When pizza became KOSHER

‘Gypsies Play Violin, Jews Learn Torah’ is the title of writer Jacob Gross’s forthcoming memoir. Its subject is the American yeshiva world of the post-Shoah generation.

AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man adds olive oil to pizza before serving it to customers in his restaurant in Safed in 2010 (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man adds olive oil to pizza before serving it to customers in his restaurant in Safed in 2010
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
What follows is a chapter from the memoir called ‘Prequel to The Gods Must Be Crazy’ about Jewish life in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s was pizza. Never mind the actual ingredients. Never mind that flour, olive oil, cheese and tomatoes were not inherently non-kosher. It was the idea of pizza that was treif.
It was the association it had with slick pompadours and duck tails; with packs of Lucky Strike rolled into the short sleeves of white T shirts; with girls with big hair, their eyelids drooping from the weight of excessive mascara, and chewing gum that constantly snapped, crackled and popped when they were not eating… pizza. One could always see them swaying to the top-10 rock’n’roll singles being piped into the street by the record shop located on 13th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets… pizza in hand, of course.
If your bike got stolen, you knew it was a pizza eater who stole it. If you got attacked on the street, you knew the muggers were, yes, pizza eaters. If you saw people entering the big church on Fort Hamilton Parkway (after carefully crossing to the other side of the street and discreetly spitting three times) you just knew that their diet consisted of piping hot triangles of that aroma-wafting tarfus called pizza.
THEN, SUDDENLY some dark-skinned Yemenite named Chaim who could barely speak five words of English – and definitely knew not a syllable of Yiddish – opens a pizza shop that calls itself kosher.
The community was totally unequipped to cope with this phenomenon. None of it made any sense.
To begin with, how could something as conceptually treif and ideologically Italian as pizza possibly be made kosher? And even if it was technically kosher, was it a motzi or a mezonos – did one have to undergo ritual hand-washing and make the blessing for bread followed by the full bensching (grace after meals), or was the lesser blessing for cake sufficient? Compared to this, the wars over whether to include morid ha-tal in the Diaspora shmoneh esrei, or v’yatzmach purkonei in the kaddish were relatively non-violent. Besides, how would it look to be standing in the street like a goy fressing this quintessentially inappropriate food? Doesn’t the gemara tell us ha-ochel b’shuk domeh l’kelev – he who eats in the street is like a dog? At the very least, it was a monstrous case of mar’is ayin, of misleading others into thinking all pizza was kosher because, after all, this supposedly kosher version looked no different than, lehavdil, the one made by Vinnie or Tony or Salvatore down the block.
And then of course, there was the fear – fully realized, in fact – of the kosher pizza shop becoming no less of a hangout than the treif ones that virtually ringed Mesivta and Yeshiva Toras Emes Kamenitz. Because clearly pizza was not just a food, it was a culture.
As if all this were not enough, there was the whole question regarding this Chaim guy who made the pizza. He didn’t look Jewish. In fact he looked almost like a shvartze. Plus what can a dark-skinned, non-Yiddish-speaking person from a remote wasteland like Yemen even know about halacha and kashrus? And where in Heaven’s name is Yemen? Some of us had heard of the Rambam’s Igeres LeTeiman, his epistle to (the Jews of) Yemen. Yet we had no idea what it contained, and surely it had no relevance to real Jews. Besides, we all know that, nebbech, even the sfardishe were all amhoratzim (Ashkenazi mispronunciation of amei-haaretz, unlettered folk) and couldn’t be trusted. Why, rumor had it, they even eat kitniyos (legumes) on Passover, rachmono litzlon (heaven forfend).
The only Yemenite Jew that any frum Boro Parkers had ever encountered was Mr. Gramma, the upholsterer who lived next door to the Agudath Israel on 14th Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets. He was sort of accepted and even counted in the minyan at the Sefardishe shul (which despite its name was 100% Ashkenazi and Yiddish speaking) across the street, regardless of his odd pronunciation whereby the T of Torah would be sounded like TH- Thorah, and any gimmel with a dagesh (a dot in the center) was pronounced like a j (jimmel not gimmel), while the letter ayin, which for Ashkenazi Jews was indistinguishable from an alef, was actually a full-throated glottal stop.
Little did we know that Mr. Gramma was right and it was our pronunciation that was so woefully off.
SADLY NONE, of this mattered, and Mr. Gramma’s son Shimon, except for the skin color over which he had no control, became totally ashkenazified. (But at least he had another, older son, who tooled around in an awesome green 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz and was reputed to be a pornography kingpin.) This tragedy is repeating itself on a much grander scale in Israel where Sefardi rabbis have scuttled their vibrant turbans and robes – not to mention their warmth and tolerance – replacing these with black Borsalinos, black frock coats which make them look like Amos n’ Andy in ties and tails, and tzitzis flying out of their pants (something which even the Ashkenazi yeshiva world hardly knew of back in the 1950s), while clamoring to enroll their kids in litvishe yeshivas and Beis Yaakovs. Sadly, they have succumbed to the elitist racism of the Ashkenazim and have come to view their far more authentic minhagim as inferior. It is almost as if they never heard of the Rambam or Rabbi Yosef Karo, Shabbazi or Abarbanel.
To this day, the debate over which blessing to make over pizza hasn’t been conclusively resolved, and in some communities – especially Williamsburg, northern Jerusalem and Bnei Brak – separate entrances or serving schedules are mandated for males and females. Yet, over time, with a measure of due diligence, some Boro Parkers allowed their curiosity and temptation to overcome their inhibitions.
The rest is kosher culinary history.
It would be nearly two decades before sushi arrived on the glatt kosher scene. But 1958 marks the first year in which an exotic food made it into the Ashkenazi kosher world. Chinese food followed, sort of, two years later with the opening of Schmulke Bernstein’s Kosher Chinese restaurant on Essex Street in the Lower East Side – if, indeed, their food could honestly be called Chinese. But really frum Jews did not eat there because it wasn’t glatt kosher and besides that wasn’t in Boro Park. Lower East Side Orthodoxy was still old-school and even the local rosh yeshivas were not yet obsessed with glatt kosher. As for sushi, it would be another two decades before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were avenged at the receptions of black-hat chasunos. But, then, back in the 1950s sushi was virtually unknown even among non-Jews.
A JOKE: A renowned litvishe rosh yeshiva world-famous for his brilliant discourses on Talmud finally earns his just rewards and arrives in Gan Eden. Hearing of his imminent arrival, mobs of souls are gathered, clamoring to hear him give a shiur. Naturally this great neshama is only too happy to accommodate the eager crowd. A hushed silence prevails as he proceeds to outdo even himself with a brilliant treatise on a murderously complex sugyah. As he is concluding his shiur, the rosh yeshiva confesses that there is a particular Rambam on this topic that is so difficult, even he does not understand it. One mechutzef pipes up and says “Why don’t you just ask him, he’s sitting right there.” To which the rosh yeshiva replies, “Vos farshteit ah frenk fon ah Rambam” (What would a frenk [similar to the N word, used by frum Ashkenazim when referring to Jews from Arab lands] know from a Rambam?”
Jacob (JJ) Gross – the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors – was educated in Brooklyn yeshivot during the postwar years that were the crucible from which the new haredi “black-hat” Judaism emerged. He is the author of Izzy Hagbah, publishsed by Pitspopany Press in Jerusalem.