At age 7, comedian and Saturday Night Live alum, Pete Davidson lost his father, a firefighter, at Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks. Opening the October 14 episode of SNL, Davidson reflected on that and on how the brutality of the events in the Middle East brought him back to “a really horrible, horrible place.”
“No one deserves to suffer like that, especially not kids,” he said.
Still, he said, he would do what he does best, and what he always does in the face of tragedy, and that is comedy.
Similarly the restaurateurs of Tel Aviv will do what they do best: prepare and serve food. But this time with a twist. Israel’s second-largest city, unlike Jerusalem—the largest—and other locales rich in ancient heritage, Tel Aviv is modern and secular in mode, fashion and cuisine. While many, if not most, public eateries in the country serve kosher food—prepared and selected strictly according to the dietary laws of Judaism—the Tel Aviv taste includes shrimp, lobster and pork—all decidedly off-limits to observant Jews.
But now a number of restaurants, as a service to the men and women in uniform who can only eat kosher—food that is passed as kosher by rabbinical supervision—are converting their kitchens to facilities that can serve kosher meals.
Echoing Pete Davidson’s sentiments, Yuval Ben Neriah, the owner of Taizu, a chic Asian-fusion restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv, said, “We felt we needed to do something, and what we know how to do is cook.
“We took a decision late Saturday after this attack began that we’re going to do everything we can. First of all, to support our soldiers and secondly to support our staff, which is very stressed, and they need obviously something to do.”
“I decided first we’re going to cook everything that we have available and then afterward we want to provide as much as we can,” Ben Neriah said.
And so that night, just hours after the surprise assault by terrorists, Taiza, along with many other restaurants in the city, underwent the process of becoming kosher. In kitchens across Tel Aviv, kosher certifiers—mashgichim—prepared surfaces, ovens, pots, pans and dishes for kosher use, courtesy of Tzohar, a nonprofit accustomed to monitoring and maintaining the kashrut—literally, “kosherness”—of foods and kitchens.
“Some restaurants called us and asked us to make their restaurants kosher,” said Rabbi Ohad Tzadok of Tzohar. “We came with some people and we made it kosher; it takes two to three hours and then after that, we’re coming in every day to these restaurants that weren’t kosher, from when they opened to when they close, checking things.”
Mostly, he said, his staff monitors food donations, making sure they are all kosher-certified products.
“The restaurants are cooperating with us; they really care that every soldier can eat the food that they make,” Tzadok said.
There are many mouths to feed. In addition to the 300,000 reservists that have been called up that add to the already somewhat under 200,000 active personnel, there are the displaced families from the Southern Israel towns and villages that received the brunt of the Hamas attack. Many of those refugees are from religious communities and can only eat kosher. The result, according to Ben Neriah, is that for the two restaurants he manages, his staff and volunteers are cooking between 4,000 and 5,000 kosher meals a day.
The switch to kosher involves much more than no pork or lobster. Biblical law forbids the mixing of meat and dairy and so for convenience, most kosher restaurants will exclusively serve just one or the other. Utensils, dishes and cutlery which have been used for non-kosher foods are considered treif—Yiddish for unclean—and must be sterilized or disposed of.
In ordinary times, it is Israel’s state-run rabbinate that dictates strict kashrut certifications of public eateries, and the somewhat more lenient Tzohar has occasionally run into some challenges from them. However, in light of the current crisis no complaints have surfaced.
Currently, according to Rabbi Tzadok, Tzohar is working with converting and maintaining the kashrut of six restaurants and expects to do more.
A restaurant that called on the rabbinate, rather than Tzohar, is the trendy seafood restaurant, Shila, run by Sharon Cohen. Raised in the strict Orthodox Jewish tradition, Cohen observed that the rabbinate is displaying more wiggle room in its certification.
“I never thought I would have a kosher restaurant,” he said. “I’ve had many offers in the past to make a kosher restaurant, but I always said, I’ll never let the rabbis get between my legs like that; I’m a bit of an anarchist, don’t do well with people telling me what to do. Now you need to decide if you want to be with your ego, be stubborn, or to do the right thing and to do for everybody. If we need to be a bit kosher, we’ll be a bit kosher.”
Cohen, too, is basically running on donated food and fumes. Like Ben Neriah, the donations of produce and funds don’t cover the need. He estimates his current production cost to make 2,500 meals daily at $15,000 every 24 hours.
Pete Davidson, in his Saturday Night Live opening, said, “Sometimes comedy is really the only way forward through tragedy.” To which restaurateurs like Yuval Ben Neriah and Sharon Cohen might add, “And food. We can’t do without the food.”
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