By: Yonatan Kurz  | 

The Guardian of Grain

Sometimes, there are unsung heroes who operate “under-the-radar” and enable the continuity of tradition with little recognition or public display. While these people may not be household names that engender common recognition, their impact is immeasurable, and their actions can leave an impression on others for years to come.

John Joseph Brown was one of those figures. For 42 years, Brown, a real estate agent from Riverdale, New York, took on the role of the non-Jewish buyer in the process of mechiras chametz preceding the period of Pesach, purchasing the forbidden grain products of countless Jewish communities around the Tri-State area. 

The institution of mechiras chametz comes as a solution to the prohibition of possessing chametz for the duration of the holiday and after it ends. To circumvent this prohibition in a legal and upright manner, there is an idea of selling chametz to a non-Jew before the holiday begins; once Pesach is over, the non-Jew sells it back, and the chametz can once again be consumed.

Brown’s role began in 1977, when the Young Israel of Riverdale was seeking a person willing to buy chametz from them before that year’s Pesach. Rabbi Mordechai Willig, rabbi of the shul and rosh yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), suggested Brown, who was involved in the purchase of the shul building four years prior for the role in the transaction. Rav Willig assumed that Brown’s business acumen would be a tremendous asset in navigating the legal nuances of the procedure.

And so the relationship between the two men began. Every Erev Pesach, Rabbi Willig would read the contract of the transaction to Brown, who would pay for the chametz using piles of quarters to represent the down payment toward what he was purchasing. After that, Brown would take numerous actions to denote completion of the sale, including lifting a pen from a table and putting it down, signing a transactional document and shaking Rabbi Willig’s hand. After the holiday ended, Brown would sell the chametz back to Rabbi Willig, jokingly bemoaning his inability to complete the original transaction.

As the years passed, Rabbi Willig would begin to bring some of his students and other alumni of RIETS who had become pulpit rabbis to sell the chametz of their congregants to Brown, who quickly became adept and very knowledgeable in the procedure; in fact, on numerous occasions, Brown would correct newer rabbis upon realizing their errors in the process.

Each year, Brown continued to take part in the sale, crediting his longevity to his role in buying millions of dollars worth of chametz from various local Jewish communities, as well as to Rabbi Willig’s annual b’racha (blessing) of well-being. Brown, an alum of Fordham University and Columbia Law School, in addition to being a veteran of the Korean War, worked for Fieldston Real Estate and Property Management and would often attribute his financial success to Rabbi Willig’s blessing for sustained success.

This tradition carried on over four decades, and even when Brown moved to Minerva in upstate New York, he made sure to never miss a single Erev or Motzaei Pesach, driving over four hours each way to Riverdale to ensure that he would be able to buy and sell back the chametz of the Tri-State area’s Jewish community in a prompt and timely manner. However, this streak ended in 2020, when Brown’s wife became sick and his son was struck with COVID-19. While Brown was prevented from traveling to Riverdale for the sale, hope nonetheless remained that he would be able to do it the next year.

Unfortunately, that opportunity never arose. A month and a half ago, Brown died peacefully at his home in Queensbury, NY at the age of 88. His online obituary from his family included the following: “John was honored, for decades, to serve as the non-Jewish buyer of ‘chometz’, or forbidden bread products, during the Passover period from rabbis and congregants around the world. He performed this duty until 2019.” Rabbi Gidon Shoshan, Rabbi Willig’s son-in-law and senior manager and director of educator recruitment at Olami, described Brown as “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.”

This was a man so committed to taking part in the sale of chametz every year that it became one of the defining lines in his obituary. As Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, director of Semikhah at RIETS, tweeted out on March 9, “Mr. Brown left this world armed with the collective merits of more than 4 decades of service.” His dedication was unbelievable, his keenness was inconceivable and his merits remain laudable. We should all aspire to engage in mitzvos with the same continuous level of sincerity and fervor provided by John Brown, a Bronx realtor whose role in the annual mechiras chametz has left a lasting impact on Tri-State Jewry with just a signature, a handshake and a few rolls of quarters.


Photo Caption: John Joseph Brown, who recently passed away, was an unsung hero of the Jewish community.

Photo Credit: Josh Weinberg (Youtube)