The Chrayn Gang gets together for several heady hours annually to produce their own inimitable horseradish. The potent homemade chrayn (Yiddish for horseradish) is guaranteed to elicit bitter-herb tears at the seder table, and as an added bonus, the root-and-vinegar blend is also a powerful gefilte fish condiment.
The endeavor was initiated by Eric Singer, Mark Cohen, and Michael Robinowitz. Singer and Cohen have known each other since they met at Camp Blue Star when they were 9 years old. Singer lived in Columbus, Ga., during the camp years; however, the two renewed their friendship when Singer moved to Atlanta a couple of years later. As adults, in the mid-1980s, they decided to create custom horseradish, and the result is the Chrayn Gang.
Cohen recalls, “The present group is much larger than when we started. Eric, Michael and I were the original Chrayn Gang. By now, preparing chrayn has become a cherished yearly tradition for us and many friends, a way we get together to mark the passage of time. We always create valuable memories.”
Singer elucidates, “Our motivation at the time was to generate some first-rate, fresh, hot chrayn. It’s great to see people’s reactions to ‘the good stuff’ at the seder table. At this point we do it as much for the camaraderie, the ruach (spirit), and hiddur mitzvah (enrichment of a mitzvah.).
“The name ‘Chrayn Gang’ is a play on Chain Gang. We have different theme songs: ‘Chrayn Gang’ (original by Sam Cooke), ‘Chrayny Night in Georgia’ (Brook Benton), ‘Midnight Chrayn to Georgia’ (Gladys Knight and the Pips), ‘Chrayn of Fools’ (Aretha Franklin), and more. We even have a country-western-style song written by Marshall Duke, to the tune of ‘West Texas Blues,’ that we sing every year at the event.”
When the days start getting longer
And the matzos are in store
There’s a group that starts a-forming
And here’s what they’re forming for.
It’s the time to feel the spirit
Midst the pollen and spring rain
It’s the time to join together
And together make the chrayn.
With our hands joined round the table
With our voices raised in song
And the slivovitz a flowin’
There’ll be chrayn before too long.
First the knives are honed and sharpened
Then the root is peeled with care
Then the root goes in the blender
Blessed fragrance fills the air.
Each one breathes that blessed fragrance
Each one feels the power within
As the chrayn fills up the bottles
We all know the place we’re in.
It’s a place that we all dream of
Though we go there once a year
Where our souls are bound together
By that root we hold so dear.
Bless this place and bless this moment
Bless these jars, both red and white.
Bless this gang, whose hearts together
Have created chrayn tonight.
The Chrayn Gang has grown over the years, now with 15 to 20 participants. Some of the men bring their children and grandchildren, and the group became egalitarian two years ago, beginning with Jake Schwartz’s daughter Cydney.
Joining them and the original founders, Chrayn Gang participants include Zac Singer, Effie Spielman; Hillel, Netanya and Zamir Norry; Barak and Neal Cohen, Andy Deutsch, Arthur Kurtz and Paul Wolpe. There is no official manager of the group. The leadership of the Gang is, in Singer’s words, “Organic, usually the ‘alter cockers’ (euphemistically translated as ‘feisty elders’) kick things off.”
Making unforgettable horseradish is no simple feat and definitely not for the sensory-faint-of-heart. The chores are distributed among the participants. Preparatory tasks include acquiring the raw horseradish root, the mason jars and the vinegar. With the goal of perfection, gefilte fish and toothpicks are necessary for chrayn taste-testing.
Each year, Effie Spielman creates a different label and one of the Gang volunteers his home. Special kosher-for-Passover food processors and knives are used, and the chrayn is made at night, currently outside. This year the Gang will meet on Wolpe’s large porch, and as last year, everyone will wear a mask. The pungent atmosphere is sometimes overwhelming, and restorative breaks are a necessity.
“The Chrayn Gang begins with planning a few weeks before Pesach,” Cohen notes. “This, in turn, enlivens the anticipation of our family seders and builds our involvement in them.”
Singer continues, “We start with a short d’var Torah (words of Torah) by Gang member Rabbi Hillel Norry and we recite the Shehechiyanu (blessing for a new endeavor). Then we clean, peel and chop the roots, shred and blend them in food processors and add vinegar. Sometimes we may add a little cooked beet and we’ve even experimented with adding some jalapeno or extra wasabi as a kicker. The atmosphere in the room gets so strong that it is difficult to stay inside for very long. This is especially hard on the eyes and sinus passages. The initiation for new recruits requires them to stick their heads directly over a large bowl of fresh chrayn and take a big whiff, an awesome experience.”
Duke adds, “The Chrayn Gang makes at least 20 pounds of horseradish every year, and it effectively engages all one’s senses. Like some other Gang members, Duke replicates the entire chrayn-making process with his children and grandchildren, the youngest of whom is 7. Knives are among the tools, but Duke has it covered, “Our oldest grandchild is a pediatric resident, and one of our children is a physician, so we always have a medical personality present!”
Even though a great deal of manual work is involved, the exuberance of the Chrayn Gang permeates the experience. Slivovitz (kosher for Passover) and cigars are often involved, and all eventualities are covered with the employment of Uber and designated drivers.
The ambience of the annual venture is picturesquely described by Singer, “We’ve been known to sing and dance around the kitchen island, with our chrayn-filled food processors on long extension cords, to the sounds of Shlomo Carlebach.” Duke sums up the group’s longevity and kinship, “The Chrayn Gang is a bonding experience totally unlike any other!”