By Larry Gordon

We—the Jewish community, that is—produce a great deal of garbage. This time I’m talking about genuine refuse, the kind that gets piled into tall black plastic bags with red ties that gets dumped either in the back of or alongside your home or apartment. Then a few times a week, some hardworking, muscular men pull up to the front of wherever you live and take that garbage away, making room for more.

Whether we as a people or a religion produce more garbage than any other group is a question that needs to be addressed by sociologists with greater insight on the ins and outs of the Jewish people (and who make a living talking about us), like Professor Samuel Heilman of Queens College or Dr. William Helmreich of City University of New York.

Or, if you don’t want to ask them garbage questions, you can always turn to Irving Kaminetsky, the veteran sanitation commissioner of the Sanitary District Number One on the western tip of Long Island that encompasses most of the Five Towns. Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten to know Irv, and on occasion I’ve called on him to address certain sanitation-related issues where I live in Lawrence. Why would I call on the commissioner to address such mundane, everyday issues? Well, I guess for no other reason than the fact that I know him, he is dedicated and helpful, and he helps me, I suppose you can say, cut through the whatever you’d like to call it—yes, the red tape, that’s it.

Irving Kaminetsky (a cousin to the rabbinical family of international renown) has been commissioner of our local sanitation district for over 30 years. Irv is a businessman, and while a good deal of his time is spent on sanitation issues, his pay for the work he does is minimal. Still, his dedication to dealing with, well, our garbage, really knows no bounds.

If you have moved from one of the five boroughs of New York City to this area over the last two decades or so, then one of the issues that probably weighed in favor of making the move was how the sanitation is handled on Long Island. It’s not just that it’s handled differently; the entire culture of garbage is dealt with in a way unlike the fashion it is approached in the city. In Brooklyn, a not-unusual sight on the days that the garbage was collected was seeing the receptacles—also known as garbage cans—strewn all over the place. The container was sometimes on one part of your block while the lid to the can was elsewhere. Very often the challenge was to match up your garbage cans to their tops and set them back in their place until the next time that the sanitation people had their way with them.

That wasn’t the case out here in what is still marginally considered the suburbs. Here on Long Island, garbage is treated with respect. Remember, those things in there used to be good enough for you to eat and otherwise utilize in some other constructive or productive way. That’s no reason to have it treated like, well, you know, garbage.

The most important feature of refuse collection out here is that under usual circumstances you don’t have to touch your garbage or the can in any way. No, they do not come into your house and retrieve the garbage for you. You still have to brave the elements and throw out your own garbage. What I am driving at is that the rule out here is that the collection people routinely go to the side or the back of your home and gently take the garbage bags or the cans and empty the contents into the back of those trucks that grind up just about anything and make it disappear.

Then they return your garbage cans to the place they found them until the next time. It’s a wonderful and even liberating thing to not have to be mindful of when you have to drag your garbage to the front of your home so that your refuse can benefit from taking a hike on the next big bad truck that pulls up on the street. I was once driving down 12th Avenue in Boro Park, and I thought I saw a garbage can in the middle of the street. My headlights reflected off the steel receptacle when I noticed that because of the snow on the street the can could not be appropriately placed at the curb. So the homeowner just placed his or her garbage cans in front of the snow, which happened to be about a third of the way into the roadway. Sorry, but that’s not our way.

But as time goes on, our garbage, or rather the things we throw out, seems to grow almost each and every week. So much so that even out here in the Five Towns and the greater Sanitary District No. 1 the idea of recycling had to be reluctantly introduced years ago in order to more effectively manage our garbage.

Far be it from me to recommend that a newspaper be thrown away. There comes a time, however, in every situation when it comes time to gently place it in that garbage drawer you have in your kitchen that conceals what really happens to those things you want to get rid of. You know what they say about when it’s time to go, which applies to some newspapers as well.

On the matter of recycling out here, years ago it was quite the ordeal to push the initiative, but by now the district has met with success.

And then there is the matter of garbage and halachah and where they cross paths. For many years people had been troubled that although they had disposed of the chametz early on erev Pesach, and the garbage was out of their home, the leavened products were technically still in their possession when the holiday arrived. There was concern that this might violate a biblical prohibition on possessing the chametz.

Since no one can guarantee a specific time when anyone’s garbage would be picked up, the innovation of stationing garbage trucks at specific locations so that, if you were “predisposed,” you could bring your garbage to meet the truck prior to the z’man at which possessing chametz was no longer allowed was introduced. Commissioner Kaminetsky informs us that for the last many years that service is available to Long Island residents in certain communities with a high percentage of Orthodox Jewish families, and in recent years, trucks have circulated the neighborhoods on erev Pesach for extra, last-minute garbage pickups.

There’s no question that the folks who handle or take all this garbage from us, the homeowners, do a great job. No matter what the weather is like, they are out there doing their duty, and we thank and salute them for efforts above and beyond the call of duty.
Commissioner Kaminetsky is running for his ninth 5-year term as commissioner of Sanitary District No. 1. Elections are Monday, July 8, 6:00-10:00 p.m. at One Bay Boulevard in Lawrence (behind Costco).

I cannot finish a piece on sanitation without the old Henny Youngman line about the woman (it can be a man, too, of course, but that’s the way Mr. Youngman told it) who ran out of her house with a bag of garbage after the truck had already passed her home. She ran after the garbage truck and called out to sanitation collector, “Am I too late for the garbage?”

The response was, “No, you’re not too late; jump right in.”

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  1. I was a student of Prof. Samuel Hellman almost a half-century ago at Queen College.
    Dr. Helmreich’s father was a friend of my Dad’s.
    Both good guys who know a lot about sociology, Jewish history and garbage!


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