ever since. He was normally a calming influence on the board, but that night he was rather agitated.
“My position on this issue is clear. I knew Adelle Grunhaus very well, may she rest in peace.”
All the board members looked down at the shag carpeting and paused for a reverent moment of silence.
Marv continued. “And Mrs. Grunhaus would only use Idaho potatoes in her cholent. She would never have considered those newfangled Maine potatoes. Only the Idaho potatoes gave her cholent that old world taste. Eating it was like a trip back to the old country.”
“Marv, you were born in Jersey City!” Mel Landau whispered.
“That’s not the point!” Marv shouted. “Using anything but Idaho potatoes is, well, it’s sacrilege!”
“Thank you, Marvin. That was most passionate,” Bert Kantrell said. “Again, I would like to counsel calm during our discussion. Nothing has been decided. The chair recognizes Tzivia Rosenberg.”
Tzivia rose and faced the group. “You all know that we love and respect Mr. Schlossberg. He has been like a grandfather to me growing up in this community. But I respectfully disagree with him on this issue. Everyone knows that the Maine potatoes make a better cholent. Since we started using them five years ago the kiddushim have become much more popular, and shul membership has increased by over forty families. They are simply more flavorful than the old Idaho potatoes, and it shows.”
“Are you seriously suggesting that synagogue membership has increased because we switched cholent potatoes?” Mel Landau asked.
“I’m not saying anything,” Tzivia replied. “I think you should draw your own conclusions, though I would politely point out that statistics don’t lie.”
“This is outrageous!” Marvin Schlossberg exclaimed, rising from his seat once again. “This is a gross injustice and a mockery of what our shul stands for.”
“Mr. Schlossberg, I would like to ask you to sit do-“
“No, I will not sit down.” Marvin glared at Tzivia Rosenberg, Eli Potashnik, Karen Sternberg, and Steven Halberstam, who were sitting together on the far end of the table. Why, if I’m right, and the Idaho potatoes are better, may the ground beneath this board room open up and swallow the Maine gang whole!”
It was the week of parshat Korach.
In the moment of confusion that ensued after Marvin spoke, Mel Landau subtly moved his chair away from Eli’s.
“O.K., I think we need to cool down the conversation here a little bit. Wouldn’t you say?” Bert Kantrell said.
Everyone murmured their agreement.
“I’ve asked Stanley Grossbard to give us some perspective on the cholent crisis. I hope you all find it enlightening.”
Stan Grossbard was a more senior member of the shul, but he was uncommitted on the potato issue. He was an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital, and in the community he was greatly respected for his analytic abilities.
“I apologize in advance for my presentation. Bert contacted me on short notice for this meeting. Otherwise, I definitely would definitely have whipped up something on Power Point.
“The potato is a starchy, tuberous plant from the perennial nightshade Solanum tuberosum. The plant originates in the Andes, but it is now grown throughout the world. Potatoes were introduced outside the Andes region approximately four centuries ago,and have since become an integral part of much of the world's food supply.”
“I think that may be a little more detail than we were looking for, Stan,” the shul president suggested.
“There is a method to my madness, Bert, if you’ll just indulge me for a moment,” Stan said.
“Sorry, go ahead.”
“As I was saying,” Stan continued, “the potato originates in South America, and although it’s been cultivated all over the world over the last four centuries, it is essentially a New World crop.
“Interestingly, the Idaho potato is mostly the Russett Burbank type. It is a high starch variety that closely resembles the potato that was originally grown in the Andes, owing to the high altitude in Idaho. On the other hand, the Maine potato is mostly of the Katahdin variety, which is thinner skinned and a bit waxier, though quite flavorful. It might resemble a potato that was imported from Europe.”
“So what are you trying to say?” Mel Landau asked.
“I’m trying to say that the Maine potato, which is more like an eastern European type would be the one that would be more traditional for a cholent, which is clearly an eastern European food, while the Idaho potato, which resembles the original South American tuber might be more new age in cholent use.”
Bert Kantrell intervened. “What he’s trying to say is that the traditionalists on the board are actually advocating for a more modern potato, and the progressive members of the board are in fact pushing for the more traditional cholent variety.” As unlikely as it seems, for just a few moments the entire board was speechless and more than a little confused. “I move that we alternate Maine potatoes in the synagogue cholent one week and Idaho the next in perpetuity.”
The motion was approved unanimously, and in the end, the floor did not open, and no board members were swallowed whole.
That’s not to say the floor couldn’t have used replacing.