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Their existence, says Sue Fishkoff, is thanks in part to baalei teshuva chefs and diners — those raised in observant households who left and later returned to religious life or those who were secular and later became religious. “The clientele is younger and mixed because people, especially younger Jews, move in and out of observance,” explains Fishkoff, the author of “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.” “There’s a great chance some friends will keep kosher and some won’t. And people know great food.”
Itta Werdiger Roth, a professional chef and the founder of the Hester, an underground kosher supper club in New York, echoes Fishkoff’s sentiment. “The same way that the foodie revolution has been taking over America for the last bunch of years, the kosher community, which is often a few steps behind, is experiencing a hunger for new takes on food and cooking,” says Werdiger Roth, who, as a Hasidic Jew, has patronized her fair share of kosher restaurants.
But while self-identified foodies can now be found nibbling around the country, kosher communities aren’t quite as abundant. And so in order to survive, Fishkoff says, upscale kosher restaurants “can only exist in areas that have a critical mass of observant Jews as well as foodies” — and those willing to pay for the added costs kosher food entails. Without that convergence, you end up like the Kitchen Table, the Mountain View restaurant that was, Fishkoff says, “the only gourmet kosher restaurant in the entire Bay Area, [which] has between 400,000 and 500,000 Jews. The fact that it closed proved there aren’t enough Jews who care about kosher food enough to maintain a high-quality kosher-style restaurant.”
So will Jezebel’s kale chips and biblically named cocktails — like Samson and Delilah — seduce enough kosher Jews to keep the two-month-old restaurant’s doors open? Though the place was respectably busy on a Monday night in August, its future remains uncertain. For that reason, Jezebel’s owners are wise to play down their kosher credentials and play up the “fun, hip” part of the equation. Because it’s not located in a kosher community, Werdiger Roth points out, “they probably need to appeal to a wider audience just to survive.”
That’s certainly part of Stimler and Senderowicz’s plan. Despite the gold-plated shofar that serves as Jezebel’s door handle, it’s opulence, not orthodoxy, that’s being peddled here. In that, Jezebel is no different from its neighbors. Even if it does succeed in attracting a clientele that is neither Jewish nor remotely concerned about the intermarriage of meat and dairy, that success will rest upon the arguably greater accomplishment of raising the bar for kosher food. Ultimately, though, Jezebel is no different from any non-kosher restaurant in New York in that its survival faces some fairly spectacular odds. If it succeeds, it won’t be because its food is coincidentally kosher, but simply because it’s great.
Rebecca Flint Marx lives on the Lower East Side and writes frequently about food.