When I started keeping strictly Kosher, the first thing everyone asked me was: What is the non-kosher thing do you miss the most? Is it the lobster (yes!), the cheeseburgers (meh), or the bacon (not even a little)?
My answer was always the same: What I miss most is the convenience. I miss being able to duck into any coffee shop and grab a muffin on the go. The hardest part about keeping Kosher is feeling like a mule with lunch and snacks when out for the day.
The second hardest part is the money. I call it the frum tax: The “tax” on life as an Orthodox (frum) Jew. And the place you feel it the most is when buying Kosher food.
My non-observant friends often ask me what makes something Kosher or not. They often assume a rabbi has to bless the food. I wish the answer were that mystical or interesting. The truth is far more mundane: For a product to be Kosher, it has to have the supervision of a rabbi affiliated with a Kosher supervising agency.
That rabbi oversees the process from beginning to end and makes sure that there are no non-Kosher ingredients involved. That supervision represents jobs, for those overseeing the process and those working at the certifying agency. And that increased cost is passed down to the consumer, which means that the difference between my blueberry muffin and someone else’s is a couple of quarters.
Orthodox life is expensive — from the food to the day schools to the zip codes where you can find other Orthodox Jews. Kosher restaurants are always pricier than non-Kosher ones. Still, Kosher options are crucial to countering the inconvenience factor of keeping Kosher to begin with. It’s a bargain we willingly participate in: a little extra money for the pleasure of a normal food experience.
That’s all about to change.
With the COVID-19 crisis and its related financial implications, restaurants around the country are facing down the barrel of ruin. To the best of their ability, communities are rallying around their favorite establishments, but it’s often not enough. Hard decisions are being made around the country, and unfortunately for the Jewish community, those hard decisions are severely downsizing our already limited options for Kosher food.
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a national chain of coffee shops, was a lifeline for many Jews who needed food while out and about given that it was entirely Kosher; for many Jews, it was the only Kosher option in their area, so they were dismayed when CBTL’s website announced it would no longer be Kosher. “As we weighed how best to meet the needs of a majority of our Guests, we came to the decision to end our storewide kosher-only status and broaden our product offers,” the company wrote. “While this was initially scheduled to be a phased rollout, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased business pressures.”
CBTL is just one of many Kosher establishments on the brink of financial catastrophe. In New York, Abigael’s on Broadway, a staple of New York City’s kosher dining scene for decades, will close due to the pandemic, as would Wolf & Lamb.
Dani Klein, the founder of the Kosher food website YeahThatsKosher, believes this is the tip of the iceberg. “Losing Abigael’s in Midtown Manhattan is a huge loss for both New York Jews, especially those of us who work or frequent midtown, as well as the kosher industry as a whole,” he told The Forward. “The restaurant was a mainstay over the last 25 years for dates, business meals, sheva brachot, and more. High-end restaurants are struggling during the COVID-19 crisis more than fast food eateries, due to the nature of their pricing, style of cuisine, and to-go options. The loss of Abigael’s may the first we lose in Manhattan, but I won’t be surprised if we hear of more casualties, unfortunately.”
This is life as a strictly Kosher-keeping Jew: It’s expensive, it’s inconvenient, and thanks to the financial pressures on restaurants and individual families alike, it’s become more so.
For the time being, most of us have nowhere to go. But when we all venture back out, the Kosher landscape is going to look even more desolate than before, and that’s saying something.