Of Fish Tacos and Otherness –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 3, 2014

I grew up in the 1970’s in one of the only Orthodox Jewish families in a small Connecticut town.  I did not know then that kosher keeping Jews could eat in a restaurant.  I never had eaten in one and the thought of doing so did not even cross my mind.   Once a year we would make the three hour drive to Manhattan where there were, I think three or four kosher restaurants.


I was recently in Los Angeles walking along Pico Boulevard near Robertson where almost every restaurant, perhaps 20 or so, is kosher.  Sitting in one of the LA kosher Chinese restaurants as my company critically evaluated the food, I remembered myself as a child eating my once-a-year lunch at Moshe Peking, eating such “exotic” food, and thinking, this must be the best food in the entire world, how lucky am I, how lucky are the Jewish people to have such a gift, a fancy restaurant to eat at in New York City. 


Fast forward to last week, eating fish tacos on MalibuBeach where the only restaurant, and indeed prominently located across from the Malibu Pier, is kosher.  One would not have known if they did not look for the hashgacho, the kosher supervision symbol, that it was kosher, and no doubt the many non-Jewish Asian tourists eating there did not. 


It seems in 40 years the relationship of Jews to restaurants has revolved 180 degrees.   To sit in one of the few kosher restaurants in the 1970’s was to feel that one had been given a perhaps all too indulgent gift, taken a bit of the non-Jew’s ambrosia.  Now the restaurant itself is Jewish and it is the non-Jew who must enter our domain if they wish to have the most trendy food on the trendiest beach. 


Perhaps there is a danger in this, the Jew riding at the crest of the popular wave, the Jew becoming the measure of society instead of the outcast who is allowed periodically to feel a bit like everyman when eating out.  Perhaps suddenly, the other has become everyman, the outsider can now feel not only like the insider but like the measure of all things.  I wonder how this might take its toll on what it means to be a Jew in exile, on what it means to be a Jew at all. 


Perhaps the greatest irony is in that our rabbis created certain food laws to keep the Jew separate from the non-Jew, for instance not eating their cooking or their bread and so making it more difficult to socialize with them, in their world.  Never did they imagine that those boundaries would erode due to the non-Jew eating the cooking of the Jew, that the Jew would become the measure of society at large, or at least of the trendy fish taco joint in the most prime location on Malibu beach.  

Rabbi Lopatin’s Travelblog: 24 hours in Cincinnati

August 25, 2009

My wife and I and our kids packed up the car and headed on Saturday night for the great city of Cincinnati.  Just about five hours from Chicago, Cincinnati is in Ohio, but only minutes from Indiana – which feels like Illinois – and from Kentucky – the South!  Reform Judaism is still big in this town, and the original HUC branch has been given a lease on life only recently, and the great Reform synagogue, the Isaac Wise Synagogue (formerly Plum Street Synagogue) is still glorious.  But I want to point out three highlights of this trip that highlight some exciting things from the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

We went to a wedding at Adath Israel  Congregation, which has been led for the past 18 years by Rabbi Irvin Wise (Reb Irv).  You have to see this shul: I’ve seen a lot of shuls of all movements, but this shul is stunning because for a shul of 600 members (or so I was told) it is huge!  It has a Hebrew school building that would be reasonable for a nice sized day school; it has a parking lot bigger than Detroit, Motown Conservative synagogues, and there is a totally unused grassy lot next to the parking lot that is equally as large.  The shul is even more beautiful inside, with a six year, multimillion dollar renovation recently completed.  Stunning and contemporary stained glass windows in the sanctuary, granite counters in the bathrooms, with a combo of automatic faucets and manual ones as well, presumably for those who don’t use electricity on Shabbat.  There were rooms and rooms, and a huge social hall where each table had its own spotlight to shine on the centerpiece.  This shul is a living monument to the glory days of the Conservative movement.  I have no illusions that Adath Israel must have its challenges which affect all Conservative shuls, and especially in the Midwest, but I urge you to go to Cincinnati and see this shul, and you will be taken back 50 years to the days when it seemed that Conservative Judaism would lead all Jews into a beautiful future as proud Americans.  Again, we all know the difficulties all American Jews face, but especially the Conservative movement, but you won’t feel it when you go to a wedding at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.

But don’t only go to Cincinnati to relive the glory of Conservative Judaism.  Go there for the kosher places under the supervision of the local Orthodox Va’ad.  I have heard that Orthodoxy in Cincinnati is struggling and splintered – and my friend Rabbi Hanan Balk of the Orthodox Golf Manor Synagogue was not in town for the one day I was there, so I could not delve further into the challenges for the Orthodox community in Cincinnati.  But I must say that the Vaad has its act sufficiently together to supervise  three unique kosher eateries that are worth the trip: First, the quaint Kinneret Kosher that is the quintessential mom and pop dairy restaurant: The pop took our order and provided coloring sheets and crayons to my four kids.  The mom was in the kitchen cutting up the tomatoes for the tuna Panini that I ordered.  Actually, the Panini did taste exactly the way they tasted in Paris, but the quality of the food was not the star here: the grace of a small operation, and the love and sweetness of the owners were what was really unique here.  Second, Marx’s bagels – it’s a chain, but only one has hashgacha : They have the most amazing French toast bagels – that taste exactly like French toast.  OK, you say, fine, but not worth flying to Cincinnati for.  Maybe, but the final place I tried is a fantastic, low keyed, kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant called Amma’s.  They have a great lunch buffet, all you can eat for $8.99, including taxes and dessert and the place is filled with real Indian people, not just a bunch of Jews who think they know authentic Indian.  Amazing!  Amma’s is the  vegetarian equivalent of Kohinoor in the Crown Plaza in Jerusalem, which is the best meat Indian I have ever had.  But meat, anyone can make tasty; vegetables are a different story. I’ve had a lot of vegetarian Indian – including a lot in India when Rav Ahron Soloveichic said I could trust the strict vegetarianism of India, but this food in Cincinnati was by far the best.  I am already thinking of ways of getting back to Cincinnati to get some more of this great Indian cuisine, and to go back for seconds of the rice pudding dessert.  Kudos to Orthodoxy in Cincinnati for getting this places under Hashgacha.  This city is a gem – great museums, skyline, great people and between Adath Israel and Amma’s Indian cuisine, it will take you to a different place as a Jew and a connoisseur of style and good food.  Someone is doing something right in Cincinnati.

Asher Lopatin