Preserving or Policing the Dilemma?

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.

Photo by: brownstoner.com

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.


7 Responses to “Preserving or Policing the Dilemma?”

  1. October 12, 2010 at 7:48 am

    I read the wonderful article in the Times and agree with you wholeheartedly. We should be welcoming and inclusive. I think what Basil’s owner is trying to do is admirable and I wish him all the best.



  2. 2 Rabbi Rachamim Pauli
    October 12, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Pure anti-Semitism as usual.


  3. 3 MArk
    October 12, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    just another thing people have to complain about because they are bored.


  4. 4 Shuli
    October 12, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    I have some points for and against. I fully believe that frum establishments need not cater to narrow minded whims of more extreme views, fanatics do not represent any measurable percentage of their clientele, nor do they represent the majority of frum Jews.

    Having said that HOWEVER, a place of business that IS kosher and DOES want the frum community to frequent it has to adhere to a MINIMUM level of tznius/modesty that SHOULD be observed by all its clientele. There can be a dress code of skirts to the knee, at least short sleeves (no sleeveless or halters) and no frontal exposure [deep V necks, transparent blouses, etc.] Have tasteful lightweight/gauze shawls/tichel-types available for women to easily drape on and cover up, w/a pre-printed tastefully worded explanation of a modicum of Jewish modesty rules for women, and that it is the way to allow the maximum range of clients to all be there and feel comfortable w/ each other… much as Kotel and other NON-Shul Jewish sites have these “rules” too.

    NO, we don’t police tattoos, or force men to wear kippot, cuz its NOT about being religious, it’s about not offending the religious or forcing THEM to not come, because others don’t think they need to be respectful of THEIR needs.

    Yes, its nice to change music to a more parve alternative, if its not too much bother, but that is a bonus. Kol hakavod to them!

    NO, they SHOULD NOT police foul language, etc… just like in ANY restaurant, if clients are LOUD or FIGHTING or too rowdy, they can be asked to quiet down or leave.. but beyond that, if they are withing generally accepted parameters of dining, its no one’s business how they speak, if it is not too loud.

    There MUST be a balance of common sense, common decency, and yes, sticking up for at least base minimum of Torah modesty laws, just as they stand up for base minimum [at least] of Kashrut laws and customs.


  5. 5 William Brock
    October 13, 2010 at 7:19 am

    It sounds to me that there there is always oppression in both, fundamentalism and strict orthodoxy. Sad to say, but when Jews try to impose their lifestyles on the others in the world around them, they cause probems only for themselves. Ever read “Postville”? It doesn’t matter if you “are new here or not”, your beliefs do not extend to the limit of forcing others to follow them. It is not just true for Jews, but for all. Those gentiles not prepared for the restrictions will feel as did the blacks in Woolworth’s in the South. Turned away because of racial differences. Is that what any Jew wants to promote? I hope not.

    If the certification is pulled, whose world shrinks? Those who will only go to a kosher place, no longer have that place to go. I would guess the chef will still be able to make money, and bring in many more customers than he would lose, by commercializing it back to louder music, etc.


    • October 13, 2010 at 8:58 am


      You are wrong in your understanding of Jews. Had I been professional enough and spoken to Basil’s manager – Clara Perez, the Catholic Colombian manager – before posting it, this post would either not have been posted or it would have read very differently. It seems the New York Times article manufactured most of the facts and misrepresented others. For example, when yeshivah students demonstrated against the restaurant Clara did not call the police, nobody was endangered or threatened and it ended as peacefully as it started… in spite of Frank Bruni’s dramatic aspirations in the matter. In any case, the restaurant’s owner is an Orthodox Jew, who is only interested in a kosher restaurant. The restaurant would not exist if it couldn’t be kosher.

      If you read our post, we at The Kosher Scene (proud Orthodox Jews that we are), do not believe in imposing any standards on anyone, we do believe however that (like other fine restaurants around town) Basil might think of recommending a dress code. This is not a religious issue, the restaurant management would have no right – for example – in insisting that men wear a kippa, for example (nor should they even bother recommending it!), or that women wear floor length skirts or dresses and tops covering though the neck, with three quarter length sleeves. At the same time, it would be nice, if those who might want to frequent the place would dress modestly BUT that is an individual decision not one that can or should be imposed.

      If the certification is pulled, according to Clara, it would not be because of a lack of harmonious relations between the certifying agency and the restaurant’s management, it would only be because of the mistruths and misleading negativity Bruni’s article heaped on the agency (as it might impact on their relationship with other establishments).

      I probably misunderstand (I may be oversensitive) and maybe it’s not how you meant to write it but when you say, “when Jews try to impose their lifestyles on the others in the world around them, they cause probems only for themselves.,” it smacks of certain latent feelings about a specific people – my people. Certainly there are zealots who happen to be Jewish, but like almost everyone else – regardless of creed, skin color or ethnicity – these zealots, though vociferous, are a tiny minority and they do not threaten anyone’s life or limb, they do not throw stones, nor do they shout for hours at the top of their lungs.


  6. 7 zelda
    October 13, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I used to hear comments by people like William Brock, when i lived in Berlin in 1936, the jews are imposing themselves on our German way of life, we know what happens next, so it is best that you keep your vile, foul mouthed, anti- Semitic diatribes to a minimum. you are causing more hatred than any of the people featured in this article. Judaism does not force its views on anyone, as opposed to you, you third rate nazi

    Zelda Feffenburg


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