As recently as a decade ago, looking for kosher options in Tel Aviv was about as rewarding as searching for kreplach in Kyoto. Kosher restaurants, cafes and even bakeries were few and far between, apart from the sea-front hotels and the business districts of the Stock Exchange and the Diamond Exchange. "Kosher" meant overpriced, mediocre, tourist-trap kitsch.
Now, on a central 20-meter stretch of Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street, better known for its designer shopping and cafe culture (and a few doors down from a wildly popular seafood bar), there are three kosher eateries - Italian, falafel and humus - all in a row. Israeli restaurant critics hail several kosher restaurants as among Tel Aviv's finest, kosher or not, and the pumpkin carpaccio at one of them has even won a city-wide "dish of the year" prize.
It certainly seems like the times are a-changing for the common perception that Tel Aviv is the embodiment of militantly secular Israel. Indeed, Eldad Mizrachi, head of the Tel Aviv Religious Council, talks of a veritable "spiritual awakening" in the city, one of whose clearest indications is the burgeoning number of eateries requesting kosher certification.
Among followers of Tel Aviv's kosher scene, there is some disagreement as to how far this picture is borne out by facts and figures and how much of it is just anecdote - or wishful thinking on the part of those involved in the struggle for Jewish souls.
Raw data on the increase in kosher eating seems irrefutable. Rabbi Ben Tzion Friedman, head of food supervision in the Tel Aviv rabbinate, notes with some pride that the number of rabbinate-certified establishments was up almost 20 percent in the past year alone. In 2008, there were 785 food businesses supervised by the city's rabbinate. Just two years ago the total only just nudged 700. The rabbinate's own Web site (http://www.rabanut.co.il/show_item.asp?levelId=60109, in Hebrew) provides the details of the 115 meat and nearly 60 dairy cafes and restaurants it supervises, the balance in the figures filled out by caterers, butchers and old-age homes. A Web site dedicated to kosher eating in Israel, eluna.com, lists 28 cafes and restaurants for Tel Aviv. By contrast, Jerusalem's listing runs to over 90 kosher eating places.
Haaretz restaurant critic Daniel Rogov dates the kosher turnaround in the city to the 1996 opening of Lilith, a fish and dairy restaurant (now reincarnated as a meat restaurant). Rogov believes that Lilith demonstrated that "style and quality and kashrut do not have to be mutually exclusive." Once it was an embarrassment to take guests from abroad to eat out kosher in Tel Aviv, but now, according to Rogov, there are "more kosher restaurants and no contradiction between kosher and good dining." Good chefs are moving into the field, and they are finding original ways to deal with the strictures of kosher food preparation and turning away from the "abominations" of meat restaurants' dependence on margarine and non-dairy creamers. The flowering of quality kosher wines from Israeli boutique vineyards has helped, too.
Not mutually exclusive
Tel Aviv's kosher choices used to be confined to traditionally kosher food categories: street food like shippudim (kebabs), falafel and shwarma; ethnic restaurants such as the Yemenite ones in the Kerem Hateimanim quarter; hotels, whose largely Jewish clientele from abroad expected kosher fare; restaurants targeting the fixed-rate business lunch market; and one or two maverick establishments outside of these kosher ghettoes, such as the Hungarian cafe Yehudit (recently closed) or Cafe Ginsburg in the downtown area.
Now, a range of cuisines jostle for the kosher diner's attention: authentic sushi (Yakimono Sushi, in the Hilton) organic (Bariba, in the port), gourmet fish (Deca, near the old bus station), stylish meat (Lilith, in Asia House, near the Tel Aviv Museum of Art), modern Turkish (Pasha, on foodie Ha'arba'a Street), elegant French (in either the Olive Leaf, in the Sheraton Hotel, or at Le Relais in Jaffa), Bruno ("urban" Mediterranean meat, in the Azrieli Center), upscale meat (Goshen, near the Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall) and even French-grill bar-karaoke-pub (La Terrasse, in Makom Mihasratim, in the center of town).
There is a flowering of kosher bar-restaurants in town, funkier than any seen so far in Tel Aviv. These places, concentrated in the city's nightlife district around Lilienblum Street, specialize in meat business lunches, but transform themselves come evening-time into hip party scenes complete with cocktails and sushi, Mexican or Libyan appetizers.
For lighter, more informal dining, there is an increasing number of kosher cafes and patisseries across town. Apart from specific branches of Cafe Cafe and Cafe Joe, several other cafe chains have turned - or are turning - kosher, including the Metuka bakeries, and most recently, the Lechem Erez chain. Individual French-style patisseries, such as Mazzarine (on Gordon Street) and La Bonne Patisserie (in Basel Square), serving exquisite cakes and savories, have set up with much success in the city's north.
At least until the economic downturn, the large numbers of French Jews holidaying and buying apartments in Tel Aviv caused a spike in demand for high-level kosher eateries. There are also the religious high-tech workers and businessmen who commute daily into Tel Aviv and provide a captive market for kosher lunches and dinners.
Non-kosher places that have been born again as kosher may be eyeing the lucrative event-catering trade, for which kashrut is a sine qua non in Israel. The turn to kosher can sometimes be an "act of desperation" in Rogov's words, because their current non-kosher business is failing to bring in customers and owners are seeking ways to widen their potential client base.
Sometimes the reasons are based on idiosyncrasy as much as strict business logic. Take the Cafe Cafe chain, which opened its first kosher outlet in Tel Aviv two and a half years ago. According to the chain's CEO, Avinoam ben Moshe, Cafe Cafe was an "early adopter" of the kosher scene in Tel Aviv. The decision to go kosher or not mostly rests in the hands of the franchisees. Ben Moshe says that economics are only part of the decision: a franchisee with a particular fondness for or commitment to kosher food can open up a kosher branch whether the clientele demands kashrut or not. One of the more striking examples of this policy are the two identical branches of Cafe Cafe that opened opposite each other, one kosher and one not, off the designer shopping enclave of Hamedina Square.
But a new religiously observant generation has come in, rediscovering and reclaiming its place in the city. Discussing this demographic shift with several observant thirty-something professionals who have moved to the city in the past decade, it became clear that the new arrivals are seeking a different kind of social environment. Whether they are emigres from the oppressive Haredi atmosphere of Jerusalem, or escapees from suburbia, the periphery or the territories, this old-new religious population has specifically chosen a heterogeneous environment - without the tribal, judgmental atmosphere of Jerusalem and the nationalistic discourse of the territories - that offers the cultural, professional and social opportunities of a metropolis.
There has been a significant increase in other expressions of religious identity, such as registration for state religious schools and the establishment of new religious communities. One such community, founded a year ago, is Yakar. Its rabbi, Yehoshua Engelman, says that in discussions before it opened "some people, especially Jerusalemites, thought we were crazy. But we sensed the intellectual curiosity in Tel Aviv, a place where different worlds meet, a city ripe for a different kind of community, somewhere anyone of any denomination can feel comfortable. We don't have an agenda to make people different from how they are. Our agenda is about social change, depth, and seeking God in a Jewish way."
Thanks to the city's more flexible forms of religious and personal identity, we may be witnessing the emergence of a distinct "Tel Aviv paradigm" of kosher eating. For instance, many of the more streetwise kosher establishments have decided to "hide the hechsher" (kosher approval certification) so they don't appear to be serving one parochial sector of the city's eating public, attracting a mixed crowd that also appeals to the cosmopolitan observant. Other restaurants announce that they are kosher but do not seek certification; in the recent past there was an organization that gave kosher certification to restaurants open on Shabbat, and this assurance seemed to suffice for many of the city's more liberal religious population.
It's not unusual to see skullcap-wearers in non-kosher cafes. One observant Tel Aviv resident says that when he goes out to non-kosher eateries, the waiters often approach him with suggestions about how to choose a "more kosher" dish, avoiding hidden unkosher elements, and even offering to change unsuitable ingredients in a specific item.
At the same time, there is an initiative to make kosher more accessible by challenging the cost and complexity of the rabbinate's certification process. The Masorti movement (Israel's equivalent of Conservative Judaism) is hoping to open a course for kashrut supervisors within the next few months, to offer an opportunity for supervision based on greater transparency and at a reasonable price. Through the rabbinate, kashrut certification can reach exorbitant levels: a winery could easily have to spend up to $70,000/year on employing mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) and fulfilling other requirements.
And the idea of "ethically kosher" food has also taken off in Tel Aviv with the development of the "tav hevrati," or socially-conscious business certificate, which confirms that a business abides by employer norms. More than 15 percent of the restaurants certified as ethically kosher in Tel Aviv are also "kosher kosher" (http://www.mtzedek.org.il/english/TavChevrati.asp).
In practical terms, Tel Aviv's lifestyle of leisure and dining is focused firmly on going out on Friday evening and on Saturday, days when certified kosher restaurants must be closed. The vast majority of the top-class restaurants in the city, and of course all the specialty seafood establishments, revel in their lack of culinary restrictions. For many Tel Avivians, kosher eating is what Jerusalem is for.
The Tel Aviv Religious Council's Eldad Mizrachi approvingly quotes surveys that consistently show over 70 percent of Israelis observe kashrut in some form, and sees overwhelming mutual tolerance between the religious and the secular in the city. Others note that true liberals should embrace the differences and diversity of a heterogeneous city, including the overt presence of kosher places; faux liberals would not.
Not going to be a trend
However, there is a solid core of secular restaurant patrons who flee from any kind of mention of kosher food, and some of these generously contribute bitingly critical talkbacks on news articles that report on Tel Aviv eateries going kosher. The online responses to a recent article written by a journalist who started observing kashrut varied from "Kashrut is rape" to "It's truly impossible to separate kashrut from the religious coercion prevailing in the country." The simple presence of more kosher eateries is antagonistic to some of the city's residents.
According to restaurant PR consultant Guy Tatser, for Tel Aviv's secular majority kosher is a red flag: some are ideologically opposed to it, but most just think it is by definition neither tasty nor high-quality, and definitely not hip. According to Tatser, Tel Aviv's eating culture is now as much about entertainment as edibles, and kosher is not cool. A kosher place is seen as pulling in a less attractive, less sexy crowd, not the kind of people those in Tel Aviv's heartland want to go out to meet. In Tatser's words, "kosher is not going to be a trend."
One case in point can help illustrate the precarious position of upscale kosher restaurants in terms of their appeal to a wider public. Deca is a gourmet fish and dairy restaurant that has won plaudits both in Israel and abroad for its innovative, high-class cuisine - and it just happens to have a hechsher. But even the general manager admits that even a design-conscious place like Deca has a hard time playing to the secular Tel Aviv crowd. he notes, "They have strong preconceptions about kosher food. I have witnessed many turnarounds in this restaurant, with people saying they didn't know kosher food could taste like this."
But if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, even Deca can't get most Tel Avivians to take a first nibble. Rather than attracting mainstream Tel Aviv in droves, Deca's general manager believes over 80 percent of his patrons are either religious visitors or recent immigrants from France, the U.S. and the U.K.
Perhaps the multiplication of kosher eateries is a trick of the eye, with the word "kosher" so unexpected that it stands out and makes a disproportionate impact. As one city resident remarked, "it feels like there are many more kosher restaurants," but the absolute number of specifically high-end kosher restaurants is quite static. Restaurants open to great acclaim, then close quietly after a couple of years and new ones take their place. Since Deca last year, there have not been any splashy openings of kosher establishments in the city.
Even if the main growth of kosher eateries in Tel Aviv has been in cafes and informal dining, there is no doubt that eating kosher in Tel Aviv today is a far more diverse and sophisticated experience than it ever has been. But there's still a long way to go before "Tel Aviv" and "kosher" are synonymous. Google these two terms together and the top results are for a meat deli and a pizza parlor - in San Francisco and in Chicago, respectively.