Pork, Smoke or the Lesbian Owners: What's Really Upsetting Haredim About This Jerusalem Diner?

Even before its recent opening, the R&R Diner faced threats from ultra-Orthodox Jews. But after vandals smashed a window and dismantled a fan, chef Reut Cohen says it's time to fight back

Chef Reut Cohen at the R&R Diner in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

Even before the R&R Diner opened in downtown Jerusalem a month ago, the threats had already begun. “We will burn you down!” and “You won’t be here” were just a few of the declarations made by local ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) residents, in an effort to prevent the eatery’s opening.

If you’re wondering what could be so terrible about a new diner serving American-style food, you should consider that not only does R&R mix milk and meat (bacon and cheese), but its owners are a lesbian couple.

The diner is located very close to a synagogue and the Chabad house on Jaffa Road – the city’s main commercial street, on which until now there were no nonkosher establishments – and (oy vey!) it’s also open on Shabbat.

The diner is a larger and more updated version of the Gaza 40 restaurant chef Reut Cohen closed in July. Her business partner also happens to be her life partner, Romina Gonzalez.

“The first time we tried to open was on November 19,” Cohen says. “Since then they’ve shattered our storefront window and have already dismantled the ventilating device that protects our workers from smoke exposure. The professionals are coming on Wednesday to fix it for the fifth, and I hope last, time.”

In a tone of either cautious optimism or humor, she adds: “The truth is, it has been relatively quiet and I haven’t seen the Haredi vandals for two weeks. On the other hand, I also haven’t fixed the exhaust fan.”

Since the vandalism was reported by the local Jerusalem media, it seems the protesters have assumed a lower profile. “Suddenly, they’re arguing it doesn’t matter that we’re a couple and it doesn’t bother them we sell pork,” Cohen says. “They claim the only thing that bothered them was the exhaust fan aimed in their direction. I should point out this is a very sophisticated exhaust hood with filters and silencers, so the only thing coming out of the chimney in the end is hot air with no smell and no smoke – so that’s just a cover story. The hot air rises up, so it’s clear they’re attacking us not because of the exhaust hood but because we’re a lesbian couple and because our place isn’t kosher, and it bothers them.”

For a time, the diner continued without the exhaust fan. “An industrial fan is replacing the exhaust hood that was damaged, but a considerable number of the kitchen workers left following the vandalism because the smoke was getting in their eyes and throats,” Cohen recounts. “I was left with a small team of people who somehow agreed to stay with me in this war.

“Before they broke our storefront window, I said I would not get into unnecessary battles with the surroundings or the authorities. I hoped to give them another chance to prove there was someone to rely on. I particularly relied on the police to respond forcefully to our complaints about threats and vandalism. But if that doesn’t happen, I promised myself the gloves would come off and we’d fight with all our might.

“The police, after all, can take some measures so the vandalism doesn’t continue,” Cohen continues. “They broke the front window of the place, four complaints were filed, there were threats and then vandalism and theft, and the police are doing nothing. As a result, we’ve come up with lots of ideas for dealing with it ourselves.”

Reut Cohen takes a seat at her R&R Diner in Jerusalem
Emil Salman

According to Cohen, the police told her they have done everything they can for now. “If the police have done all they could, then it’s sad because they can’t really do much,” she observes. “It’s clear to me that this wouldn’t happen if two men owned the place and not two women. Just as it’s clear to me that if it were Arabs doing the vandalizing, as opposed to Haredim, they would have been beaten, they would be caught red-handed committing the vandalism and they would have immediately returned the equipment.”

She continues: “They tell me, ‘Look, a synagogue is a sensitive issue,’ or other such excuses – but the time has come for us to fight. They can dismantle my exhaust hood or break my windows, but they won’t break us. We’re here to stay,” she says, a tone of hope and pride in her voice. “In the face of all the vandalism, the hatred and the darkness, there are also people surrounding us with love and strengthening us.”

Cohen’s resistance plan includes a large demonstration with the participation of organizations like Be Free Israel (Israel Hofsheet), activists from the left-wing Meretz party and members of Jerusalem City Hall, the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance and other local organizations.

“My hope is that perhaps a large protest by people for whom justice is important will ultimately lead the police to do something,” she says.

The Israel Police said in response that following the complaint, “an investigation was launched during which several involved parties were arrested/detained for questioning, and some were even brought before a judge. In contrast to what is claimed, the police have been in contact with the complainant throughout the investigation and in this regard the complainant was even given back an item that was dismantled. The investigation is continuing and we will naturally not elaborate. The Israel Police will continue to do everything to get to the truth and prosecute the suspects to the extent of the law.”

If the difficulties with the neighbors and authorities are resolved and everything goes well, the plan is to turn R&R into a restaurant group. “A sort of Jerusalem version of Tel Aviv’s R2M group [which operates a string of eateries in the city] – that’s the hope, at least,” Cohen explains.

“I’m certainly planning to develop the business in that direction, with the opening of the diner as the basis for the entire business horizon,” she continues. “The future goal is to also open a bar in Jerusalem and a pastry shop, or a homey boutique bakery. As far as I’m concerned, the diner is just the beginning. The diner was the opening salvo for a new Jerusalem group.”

Cohen expresses delight for the public response to the diner, but cautions that they can only do so much while operating without an exhaust fan. “The whole place fills up with smoke as soon as a single hot dog hits the grill, and that’s not how I want to host people,” Cohen says. “I hope people who visit will come back after everything’s fixed, so we can show why we are really here and, most importantly, that we are here to stay, that there’s a reason to stay.”

And Cohen believes that, once the smoke clears, her “ultra-diner” will prove a hit with visitors. “In dishes like a cheese hamburger, we prepare the patty from quality meat and quality cheese, and even make our own bun; we smoke the beef shoulder on site. Or in the mac and cheese, the cheese we use is cheddar – one of the best cheeses there is.

“Even the simplest dishes are made with care and attention, and that’s the point,” she adds. “I call it a diner – not from the perspective of fast, junky food, but in the sense of the selection and the atmosphere. Breakfast is served all day, so a grandmother and her granddaughter can both find what to eat at any time of the day.”

R&R Diner, 33 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem. Open Sun-Thur from noon until the last customer; Friday-Saturday from 8 A.M. to the last customer. Tel: 02-625-3435.