Rabbi and educator Gilah Kletenik says that the appeal of a kosher diet for young Jews may be ethical. “These things [like kashrut and ethics] are not in isolation, they are a part of a larger system of holiness,” she says, tracing the dietary laws back to the book of Leviticus, which centers on ritual, purity, and morals. “This is someone saying, ‘The earth is not yours to plunder.’”
Anna Hanau, co-founder of Grow and Behold, one of two sustainable, certified kosher-meat producers in the country, agrees that much of the renewed interest in kashrut lies in a desire to find a moral grounding.
Hanau’s husband had originally trained to become a shochet, or ritual slaughterer under kosher law, for their family homestead. They were both influenced by environmentalism and found that the kosher meat available to them didn’t meet sustainability standards. And it seems others thought the same: The couple initially began slaughtering chickens on their property for personal use, but demand in their community was so high for eco-friendly, free-range kosher meat that they expanded their farm into a business.
“People think, ‘If I can make my own pickles, I ought to be able to kill my own chicken,’” says Hanau.
It’s a niche market, but business is still growing.
“I’ve had [Jewish] mothers call me practically in tears, telling me their kid will finally eat a turkey on Thanksgiving,” said Hanau. She and others feel that the billion-dollar kosher food industry has gone the way of the food system at large: highly processed, low-quality, and tainted with scandal.
Similar trends are happening in cities, too. Mason and Mug, a popular restaurant in Brooklyn that caters to a mostly Orthodox Jewish crowd, serves banh mi and craft beer in mason jars. It crowdsources ideas for specials on its Facebook page with posts like, “What sort of #kugel are you making for Shabbos [the holy Sabbath] today?”
Sasha Chack, the former Food and Beverage Director for the 92nd Street Y, and Itta Werdiger Roth, who ran a supper club out of her living room, partnered to open the restaurant in the winter of 2013 after finding the kosher options in Brooklyn plentiful but homogenous. Before opening Mason and Mug, Werdiger Roth made a name for herself running The Hester, an “off-the-grid” supper club where New York Jews would gather to eat food, celebrate rituals, and listen to music and art. The name says it all—“Hester” is a triple nod to a Hebrew word from the Old Testament, a street name on the Lower East Side, and Kate Hester, who coined the term “speakeasy” in the 1880s with her Pittsburgh-area saloon.
To keep in line with kosher law, restaurants must choose to serve either fleishik (meat) or milkhik (milk). Unlike Grow and Behold, which was formed in response to a lack of ethical kosher meat, Chack and Werdiger-Roth were mostly concerned about modern kosher food’s high cost. The pair opted for a relatively affordable vegetarian menu, popular among younger eaters concerned with the environmental impact of meat-eating in an already thriving, diverse restaurant culture in New York. “We didn’t have these preconceived notions of what kosher food can be,” said Chack, challenging the assumption [in the Orthodox community] that a moderately priced, kosher dairy restaurant must revolve around pizza, sushi, or both.