Basil, a great little kosher neighborhood restaurant, sitting on the periphery of the Lubavitcher community finds itself caught in the middle of a socio-religious maelstrom, one that has even attracted the scrutinizing eye of the New York Times Magazine (provocative stories about religious Jews do sell papers!). Basil has an urban chic that draws a diverse clientele. Now it seems that this unlikely utopian gastronomic convergence is causing a bit of an uproar.
It’s ironic that one of the hallmarks of the Lubavitcher community is its uncanny ability to plant branches in even the most remote areas around the globe, offering friendly outreach services that attract affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Often you’ll find Lubavitcher shluchim inviting Jews to connect and come closer to their spiritual heritage through the mitzvah of Sabbath candle lighting, or donning philacteries, shaking a lulav, or offering assistance to travelers by joining them for prayers, a meal or a farbrengen (a chassidic gathering where various aspects of chassidus are taught, stories the past are told, etc.). So, here we are in their homestead – the 770 heartland – and chillin’ Basil is getting more than it’s share of being chilled out by protesting neighbors and others seemingly concerned for the spiritual well being of their community.
Their kosher supervising organization has been called in to check up, not on their kashrut protocols which are being adhered to the letter, but on those entering the restaurant and whether the eatery is putting their Jewish clientele in some sort of spiritual jeopardy by allowing all manner of clients and get up to enter their premises. Tell me, gentle reader, are we so fragile that we need this kind of policing? Do we really need to remove ourselves from our very environs in order to thrive and survive? Should we return to the ghettoes of yesteryear Europe? Shall we perhaps move into a 21st century American version of Rome’s 2000 year old Lungotevere Cenci – right next to the ruins of the Roman Forum and a few blocks from the Colisseum – where some Roman Jews still live, surrounded by fortress like walls with the Papal Arms at the gate? Where do we draw the line on what a supervisory organization can or cannot control in its granting of supervision? If they don’t like the music being played or who walks in off the street for a snack or a drink, can they pull their kosher certification? Clearly, we have the tenets of kashrus which must be followed scrupulously, and we understand that Basil does so.
When we interviewed Chef Adam, the first time we visited Basil, he mentioned – in passing – how time consuming it was to check the vegetables for bugs and how their culinary artistry is somewhat limited by the constraints of the high standards of kashrus they have to adhere to; yet, he was very proud of the fact that given the constraints they were still able to deliver the high quality and taste that brings customers back time and again.
We remember how Clara, the manager, discussed the attire and attitude of the staff as representing not just a place to eat, but also adhering and respecting the values of the Lubavitch community in whose midst they are located. When some felt the music had too much of a hip beat, Basil‘s management changed it to classical, which didn’t really detract at all (frankly, I thought it made it classier). But… the complaints continued; some protested the type of clientele, some objected to immodest modes of dress, others about speech and behavior, and talk swarmed around to whether kosher certification should be revoked if Basil allows such clients into their restaurant.
I suppose they could have a dress code – as some of the finer restaurants do – jacket and tie- no bare feet, no whatever… should they ban bare shoulders? short skirts? tattoos? foul language? touching? I mean, where do you draw the line? Should they start policing? Should they start handing out shawls, skirts and fig leaves to cover any uncovered areas?
Should the supervising organization threaten to remove their certification if they observe immodest clients eating or snuggling at the restaurant? Should such a dress and behavioral code be enforced throughout the NYC tri-state area? You can be sure that if such enforcement ever takes root, many a prestigious eatery will turn to less qualified, less careful kashrus organizations and the losers will be all of us – the kosher consumers. The fact remains that many of the higher end kosher establishments could not make it if their clientele consisted strictly of Orthodox Jews . I can just see our metropolis now – business men and women being thrown out of the finest kosher dining establishments because a dress is cut too low or a couple has been caught hugging or smooching between courses? Should we require horse blinders for humans and sell them at Basil‘s counter along with the frappé and cappuccino?
We live IN the world, not OUTSIDE of it. The true man of G-d knows how to walk among men and hold his own, gird his loins, look away when necessary, and mind his own counsel despite his surroundings. A true Jew knows how to be a beacon of light by living the Torah and not snuffing out all that glitters. We are the nation that since many a millenia has been turning sparks of ensoulment into huge flames of spiritual warmth and enlightenment. We hold our own in diversity and that is what makes us strong, that is what allowed us to endure after every mighty nation of yore is remembered mostly by its ever present ruins and tales of past glory.
Every upscale kosher restaurant and almost every other kind is constantly faced with the dilemma, but… guess what? A restaurant is not a shul, it is a public place and anyone might come in. Those who are bothered by the proximity of someone who does not meet their standards are under no obligation to patronize such an establishment.
What do you think, gentle reader? We’d love to hear your comments, pro or con.