Image: Rami Neimi

Over the past few years, several new Jewish and Israeli-themed restaurants have emerged as some of the city’s hottest venues for bagels, hummus, and even the elusive New York-style pastrami sandwich. But if you happen to be one of the approximately 3,800 Jews in Greater Seattle who keeps kosher, you know that if you want to go out for your birthday or anniversary, if you and your non-observant friends want to share a meal out, or if you just don’t want to cook tonight, you have four brick-and-mortar options: vegetarian Chinese, vegetarian pizza, vegetarian Indian, or vegan pan-Asian. If you want a fancy dinner, you can reserve a table at an occasional Bistro Night at The Summit. There, you will be treated to a high-end meat meal — in a retirement home dining room with 200 of your fellow synagogue members.

The kosher-observant community seems to be resigned to this reality. Yet everyone who keeps kosher in Greater Seattle knows that the scene is less than appetizing. In an innovative city experiencing a Jewish population boom, why is the kosher scene so lacking in flavor?

 

Contrary to some popular notions, kashrut is not contingent on a rabbi’s blessing, and it’s more than just avoiding pork and shrimp or ungluing cheese from a burger. “Kosher” means “fit,” and what is “fit” is outlined in the Torah and expounded in rabbinic literature.

Three conditions must be met when declaring a restaurant kosher: The ingredients must be kosher, and food must be cooked by Jews and free of insects. Furthermore, restaurants cannot be operated by Jews on Shabbat, regardless of personal observance level, and meat restaurants must hire a full-time religiously observant supervisor, or mashgiach.

These requirements are ancient, and they inherently make keeping kosher hard. Over the past few decades, kosher consumption guidelines have become more regulated, too. This is mainly due to two factors: the rise of food science and industrialization, and “religiosity creep” — the tendency of the kosher establishment authorities and the kosher-keeping community to gradually move the bar higher.

“Orthodox Jews, like my grandparents’ generation, would be kosher by ingredient,” says Sue Fishkoff, the author of Kosher Nation. As Fishkoff outlines in her book, in the early part of the 20th century, meals were almost exclusively homemade, and kosher meat was bought directly from a butcher. The Orthodox Union, which launched a kosher supervision division in the 1920s, was the first national agency to provide a consistent set of rules and procedures for manufactured products. In 1923, the OU certified its first national product: Heinz Vegetarian Beans.

As the industrialization of food increased, certification of products became more commonplace. A catch-22 developed: “If it’s available, you’re being lax by not buying it,” Fishkoff says. “But it’s not going to be available if not enough people buy it.”

Fishkoff notes, too, that pre-war Orthodox American Jews were more liberal in dress and diet. “The increased stringency happened after the Second World War with the influx of Hasidim after the Holocaust,” she says. Standards for observance and kashrut gradually went up, until foods once considered innocuous, like berries and asparagus, underwent new scrutiny.

“It’s about social pressure,” Fishkoff continues. “You don’t want to be seen as ‘less than.’ You want to be toeing the community line.” By the 1980s, as certification became widespread, the practice of “kosher by ingredient” had fallen out of practice for most Orthodox Jews. The OU’s kosher division had grown from a humble certifier of baked beans to one of the “big four” kashrut agencies in America, dictating a uniform set of kosher rules for modern consumers to abide by more passively.

Holding a uniform kashrut standard across American Orthodox institutions is important, because it ostensibly ensures no single certifying rabbi or agency is being lax or dishonest. The downside — some argue — is that the standards are shifting ever upward, making keeping kosher increasingly difficult.

 

On a seasonably sunny morning in July, I meet with Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, director of the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, a religious council comprised of Orthodox rabbis that oversees restaurants, caterers, and locally made kosher products.

Kletenik formally took the helm at the Va’ad in 2013; he is also Av Beit Din, leader of the Jewish legal court that handles divorce, conversion, and verifications of Jewish identity. The Va’ad started to take its current shape in 1996 as a well-intentioned initiative to implement a single kosher standard in Seattle. This was after decades of independent rabbis authorizing their own decisions and after the rabbi leading kosher efforts left town following a scandal.

Al Maimon, the Va’ad administrator for a number of years, recounts that OU rabbis were brought in to run the nonprofit entity, and from there a relationship with the national agency took root. “The OU had expertise, and we had a natural connection to that expertise,” Maimon says.

Keeping kosher in Seattle was always hard, says Maimon. Some restaurant owners lack business acumen, and the relatively small kosher community can’t — or doesn’t — support the enterprises. The fact that Jews cannot be involved with business operations on Shabbat has also precluded several establishments from securing certification.

Another factor makes it hard for business owners to go kosher: increasing regulation around kashrut, as determined by the national agencies.

Kletenik, who is reserved in a traditional rabbinic way, becomes animated when talking about Jewish legal complexities. He wants to show me the bugs. He opens his computer to a slideshow with 15 close-ups of aphids, leaf miners, and thrips. “I can tell you from my own experience, if something says triple-washed and ready to eat, you can still find infestation,” he says.

Kosher-observant Jews have always checked their produce for insects. But starting in the 1980s and ’90s, kosher authorities discovered a newfound passion for the task. Nowadays, much of the mashgiach’s job is checking for infestation, and Seattle’s kosher establishments see a mashgiach come almost every day. “In The Summit,” Kletenik says, referring to the Jewish retirement home on First Hill, “we have a mashgiach washing four hours just to meet their needs.”

The most recent innovation, the “thrip cloth method,” involves washing produce three times in soapy water then straining it through a fine cloth (the thrip cloth) between two strainers, then looking at the vegetables over a light box.

Kletenik sees the developments in regulation as par for the course. “Things have changed,” he explains. “Ten years ago, we were using what were the same standards of the OU. Over the years, the OU has changed how to do things. We change along with what’s happening with kashrut on a national level.”

Some, however, say the national standards have gone off the rails.

“The OU is so, so stupidly strict,” one mashgiach, who wishes to remain anonymous, says. “You’d think I was at the Ganges River washing my underwear. It used to be: Wash the vegetables in the bowl, the second bowl, the third bowl, go home. The OU is always looking at ‘what if?’ They’ll always put a doubt [in your mind]; you’ll always be sorry you asked the question in the first place. There is no rationality.” 

Outrage over strict regulation is shared by others in the food service industry. Shimi Kahn agreed to kasher his food truck, Falafel Salam, in 2015, for a Jewish music festival in Seward Park. Encouraged by the experience, he decided to open a kosher catering side business. Kahn, who bears a resemblance to a young Jim Carrey, grew up in a respected local Orthodox family but no longer keeps kosher. Outside his truck in Georgetown after a weekday lunch rush, he tells me how it all went down.

Following the advice of the Va’ad, he says, he bought all new equipment, even new deep fryers. He locked it all in a shed at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth in such a way that no one could tamper with it. “Under supervision, we put the stuff away,” he says. “Then the next time I pulled the stuff out — with the Va’ad — they made us kasher the whole thing again.”

Kahn feels that the requirement to re-kasher the untouched equipment went above and beyond any standard of kashrut. “I told them that what they’re talking about is not Judaism. It’s nonsense. It’s politics.” He believes the Va’ad was trying to milk the hours it could get from the mashgiach so it could charge more. (Kletenik recalls that the problem had to do with Kahn running simultaneous kosher and non-kosher enterprises.)

“It was only a power situation,” Kahn says. “I know what machmir [stringency] is, but we were past that. The Va’ad wants to maintain their power.”

 

 

But the Va’ad is the only game in town. What kind of power would they be trying to hold on to, and what kind of money are they making?

“There’s a great myth out there,” Kletenik says. “The Va’ad does not make money on kosher food service. We’re happy to break even on kosher restaurants and on the catering.” The Va’ad’s most recent tax return on file, from 2016, shows expenses (supervision, salaries, rent, administrative costs) outweighing revenue, which comes primarily from certifying industrial products. “The fee for the mashgiach’s hours is used to pay the mashgiach. We pay employment taxes and do all the paperwork. Do we profit? No.”

The issue of strictness is part of a bigger picture: Seattle’s kashrut status benefits its reputation as a Jewish law-abiding city. The Va’ad and Beit Din are recognized nationally and overseas. This doesn’t just matter to Orthodox Jews. Secular Israelis and Reform and Conservative Jews come to the Beit Din for divorce and letters proving Jewish identity — letters that will be accepted anywhere in the world, including by the notoriously rigid Israeli rabbanut. If you’re halachically Jewish and you want to get married in Israel, for instance, the rabbanut will not accept your Reform rabbi’s letter vouching for your identity. It will accept the Va’ad’s. 

“The fact that the integrity of the Va’ad in all the various areas of application of Jewish law is nationally and internationally accepted creates the trust that enables the Va’ad to better serve our community in all these areas that are central to Jewish communal life,” Kletenik says. “It is crucial for people’s lives that the geirut, gittin, and Jewish identity letters of the Va’ad are accepted by the rabbanut and throughout the world.”

 

The best formula for a successful kosher restaurant here is a vegetarian place with a non-kosher clientele. Managers at Pabla Indian Cuisine, in Renton, and Bamboo Garden, on Lower Queen Anne — both vegetarian — told me they’re ultimately happy with their decision to go kosher. The kosher patrons are happy and a boon to business.

But what about meat, the holy grail of a kosher community? What would it take to open a meat restaurant? 

“I would love to be a kosher restaurant,” Vance Dingfelder, the owner of Dingfelder’s Delicatessen on Capitol Hill, says between handing out stacks of pastrami and corned beef to salivating Seattleites. The cost, however, is just too high. The Mrs. Maisel — 12 ounces of pastrami and salami — is already $22. Serving kosher meat means tripling the per-pound price, he says. “I’ve watched people try to make a successful kosher place and fail because they can’t make it profitable,” he says. “If it is profitable, they don’t have the volume. You’re alienating people with the prices.”

Dingfelder is open to creative solutions. He could hire a mashgiach in Los Angeles and put a camera in his kitchen, he says, which could fulfill the requirement of constant supervision. But Seattle is a small town, and there’s no point in getting outside certification. He also says he’s proposed running a kosher meat restaurant out of Chabad as a nonprofit — a model similar to Maple Grill in Vancouver, BC.

Other innovative concepts are out there. Despite having a large Jewish population, Washington, DC, had one kosher restaurant until a Modern Orthodox synagogue, Ohev Sholom–The National Synagogue, launched its own kashrut agency in 2018 as an alternative to the Vaad HaRabanim of Greater Washington. DC Kosher has been certifying vegan and vegetarian restaurants at breakneck speed.

How? By enlisting volunteer mashgichim and offering certification for free. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who launched DC Kosher with Maharat Ruth Friedman, considers the mashgiach work part of his job. “The more kosher options, the more likely people are to keep kosher, and the more likely they are to remain connected to their faith in meaningful ways,” he says. “The traditional model is that the business owner has to pay for the certification. I don’t think it’s the best model.”

Could a model like DC Kosher’s work in a place like Seattle? Herzfeld thinks yes. But Kletenik says he can’t even find enough mashgichim who will do the work for pay. “First of all, there’s extensive training. It’s not just a matter of dropping in and checking; it’s a matter of washing and checking vegetables for an hour or more,” he says. Furthermore, DC Kosher is affiliated with the newly formed Beltway Vaad, which emerged as an alternative to the Vaad HaRabanim of Greater Washington after a fallout. Beltway is not considered accepted by the mainstream rabbinic institutions like — you guessed it — the OU. It’s hard to know if this is because it might hold to kosher standards outside the norm, like less intense vegetable inspection, or because of politics.

“You have to have somebody with balls” in order to make change here, the anonymous Seattle mashgiach says. “We don’t allow ourselves to innovate, and we can. No one’s going to take that risk. There are no risk-takers in Seattle.”

The Va’ad may not be open to innovation, but Kletenik emphasizes that he’s always in talks with possible ventures.

“So many restaurant ventures fail, period. When you add the additional kosher restrictions, it makes it challenging,” Kletenik says.  He welcomes the idea of an investor, and he encourages people to approach restaurants and ask if they’ll consider certification.

“The Va’ad is always willing,” he says. “We’re always exploring.”

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