The Search For Ernesto Gonzales
By Jacob Frommer
A week before Passover, Pacific Parkway is a slapstick of shtetl chaos. Mothers beat rugs with bungalow tennis racquets while fathers reach for the year’s Tim Tams that have fused with their van’s carpet. Inside the staggered buildings, each with its terrace just wide enough to build a sukkah in the fall, daughters tend to carp in bathtubs while sons drag furniture and slide over the floor, sweeping up dust mites and any other chometz looking molecules. Wealthy residents turn to professionals, wheeling their cars to the Forman Street Car Wash for the Passover Special. The manager caught on a few years earlier when a bearded man in white shirt and black pants tipped him fifty dollars to take special care of his Town & Country. Now he hangs a sign in his window every April that reads Best Passover Cleaning In Town. April is always his best month.
In yeshiva, the children cut and dot construction paper into matzoh while joyously singing of the ten plagues of Egypt that killed thousands and set millions free. They repeat the Four Questions and list the foods of the seder plate. They are taught the dangers of chometz, the forbidden bready foods of Passover. They are taught that, more dangerous than swallowing an unchewed grape or crossing the street without looking both ways, simply seeing chometz on Pesach can lead a child, even an adult, to kareis, spiritual or physical exile from God and the Jewish people — a fate, the Talmud tells us, much worse than death by choking. Parents tie their pantry knobs together with a piece of baker’s string, not to keep the children out, but to keep the chometz in. Families shoo rice and beans from the houses, for one might mistake a wayward noodle for a grain of rice and eat chometz by accident.
Every year, a few days before Passover, the Jews of Woodsberg sell their chometz through Rabbi Teitelbaum, the town’s head rabbi and most joyous figure. Short, pot-bellied, with a wispy beard and a smile for everyone, he sells the chometz in every Woodsberg pantry, restaurant and supermarket without removing a single item. This is accomplished by way of a trusted and ancient Judaic loophole in which a Jew along with two witnesses present a Chometz Sales Contract to a non-Jew. In this case, that non-Jew is Sergeant Mike Winslow, one of the few non-Jews on good terms with what lesser civil servants have referred to as that cultish horde. After signing the contract that gives Sgt. Winslow legal ownership over all of Woodsberg’s chometz for the duration of Passover, thus legally disavowing all Jews from the chometz in their homes, a donation to the police benevolence fund is left on his desk as a gentleman’s guarantee that the sergeant won’t actually eat or sell any of the chometz he now owns. The exchange, worth over two million dollars, is complete when Sgt. Winslow hands Rabbi Teitelbaum a one-dollar bill, the amount for which he has agreed to buy the town's chometz. When the bill is returned to Sgt. Winslow within a few hours of Passover’s conclusion, the contract is null and the Jews of Woodsberg can once again access their chometz.
Five nights before what would be the twenty-sixth exchange between the cop and the rabbi, Sgt. Winslow drove home from Dexter’s Pub after celebrating his promotion to station chief. As he steered onto Leroy Avenue, the eight shots of bourbon he had recently imbibed laid him supine behind the wheel, the resulting crash into one of the few remaining trees in Woodsberg killing him instantly. To avoid malfeasance, only the rabbi and his two witnesses knew of the sergeant’s intimate involvement with the Jewish community, which is why they were the only three Yids humming the funeral dirge as the three-volley salute cracked the spring sky. The three men gave their best to Mrs. Winslow along with a donation to the grieving widows’ fund, and turned their attention to the issue at hand. To whom would they sell their chometz this year and, with God’s guiding hand, many years to come?
As families searched for the perfect brisket, Rabbi Teitelbaum searched for a new chometz goy. The police were in mourning and wanted little to do with the rabbi’s bright-eyed mitzvah work. The janitor at the shul had recently been let go for attempting to steal a Torah, and the plumber who fixed the leak in the rabbi’s kitchen found out a few weeks before that he was Jewish. “Could you believe that, Rabbi? Never in my life did I think about Jews. Well, maybe when I’m eating bacon and feeling sorry for you people. You people can’t eat bacon, right?” Out of options, the rabbi turned to Hashem, asking Him to send someone worthy of the weight of this mitzvah. Someone kind and trustworthy in a part of the world where few looked kindly on Jews.
The seder was tomorrow and an April storm roared across the county, cutting off power to all of Woodsberg. Most Woodsbergers had already scrubbed and sanctified their homes, but there was always a crumb to catch. The flick of flashlights and the glow of leftover Chanukah candles could be seen through windows all over town. The rabbi watched the shadow play from his covered porch as he considered his quandary, drinking lukewarm tea from the shuddering water urn that had not been unplugged in years. The weather reminded him of the plagues of Egypt. It was as if God knew he was considering not selling the chometz at all. He could simply tell everyone he sold it. There was no harm in it, really. He meant well for his people. They wouldn’t know the difference. It wasn’t like the chometz looked any different after it was sold. It would be the largest transgression of his life. It would be a secret he would take to the grave. Not even his wife could know. He would have to go into early retirement from the guilt alone.
After pouring a third cup, he stared blankly down Pacific Parkway. It was there, by Mentsy’s herring shop, that a figure wiggled like a mirage in a desert. As it grew, he could see what looked to be a wet scarecrow carrying a pole filled with plastic bags, all twirling like caffeinated ghosts. Clean suits, bekeshes, and skirts barely still dry. He watched as the figure turned into a sixteen-year-old boy pedaling hard against the wind. A pile of boxes, freshly steamed shtreimels, teetered high over the back tire, held in place by bungee cords and God’s grace. As the boy struggled closer, the rabbi’s mouth curled into a holy smile of understanding. He started to laugh, his hands started to shake. A man in repose who, seconds before, had never been so far from it. He was out of his chair and vibrating. He threw on his black jacket and hat and ran through the apartment, past Rebbetzin Teitelbaum who was cupping matzah balls by candlelight. Out in the storm, now he was even more impressed by the boy’s determination. The rain pelted the rabbi’s face like tinfoil spitballs. The wind lifted the hat clear off his head and down the block. He waved it off in the face of this miracle and ran toward the boy, this clothing delivery boy who was helping holy yids look their finest for the seder meals that were to take place the next night.
As casually as a newspaper blown onto a lamppost, the rabbi sidled next to the boy. The boy was too busy keeping himself and his payload balanced to give more than a glance at the smiling old man whose sidelocks were plastered to his forehead, the white and blue strings of his tzitzit flapping in the wind.
“What’s your name?” the rabbi finally shouted over the howl.
“Ernesto,” sputtered the boy, his mouth filling with rain as he spoke.
“Hi Ernesto, I’m Rabbi Teitelbaum. Where are you delivering those clothes?”
“Two two three Pacific Parkway. Apartments one, seven and nine,” he said.
“After you are done with that delivery, can you come to seven seven zero Pacific Parkway, number two? I have clothing that needs to be picked up.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
As he toweled off inside his home, the rabbi reflected on how the boy so simply answered his questions, how he so calmly took in what must have seemed like a wild apparition. It was as if the boy were expecting him. Yes, this was surely the messenger he had hoped for, the dove come to rest on the spot of land in need of a chometz goy. Ten minutes later, Ernesto parked his bicycle under the rabbi’s porch and tried the buzzer. It was dead. He pounded on the building door and heard the rabbi rush down the few steps leading from his apartment. “Come, come,” said the rabbi as he opened the door. Inside the apartment, the rabbi handed him a dry towel and led Ernesto to the porch where the rebbetzin had laid out more lukewarm tea, and kosher for Passover cookies on a paper plate for their guest, a facsimile of the chometz that would need to be sold.
Rabbi Teitelbaum apologized and explained that he was not in need of dry cleaning services. Rather, the service he required was of a holier nature.
“You see, we sell our chometz to a non-Jew before the annual celebration of our escape from bondage because we are not allowed to possess chometz during Passover. Bread, cookies, pasta, anything with corn syrup. The list is very long. It has to do with the Jews not having enough time to bake bread when we escaped from Egypt three thousand years ago. Well, imagine a store throws away its chometz, all of its bread and cookies, or sells it for pennies on the dollar. That would be a waste of food and bad business. So we sell it for one dollar to a non-Jew willing to hold onto it for Passover and then give it back. Before you it was Sergeant Mike Winslow. Very sadly he passed away three days ago. No, no, no, Ernesto. Nothing to do with the chometz. We loved Sergeant Winslow. Twenty-five years he carried out this service for us. Sure, you can eat any of the chometz you want, but there is an understanding that you take ownership but never actually eat it. Yes, I suppose it is a favor. Quite a big favor to many, many good people. After eight days, I come to you and nullify the contract by giving you back your dollar. Simple as that. And we will make a five hundred dollar donation to any charity you choose as a thank you. Of course, wherever you want. Cuba? Absolutely. Ah, you will?”
With this the rabbi laughed. His stress, a rare feeling, was exorcised. He stood up and danced in a small circle while Ernesto took a sip of tea. The rabbi sat down, took a gulp of tea, too, and sat smiling, breathing heavily, staring at Ernesto in disbelief as Ernesto looked back at him with a face doing little more than drinking tea. As if he had forgotten a dish in the oven, the rabbi got up from the table, went into the kitchen, and took two copies of the contract from a drawer and a pen. He brought back a Yizkor candle and pen. He put the candle between them and handed one of the contracts and the pen to Ernesto, who looked at the document. “Okay,”he said. With that, Ernesto signed both copies of the contract and peeled a wet dollar bill from his pocket. “You will get this exact dollar back within an hour of the conclusion of Passover, along with the donation,” said the rabbi. He then wrote the dollar’s serial number on both contracts and handed one back to Ernesto, who took the paper. Ernesto stood up, folded the contract, put it in his pocket, He took two more cookies, stuffed them into his other pocket, and made a Now What? face. The rabbi patted him on the back as he had done to so many young congregants. The rain was now more spit than shower. The rabbi sent Ernesto on his way.
The next morning, the rabbi danced into shul like a man half his age. Ecstatic with his decision and feeling touched by God, he prayed with a smile on his face, his arms flailing in whizzing arcs of thanks. After davening, as the sacramental chometz was burned in garbage cans all over town, Woodsberg smelled like a bakery set on fire. Passover had arrived.
Halfway through the holiday, Rabbi Teitelbaum visited Spee-D Cleaners. Sure enough, there stood Ernesto working piously, carrying more loads of laundry than fit his slender frame. The rabbi knocked on the window and Ernesto looked up. They both smiled and waved. Four days, mouthed the rabbi. Ernesto gave him a thumbs up. Many years to come, he thought. Many years to come.
Four days later, as the rabbi sang the closing prayers of Passover, sad that he must once again wait a year to celebrate his favorite of the three major holidays, he turned his attention to Ernesto and the town’s chometz. As he made the right onto Laytner Street, where Spee-D Cleaners was located, his heart skipped. He thought the shop lights were off but, as he approached, he noticed it was just the angle of the storefront. He smiled as he pushed open the door. Christmas bells announced his entry. Glancing around, he did not see Ernesto. He searched up and down the aisles of washers then dryers, eventually asking the owner.
“Ernesto? Chu want?” the owner asked him.
“I just need to speak with him for a moment. Where is he?”
“What do you mean left? Where?”
“Two days ago, he went back to Cuba. Ernesto’s my nephew. He was here only a few months, making some money for his family.”
The rabbi grabbed the counter to steady himself. He made the same sound air makes when it escapes through a knife wound in your lungs. “Thank you,” he said with a weak smile and sagged as he left the laundromat. He walked back to Woodsberg in a daze, contemplating where he had gone wrong. Never before had he heard of a chometz goy skipping town. Reselling it, holding it hostage, sure. But walking out, disappearing? He was at a loss halachically. I should have just faked it and never said a word. He quickly apologized to God for the thought.
As he did every year, the rabbi had assured the town at the start of the holiday that within two hours of the conclusion of Passover, the contract would be nullified and they would be allowed to eat the chometz in their pantries, sell the chometz on their store shelves, and resume baking breads and tossing pizzas. When the rabbi arrived home, he called two rabbinic colleagues and told them the story. There was always a loophole in these situations, but his peers denied any of his attempts to circumvent the reality. The contract was a legal document bound by both Jewish state and law. Woodsberg would have to maintain Passover dietary restrictions until Ernesto Gonzalez could be found, or a legal ruling overturning the contract could be made. The rabbi called his gabbai to spread the message quickly to all of Woodsberg that their chometz was still off limits. The gabbai had less than an hour to reach every household in town.
The next morning, mitzvah tanks drove up and down Pacific Parkway interrupting their usual uplifting chant and song with shouts of “Do not eat your chometz! The mechirah is not complete! Exile awaits those who eat their chometz!”The gabbai had done well. The nearest Jewish town, with its judicious rabbi and reliable chometz goy, was three hours away, and most Woodsbergers had never left Woodsberg, so long lines had already formed outside of Woodsberg’s kosher supermarkets. Families that could barely afford Passover food were now scraping the bottoms of their accounts in hopes of securing more. Restaurant and bakery owners hoping to resume their livelihoods queued outside the rabbi’s house hoping for a logical explanation at worst, a workaround at best. The most he could offer was the promise of a resolution in the near future, two weeks at the most. He had already booked a flight to Cuba for him and his wife. He vowed at morning davening to find Ernesto Gonzalez or bring back a solution from a gadol. He spent all day calling the gabbayim of the top rabbis in the world, attempting to speak to these rabbis so as to obtain a pardon for this dire situation. Unfortunately, none were able to help as there were hundreds of rabbis around the world with pressing questions. It would be weeks, maybe months, before he could get a credible reversal of his town’s fate.
Three months went by and nobody heard from the rabbi or his wife. His last known contact was with a Chabad house outside of Santa Clara. Left no other choice, restaurants and bakeries became kosher for Passover. Supermarkets filled their bread aisles with matzoh and macaroons and removed hundreds of products from their shelves. Mothers baked matzoh meal pancakes and challahs. Metamucil sales were at an all-time high.
After six months, not a single Woodsberger had eaten chometz. Some said the rabbi was still looking for Ernesto. Others said he was too embarrassed to come back, and whispered that he could go take a you-know-what in the ocean. The mothers felt bad for the rebbetzin, an innocent bystander.
The holy Woodsbergers waited. They waited for an answer from one of the great rabbis, or for Rabbi Teitelbaum to show up with the dollar in his pocket. They waited for months and then years, none of them ever touching their chometz.