Editor’s Note: Since publication on May 16, 2017, this piece has sparked many heated and thoughtful discussions online. In the coming days, we’ll be featuring several responses from readers and Jewish communal leaders alike. To pitch your own take, send us an email.
An abandoned hostess stand greets you. Delivery orders are piled high on a table in the middle of the dining room. Bright lights, sticky tables and no background music square the mood. After untangling yourself from the huffy patrons crowding the doorway, you are seated at a table that affords you as much room as if you were a 1920s garment worker. To gain access to your square foot, you must jockey with the double-barrel stroller hanging over your setting. The father to whom the stroller belongs pushes it back to the spot from which you moved it, as if a wind blew it out of position or you simply don’t exist.
You peruse the well-fingered menu and notice the prices that, if you are used to them, seem astronomically fair. If this is one of the few times you eat at a kosher restaurant, you might put a hand to your mouth as you calculate how many pitas are required to justify the hummus platter’s $22 price tag or how imperial your Caesar salad must be to set you back $30. After you have settled into your table, chosen your dishes and exhausted the conversation with your dining companion, and nobody has come to take your order, you look around in consternation for an employee of the restaurant, any employee who might flag down a server. When the server does arrive, he is flustered, having just finished a heated conversation with the manager, a conversation that should have been held in the back office, or he is being snatched by other tables who want extra ketchup or are unhappy with something, anything to keep your server from providing you with professional attention.
As you wait for him to remove the pen and pad from a breast pocket, it hits you: The restaurant does not care if you are there or not. Management and staff do not care that you have brought money to pay for your meal or that you expect a high-quality dining experience. You are one of a faceless horde that will walk through the door that week, that month, guided like moths to a menorah, all asking little other than to be served food that has been deemed kosher by a rabbi at the processing plant, then by another rabbi at a kosher certification office, then by a mashgiach who makes sure those rabbis’ hard work doesn’t get sabotaged by a vengeful or clumsy non-Jew.
You place your order and wait.
The food arrives and it is generic, bland, coaxed to a quiet life with too much oil or a cocktail of sugary sauces. Chicken wings are all sinew and bone, their hairs distracting you from the lack of meat. The steak you ordered is smaller than what you believe 10 ounces to be, but you are without a scale to verify. The side dish consists of sloppily cubed potatoes with sprigs of rosemary, similar to the ones you are served at a bar mitzvah. Your beer is a selection of what is left on the shelf, and the wine your tablemate sips is the same as those you see in the kosher wine section at your local liquor store. The meal slides to a gassy end, despite your best efforts to tally up the bill, which comes fastest of everything you order and is always higher than expected. Whether the tip was included without warning or the water costs extra, you have yet to guess correctly.
Why are kosher restaurants so bad?
More specifically, why do proprietors and their patrons willingly accept gaping inconsistencies in service, food, price and cleanliness? Is it because of the talmudic laws disallowing competition between Jewish-owned businesses? Does this lack of Adam Smith’s invisible hand encourage kosher restaurants to limp lamely to just above tolerable? Or might kosher dining and its concomitant failures fall on the patrons who refuse to treat the waitstaff or their fellow diners with anything approaching civility? Are we too worried about surviving the next Holocaust to say excuse me? Or are we so heady a people that we simply don’t notice taste and ambiance, don’t have time for courtesy and respect of employees and each other?
And what about the prices? It turns out that positioning rabbis along every link of our circuitous food chain is expensive. And kosher certifications are expensive. Like, really expensive. And the governing body of those kosher certifications can often take away that certification if a restaurant does not close on minor fast days and holidays or on Shabbat. That means most kosher restaurants may be closed for a quarter of the year. Is the answer to pass on these costs to an already stressed market? Or, maybe, is it to excise one or two of those rabbis? At a kosher steakhouse in New York, a meal for two, including two orders of the least expensive meat on the menu, two small sides and two glasses of wine, can tally up to $216 minus tip. There isn’t much you can do but laugh, reach for your wallet and swear off red meat.
The burden of these failures is shared by both proprietor and patron. With little competition and Orwellian oversight, restaurants can do and charge as they please. The “charge” half of the equation is grounded in economics. Words like “shady,” “corrupt” and “religious hostage” spring to mind, but at least there is a mathematical backbone to the pricing madness. The “do” half of the equation is much more troubling. Because it is such a seller’s market, many restaurants can drop their standards to just above serious health code violation and still attract a crowd. But, as I mentioned earlier, the blame does not lie squarely with the owners and managers of the over 600 kosher restaurants in the New York area. Kosher restaurants are petri dishes in which our collective lack of social etiquette metastasizes. We treat servers like slaves, and we pretend we are in the comfort of our own homes. Old or young, we believe we have made it to the “top” — the top of business, of politics and culture, of our synagogue’s mailing list or our Kiddush club — so we treat others, Jews and non-Jews alike, with some strange amalgam of superiority and a complete absence of what we all learned in third grade as treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. With every bad experience, our justifications for eating nonkosher or “just dairy out” grow more stalwart.
The most consistent and disturbing aspect of kosher dining is the collective stare-down one faces upon entering a restaurant. As if you had a scarlet letter on your chest, tables hush as you walk through the door. Eyes flit and undress you as you uncomfortably tiptoe along a catwalk of projected insecurity. Okay, maybe they want to see if they know you; we all play the Jewish geography game. But somehow the stares always reek more of judgment than of curiosity. They are never smiling stares, just hard, furrowed stares, like those we believe we receive when walking through first class — only here, we’re all in coach.