When the queen of pop, Madonna, hears Sarit Haddad sing, it’s hard for her to constrain her excitement. It happens about once a week at the restaurant, Prime Grill where Madonna eats her weekly glatt kosher meal. The patrons eat to the sounds of Sarit Haddad and Shlomi Shabbat, while Madonna explains to her adopted son David that one can eat a cow, not only play with it.
This latest American trend has celebrities enquiring about the coveted kashrut seal before letting a morsel of food touch their mouths. Apart from Madonna (who has a private room at the Prime Grill), many others are rushing around in search of steaks from cows that were slaughtered under the supervision of a rabbi.
Just last week, the steaks at the Prime Grill in Hollywood breathed a sigh of relief when Paris Hilton was incarcerated and the prison authorities refused to allow a special delivery of kosher food to her cell. It’s not clear what attracts Hilton to kosher food; but what is clear is her being responsible for making kosher food very trendy among Hollywood youth. And, as for its popularity amongst business men, credit can be given to Donald Trump and Steven Spielberg.
A not very trendy 3300 years late, Americans are discovering that kosher food is both healthy and spiritual. The subject is complex, but it is encouraging to realize that we were right all these years and that it was worth insisting on manna in the desert. New kosher restaurants are opening all the time in big cities throughout the United States, offering dishes that have not been boiled to death. Kosher products are finding themselves on supermarket shelves and major producers in the dairy industry are strict about having the kosher stamp on their product labels, knowing that the “gentiles” want kosher products too. Even Hollywood is slowly turning kosher: the current most popular restaurant is a kosher meat and sushi bar where paparazzi photographers have a permanent place at the entrance.
Until recently, the words “kosher food” would have the average person running away rather than meet the dubious culinary experience. These days the two words mean prosperity. In Manhattan, kosher Chinese, French, Japanese, Indian and Iranian restaurants have opened. There is even a kosher Buddhist restaurant - indeed, Buddha spent his youth in a yeshiva.
In the last decad, kosher food sales in American supermarkets have reached a growth rate of 15 percent as opposed to a four percent growth rate for food that is not kosher. Eleven million Americans buy kosher food, and they are responsible for a yearly turnover of $9 billion. What’s interesting in all this data is that there are only just over six million Jews in America and even fewer keep kosher. Slowly but surely the kosher food market is being taken over by non-Jewish Americans who are on the lookout for kosher food that is not just gefilte fish and matza.
So, have the gentiles finally realized that Judaism is cool? Not necessarily so. In a recent survey carried out by Mintel International, 55 percent of kosher food consumers do so because they believe that kosher food is healthier, not due to religious reasons. The health merits attached to the kashrut seal are welcomed by mouths wide open: this last year Americans have had to swallow avian flu, mass poisoning and E.Coli bacteria.
The American Health Department’s statistics are scary: 76 million people - one in four Americans - suffer each year from diseases caused by spoiled food. As the numbers of diseases rise, so does people’s awareness and conscious consumers are on the look out for alternatives.
Kosher food is popular mostly amongst health food fans and strict vegetarians who can eat at a dairy restaurant and be sure that no suspicious pieces of meat will find their way into their plates and that they won't meet chunks of smoked bacon in their salads.
Americans like the fact that kosher food is prepared under the watchful eyes of supervisors, often more than one, and kosher restaurants in Manhattan are proud to announce that “all the food here is prepared under strict supervision”. This impresses the customers, even if the watchful eyes are those of a kashrut supervisor who is only making sure that the dairy and meat utensils stay separate from each other.
A survey published just before Independence Day shows that Hebrew National sausages made of 100 percent beef is the highest selling brand in America. Muslims and Christians too are among Americans who eat kosher food. Certain Christian groups follow a diet that is prepared “in the spirit of the Bible.”
Kosher restaurants have exchanged the image of gefilte fish and matza to a more exclusive, trendy image of good food. David Deutsch, the editor of the satirical Jewish magazine “Heeb”, says that each time he goes to a kosher restaurant he sees more and more non-Jews. “People who don’t keep kosher can choose to eat anywhere, but they davka choose the kosher restaurants,” says Deutsch. “Sometimes I bump into owners of non-kosher restaurants eating at kosher restaurants. Maybe they’re spying or maybe they’re just curious to know what the buzz is all about."
And for dessert Eyal Golan
The kosher trend in New York got a big push last year when Madonna arrived in the city for her Confessions tour. After each show, she packed up her dancers and musicians and took them all to the Prime Grill for a steak. These intimate gatherings got a lot of coverage by the local press and the fashion police raised an eyebrow at the relatively unknown establishment that Madonna chose to eat and party at. Madonna doesn’t come to this restaurant only for its food; the owners play Israeli music and are sure that the songs of Sarit Haddad will make the desserts taste even sweeter. Madonna finds it hard to contain her excitement.
Madonna is a sure bet for kosher food, but a rather more unexpected personality who has found her happiness in kosher land is Paris Hilton. The idea that the young heiress finds solace in something that is not studded with diamonds has young Hollywood girls rushing to the Prime Grill in Beverly Hills. The tabloids and entertainment TV shows were amazed when Hilton chose to celebrate her birthday at the kosher sushi and meat bar. She invited 40 of her closest friends, but 200 guests showed up. “She loves our sushi”, admits the owner. “Before her birthday she asked us to prepare a lot of sushi, but she was most concerned about us baking a cake for her.”
Even now, from the heights of the garbage dumps she’s in, Hilton doesn’t forget where she came from and who fed her. Although her plea to bring kosher catering to her jail cell didn’t come through, two weeks ago during the embarrassing fiasco when she was under house arrest, she celebrated her temporary freedom feasting on kosher catering.
But even the huge amounts of kosher food that are going into Hilton’s mouth still don’t qualify it as trendy. So Sasha Baron-Cohen (“Borat”) steps in to help. The English star probably leaves half his monthly salary at the Prime Grill. Baron-Cohen is seen so often at the Hollywood branch of the Prime Grill that the sight of a fork is rarer.
“Sasha eats only kosher food, so he has no choice”, says the owner. “He loves steaks and eats a lot, often complementing his meals with expensive, kosher Israeli wine. He celebrated his Oscar nomination here with his fiancée and a few friends. But for Sasha, a meal is not a meal if it doesn’t have Eyal Golan, Kobi Peretz or Shlomi Shabbat singing in the background. He says these songs remind him of Tel Aviv.”
Signing deals over steaks
The celebrity-watch website TMZ.com reported that Donald Trump has connected to his lost roots, and not the roots of his hair: Trump has turned the Manhattan kosher restaurant Solo into his boardroom. Bono also pops in from time to time, and when he’s not snacking on flies in Africa, he keeps to his ideals and eats only kosher or organic. When he dines at Solo he insists on ordering the salmon in miso and at the Prime Rib he eats kosher sushi.
But, in spite of the star dust being sprinkled over kosher foods, some claim that making kosher trendy is not a kosher thing to do. Most in the Jewish community are not swayed by star dust and are against turning Judaism into “a modern, trendy cult,” says one of the heads of the rabbinical committee in America, who choose to ignore the phenomenon. “This is just a fashion that will soon disappear”, he says. “Everything Jewish is suddenly popular, but after the noise has quietened down and the storm has passed, only the core will remain, but anyway, the core is what’s important in Judaism.”
There are also some who understand that the phenomenon is typical of the American society, which adopts a new ritual every 15 minutes, heralds it as the new king and discards it when the next trend starts to bloom. “Obviously Madonna has played her part in making kosher trendy, but there is a wider issue of self-searching at hand,” says David Deutsch. “After Scientology and Buddhism, it’s now Judaism’s turn. Judaism has been around for a long time and that makes people ask how it’s managed to last so long and wonder what its secret can be. It’s like a closed family where people want to peep inside and see the beauty.”
But why kosher food now?
“The kosher trend fits in with modern life. Like the Kabbalah, it combines the old with the new. Kosher food meets spirituality and health in one plate, and that’s what people are looking or today: a little spirituality with an everyday practicality. Add to that the celeb quality and the fact that Hollywood has many famous Jews that people want to imitate. It’s very easy being Jewish in America today.”