Monday, May 16, 2011

Kosher restaurants - serving Meat AND Dairy products

I am fascinated with the process by which eating establishments are certified as “kosher,” particularly after I had some involvement in a Canadian lawsuit involving now defunct Levitts Meats – which was for many years, the quintessential purveyor of kosher Montreal smoked meats – for Montrealers and the Canadian Jewish community in general. Levitts failed in its bid to break into the monopolistic Toronto kosher market – and subsequently went bankrupt – much to the disappointment of smoked meat connoisseurs everywhere. The politics involved in Levitt’s battle to obtain kosher certification for its meat products in Toronto were simply astounding. This seems to be the case in many other areas as well.

Last year, before the huge fire that burned the place down, I visited the IKEA store in Netanya, Israel. IKEA had been newly purchased by an owner interested in ensuring that its Israeli operations were Kosher and Sabbath observant (i.e. closed from sundown Friday until after sundown Saturday night). I arrived at about 10:15 a.m. at the IKEA restaurant on a weekday morning. IKEA is, of course, famous for providing a variety of Swedish delicacies at very reasonable prices – including Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon (lox). At this IKEA location, all of the products had been certified as “Kosher” – so observant Jewish clientele could now eat Swedish meatballs – and other Swedish dishes.

The interesting thing – from my point of view – was that this location also included an espresso bar – adjacent to the main IKEA restaurant. Normally, kosher establishments offer either dairy products or meat products – but not both. This IKEA offered a regular coffee bar – with cappuccinos, lattes etc., made with milk products- right next to the meat restaurant.

I spoke with some employees – who explained to me the following: Between 7 a.m. or so (store opening) and 10 a.m. – the coffee bar used real milk and dairy products. At about 10:15 a.m. – the Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) would arrive and clean all of the equipment – including the mugs, dishwasher and espresso machines. At about 10:15 a.m. – the coffee bar would officially switch to “pareve” status – meaning non-dairy – and non- meat. They would use soy milk only for the rest of the day (but with the same mugs…).

In my humble view – this represented quite a liberal approach – since you cannot normally “kosher” ceramic mugs – but it was certified by two different authorities – both the local Netanya authority – and the Jerusalem Rabbinical authority. That has to be good enough for me! Alas, the IKEA burned down – in a fire that I have written about in another article – so it remains to be seen what will become of the kosher status of the IKEA restaurant in the newly renovated premises.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. The Aroma Coffee bar in Ra’anana has been newly renovated. Aroma is.a wonderful Israeli-owned coffee shop chain (which has expanded into some North American cities including Toronto and New York). The coffee is tastefully strong but not as bitter as Starbucks – the lattes and cappuccinos are terrific. Each coffee is served with a little chocolate square. (For now – they are all milk chocolate though I think they would be better off to offer a choice of milk or dark but I digress…).

Some of the Aroma Coffee shops in Israel are certified as kosher. These establishments have generally served only dairy products. The menu is diverse with a wide selection of healthy salads, sandwiches and soups. Picture a healthy Tim Hortons, with espresso products… For example, try a Portobello mushroom /pesto sandwich on whole wheat bread – or a quinoa/yam/mint salad. You can get a printed information sheet with the calorie count, fat content and other nutritional information for each item. Until recently, the location in Ra’anana, Israel was certified as kosher and served only dairy products. It seemed to me that the location was generally full and quite successful. Some other locations in Israel are open on Saturdays (Shabbat) and serve certain meat items (chicken etc.,) – which disqualifies them from kosher certification since they can’t mix dairy and meat – or so you would have thought…

Recently, the Ra’anana location underwent significant renovations. Aside from renovating the physical premises, the ownership decided to begin offering meat products together with dairy products – at the same location. Somehow – they obtained kosher certification for this enterprise. So you can now order a smoked meat sandwich – or a meat chilli dish – in the same restaurant in which you can order a Greek salad with Bulgarian cheese. Apparently, the products are prepared in different parts of the kitchen.

For anyone used to the traditional interpretation of kosher laws, this sounds crazy. How can a person order a meat sandwich and a latte in the same place (without violating Jewish dietary law)? By way of comparison, all of the kosher establishments in cities like Toronto are certified as either dairy or meat. Apparently, the Ra’anana Kosher authorities have agreed to licence the establishment as kosher – as long as it only serves the meat products as “take-out” and prepares everything with separate equipment. I am not sure if the staff are actively policing the policy – and asking meat eaters to leave the restaurant – but I am quite sceptical.

So we now have a restaurant in Ra’anana – certified as kosher – where you can go in and order a smoked meat sandwhich – together with a café latte, made with milk – and the establishment is “kosher.”

The really strange thing – is that there are really only two or three meat items on the menu – so it seems like an awfully great hassle for a few small items. One wonders whether this is a trial balloon of some sort to determine whether to convert the restaurant into a non-kosher establishment.

Alternatively – the level of flexibility is astounding. The same Va’ad Harabonim (Rabbinical Council) that will reject romaine lettuce, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli, among other vegetables (for fear of insect contamination) – and will certainly reject any role for women in formal Jewish prayer ceremonies – is prepared to look the other way while an establishment serves dairy and meat products – at the same time – to the same customers.

I can only conclude that the Aroma in Ra’anana agreed to pay whatever exorbitant price was requested by the Ra’anana authorities. What else could explain this type of establishment? I have cynically concluded that for the right price – you can have a pig declared to be “kosher.”

Curiously enough, I found myself in a coffee bar in Tel-Aviv last week – that was certified “kosher – chalavi-basari” – meaning that it could serve both dairy and meat products. This was only a few days after I saw what was going on in the Aroma in Ra’anana. So, apparently there are quite a number of establishments in Israel that are now able to take advantage of these liberal rules.

I can’t say that I really oppose these “liberal” approaches to Jewish law. However, I can say that I would like to see these liberal principles applied to other areas of Jewish “law” and tradition – such as the role of women in the traditional prayer service.

These same Rabbis, sitting on the Kosher Council of Rabbis – willing to approve of this kind of establishment – continue to adamantly oppose the idea of women reading from the Torah, praying at the kotel (the Western Wall) or participating in a Jewish religious service as equals. Perhaps one day, they will apply the same “liberal” approach to gender issues that they apply to kosher issues.

In the meantime, as liberal as I am, I am becoming queasy about the idea of eating any food items in the Ra’anana Aroma…though I suppose it is the same as eating dairy (non-meat products) in any otherwise non-kosher establishment. However – it does not seem to have fazed Kippah (skullcap)-wearing Orthodox Jews, who continue to patronize to the location in droves.

Interesting to compare this to Ra’anana’s kosher McDonald’s – which is almost across the street –and which was forced to open a second “take out” bar location – (where ice cream and other dairy products are sold) to retain its kosher certification.

Ultimately, it seems to me that one part of the appropriate solution, both for Ra’anana and places like Toronto – is access to a range of Kosher certifying authorities. The range of options will create healthy competition and will eliminate the problems that are inevitably created by deferring to one centralized monopolistic establishment.

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