Kosher food truck takes flak in Brooklyn's Williamsburg

Protesters say truck encourages 'fress' and mingling of men and women.

brooklyn jew 66 (photo credit: )
brooklyn jew 66
(photo credit: )
The menu reads like many others - hamburgers, hot dogs and a slew of meat sandwiches. But on Thursday nights, the special is cholent. And behind the counter is a chef with peyot (sidelocks). While food carts are a ubiquitous staple of New York culinary life, the arrival in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg enclave of "Sub on Wheels," the first glatt-kosher food truck, has sparked a heated battle. The target is Nathan Lichtenstein, who parks his truck in the heart of the neighborhood from 6 p.m. to midnight, five nights a week. "I woke up one morning, told my wife and kids I have a dream, and here I am," says Lichtenstein. The truck, which first arrived in the middle of August, has touched off protests from extreme segments of haredi Williamsburg, who say it challenges their values. A few weeks ago, two men were taken into custody in connection with the protests, and police threatened more arrests if the situation got out of hand. On Sunday, street posters warned families not to patronize the truck. "If you know what's good for your kids, don't let them go," the signs read. Protesters think the food truck encourages fress - a Yiddish expression meaning to eat more than is necessary, or purely for pleasure. Fast food is not considered a viable alternative to home-cooked meals by Haredim, so it is assumed that whatever food is bought from the truck is in addition to dinner at home. Some also fear that the truck encourages men and women to mingle on the streets. Many say the protesters are a vocal minority who resist anything new, especially if it appears to mirror secular society. Old-timers remember the first kosher pizza place that opened, to loud protest, in the religious part of Williamsburg some 40 years ago. And more recently, a billboard for Oorah, a children's charity that wanted to encourage car donations, was spray-painted because the featured boy did not have the shaved head and long sidelocks common in Williamsburg. Similar ventures in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have been tried in the past, but none has survived. Lichtenstein, who has been through four heart attacks and the loss of a child, insists he is here to stay. "You can take the kid out of Williamsburg, but you can't take Williamsburg out of the kid," he repeats several times, laughing out loud. Born and raised in the neighborhood, Lichtenstein, who has since moved upstate, isn't phased by the picketers. "We share the same blood. Let them get used to the scenery," he says. This despite the hate mail he keeps folded in his pocket, asking him to leave. Letters from the Central Rabbinic Congress and other haredi organizations accuse Lichtenstein of "being like the goyim." A mention of Sub on Wheels on a haredi blog has drawn 130 comments. One person wrote, "What is he doing wrong? It's not heimish [homey]. Women should cook homemade meals. Families should eat at home." A majority of the comments, however, express support for Lichtenstein. "Bad, bad people - a person is trying his luck and is finally successful," reads one. "Bad people are just jealous - isn't bein adam lehaveiro [the relationship with one's fellow man] more important than keeping kosher Williamsburg clean?" Another says, "What's the problem? Some people just don't have what do with their time except think what to protest against next. Maybe we should protest protesting." Many have come out to support Lichtenstein, who gets about 200 customers a night, most of them haredi. Residents say it is the only place to buy a kosher meal late at night since a restaurant down the block closed after failing New York City health inspections. "If he goes away, people will begin to ask where he is," says resident Shmuel Rosenthal. "What do people think - when the messiah comes, we won't need a food truck?" One man dropped by on a recent night and said he wanted to invest in the business. "How much did you pay for the truck?" Daniel Masrzal asked, and handed Lichtenstein his card. Another, Yoeli K., who grew up ultra-Orthodox but left the community at 13, stopped by the food truck on his way back from visiting his parents, who live in the neighborhood. He had read about Sub on Wheels on the religious blog and wanted to show his support. "Deep down, most people are okay with it," says Yoeli. "A large percentage welcome such a change, they are just scared to say it." If the truck succeeds, Lichtenstein hopes to build a fleet. "Every successful business has to take baby steps," he says.