Is Tel Aviv Going Kosher?

Thursday, December 08, 2016 |  Tsvi Sadan

Eating shellfish in the predominantly-Jewish city of Tel Aviv is not just about good cuisine. For many, non-Kosher restaurants stand for freedom from religion. 

Tellingly, a mere 3 people from Tel Aviv voted for the nationalist-religious Jewish Home party in the last election. And the city's culinary scene well reflects its commitment to secular liberal values. 

Indeed, so different is this city from any other in Israel that it is referred to by many as "The Bubble."

Still, secular as it is, one survey after another reveals that most Israelis, even in Tel Aviv, won't eat non-Kosher food. This means that inclusive as liberalism claims to be, non-Kosher restaurants exclude more than they include. Such restaurants might as well hang up signs stating: "Traditional Jews Not Welcome". Of course, if nothing else, such an approach would be bad for business in a Jewish city.

While it should be obvious, the restaurant industry has only realized in the past few years that it is suffering financially as a result of turning away most of its potential clientele.

In her article "Kosher and Successful" appearing in the December 2 edition of Makor Rishon, Racheli Malek-Buda opens the door to this industry that for decades ignored all those hungry people roaming the streets of Tel Aviv in search of Kosher steak, falafel, coffee and cake.

Restaurant owners are taking a considerable financial risk by turning Kosher, because it obligates them to be closed on Saturdays (Shabbat) and on biblical holidays. These establishments also must hire Kosher supervisors, who make sure the restaurants meets specific requirements (like the prohibition to mix meat with dairy products). 

Nevertheless, more and more restaurants begin to realize that Kosher can be financially successful. They also begin to realize that the demographic scene in Tel Aviv is changing.

Da Peppe, a much-loved pizzeria, could no longer sell its pepperoni pizza due to the many French immigrants who came to live in the neighborhood. Unwilling to compromise, the owner recently decided to close his business. Those who are not too proud are turning Kosher, mainly to stay in business. 

Yoav Valin, owner of Nini Hachi Sushi Restaurant, admitted that "opening up a Kosher restaurant was the best business decision we ever made." The main reason for this success is the delivery service that allows restaurants to work with big offices and companies. "We are working with Google, Facebook," said Valin, and "one religious employee is enough to make them order only Kosher."

But good business planning and demographic changes, important as they are, can't replace good food. 

Kosher restaurants are still perceived as dull and unattractive. Traditional Jewish food is also not viewed as particularly healthy. The limited choice of products and the religious restrictions present an almost unbearable challenge for chefs and cooks. But, as celebrity chef Nir Tzuk explains, "Today almost any product can be Kosher, and there are solutions from the vegan kitchen, [such as] cream made from cashew nuts … things unheard of up until a few years."

But these changes highlight different challenges. Tzuk says that many of his friends told him they will not eat in his new Kosher restaurant: "This saddens me, because it points to a serious problem we have in this country … there isn't too much love … Kosher restaurant sounds like a threat." The trend, however, seems to be unstoppable.

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