Clean, maybe, but is New York's water kosher?
By Michael Brick
|NAGILA WATER - IT AIN'T KOSHER|
New York City seems a fine place for an observant Jew to keep kosher. There are specialty shops for those who take multiple ultras in their orthodoxy, and for those of less strict beliefs, nearly every corner deli offers bagels and such. And it all works out just fine, provided you don't get thirsty. Some rabbis now say that New York City tap water - for a century a gold standard for cleanliness - is not kosher. These rabbis have recently discovered that there are tiny bugs, called copepods, in the unfiltered water that streams into the city from upstate. These bugs are harmless. But they are crustaceans.
And crustaceans are not allowed. Over the past two weeks, concern about the copepods in the water has grown into a matter of intense debate throughout the city's Orthodox Jewish communities. Disputes over interpretations of Talmudic law, part sport, part obsession and part spiritual imperative, spill into public view periodically in New York. Last month, for example, members of the Satmar community in Brooklyn took wigs made from Indian hair and burned them in the street. This concern about the water, though, "really spans the entire spectrum," said
Harold Skovronsky, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Midwood, a neighborhood where many people wear yarmulkes with business attire instead of the flowing robes worn by more strictly Orthodox Jews. ."They're not scared," he said. "It's purely a religious issue." Signs of concern abound in neighborhoods like Midwood, though they are muted. At Alexander's Hardware Locksmith, a worker named Gregory Likhtin has taken the water filters from a spot on the overflowing shelves and set them right up on the front counter near the cash register. A few blocks away, officials at Yeshiva Toras Emes Kamenitz elementary school have spent hundreds of dollars installing plumbing gear behind the walls, intending to filter the drinking water. Midwood is home to Rabbi Feivel Cohen, a ranking religious leader who has taken a stand against drinking unfiltered tap water, according to people who have heard him speak publicly. Cohen declared through a closed door that he was "not giving interviews." The dispute over the water is multifaceted and opaque. It goes all the way back to the dispute over the vegetables.
Alei Katif, a company based in Rehovot, Israel, that sells vegetables rabbinically certified as bug free to those who believe that ingesting insects is counter to Talmudic law, was accused by some Jews in New York of selling contaminated vegetables, said Yair Hoffman, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Queens. Alei Katif officials suggested instead that the vegetables became bug-infested upon being rinsed in New York, Hoffman said. (Calls to the company's headquarters on Sunday produced a long greeting in Hebrew that offered no way to leave a message.) Two weeks ago, Hoffman and others tested the company's assertion by subjecting city tap water to a microscope.
They saw copepods, millimeter-long zooplankton that are common in the ocean and in groundwater. ."And they're ugly," Hoffman said. Ugly though they may be, city officials and independent scientists agree that they are harmless. ."There's absolutely no health risk," said Charles Sturcken, a spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental Protection. Jonathan Cohen, a Duke University student who is writing a doctoral dissertation on copepod migration, said that some look like armadillos, some like bowling pins and other like rolling suitcases. ."It would be like swallowing a couple of gnats if you were outdoors on a summer evening," Cohen said. "If you take a gulp of water you might get a couple. But it's not like you're ingesting thousands of them."
The city's surface water supply provides 1.2 billion gallons, or 4.5 billion liters, of water daily to eight million people, and its cleanliness has won its overseers permission from federal authorities to skip filtering altogether, relying instead on chemical processes. .But the cleanliness of the water only provides fodder for the debate. What defines an insect? Does seeing one through a microscope constitute seeing one for the purposes of kosher law? And, perhaps most confoundingly, can a person legitimately claim not to see a copepod with the naked eye after looking through a microscope and learning what one looks like? Reactions from the faithful have been as varied as permutations of the original question. Saul Kessler, who sells wholesale water filters and installs full-home filtration systems, said he has received 100 phone calls from homeowners. "People are just on fishing expeditions; that's what I've found," said Kessler, who tells callers that a home system will cost between $800 and $2,500. Laser Shum is still drinking tap water.
"If you take a microscope, you'll see a lot of things you don't want to see," Shum said. He is boiling his tap water, he said, "but not because of that." And Lenny Berkowitz, 49, is waiting for consensus among the rabbis. "They'll let us know," he said. For Bahar Tuht, 23, an employee of Alexander's hardware store who is not Jewish, the rush on filters has been a learning experience. He has sold about 40 in the last two weeks, or about 20 times as many as in a normal two-week period, but his customers have become more selective about the kinds of filters they will buy, following subsequent declarations from their rabbis. "Some of the filters have a light indicator; the light goes on, it's no good for Shabbos," Tuht said. "I work here, I sell stuff. You learn."
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