(New York Jewish Week) — It happened toward the end of the last theater season, and it didn’t occasion much comment in the media. But the merging of Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen on West 38th Street with the glatt kosher Mr. Broadway around the corner marked the end of an era.
Ben’s, the last kosher deli in the Theater District that was open on Shabbat, made it possible for generations of Jewish New Yorkers — and a good many Jewish tourists as well — to enjoy a bowl of matzah ball soup and a kosher pastrami or corned beef sandwich before heading to a Saturday matinee.
In recent years, as the Orthodox world has become increasingly stringent, fewer and fewer agencies have offered kosher supervision to an eatery that remains open on the Jewish Sabbath. But all sorts of Jews eat in kosher restaurants for all kinds of reasons: nostalgia, a continuing attachment to Jewish culture, a sense of fealty to the Jewish people, a desire to be among other Jews, or even simply force of habit.
The merger of Ben’s and Mr. Broadway may represent a triumph of religiosity, but it also marks the demise of a Midtown kosher culture that was more flexible and more inclusive of the diverse ways people experience their Jewishness.
Kosher delis were, for decades, fixtures of the Garment Center and the Theater District — the twin neighborhoods, both heavily trafficked by Jews, that stand cheek by jowl in Midtown. Hirsch’s Kosher Deli on West 35th Street was immortalized in the early 1940s in a photo by Roman Vishniac of a group of clothing company executives in three-piece suits and fedoras reading Yiddish newspapers and chatting — a far cry from the photographer’s iconic shots from less than a decade earlier of impoverished Eastern European Jews, most of whom were fated to perish in the Holocaust.
In the 1960s, kosher delis in the area included the Melody on Seventh Avenue at 37th Street and Golding’s on Broadway and 48th Street (before it decamped to the Upper West Side, reopening at Broadway and 86th Street). In the 1970s, the Smokehouse on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues featured smoked and spiced beef by Zion Kosher, the main rival in New York to Hebrew National.
Celebrated Theater District delis like Lindy’s and Reuben’s, and later The Stage and The Carnegie, weren’t kosher, and they sold the lion’s share of corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.
But there was no dearth of kosher food in the neighborhood. In addition to the kosher delis, there were popular upscale kosher eateries like Gluckstern’s — which claimed, in the late 1940s, to serve a staggering 15,000 customers a week — Poliacoff’s, Trotsky’s, the Paramount and Lou G. Siegel’s, which billed itself as “America’s Foremost Kosher Restaurant.” Lou G. Siegel’s occupied the same space that Ben’s took over and that Mr. Broadway is in now at 209 West 38th Street. (Mr. Broadway originated as a dairy restaurant in 1922; in 1985, it transitioned to a gourmet glatt kosher restaurant, and over time added sandwiches, sushi, Israeli food and the like.)
In addition to serving steaks and chops, these establishments sold large quantities of deli sandwiches. While these restaurants advertised themselves as “strictly kosher,” they were open on Shabbat, although notices in their menus, printed daily, beseeched patrons not to smoke on the premises on Friday nights and on Saturdays until sundown, since that, of course, would be a flagrant violation of Jewish law.
When a 2018 review in the New York Times referred to the 2nd Avenue Deli as kosher, even though it was open on Shabbat, it prompted a complaint from a reader named Fred Bernstein. Bernstein explained to restaurant critic Frank Bruni that “almost no observant Jew would consider it kosher” and cited two authorities on the subject: actor Sacha Baron Cohen and Leah Adler, Steven Spielberg’s mother and then owner of a kosher dairy restaurant in Los Angeles.
Bruni responded, quite reasonably, that he has “several friends who adapt and interpret kosher dietary rules in unusual and permissive ways.” He added: “For them ‘kosher’ — and they do use the word itself when explaining their menu choices — isn’t an exact and exacting prescription so much as it is an ideal toward which they take small steps.”
Indeed Ronnie Dragoon, who owns the restaurants in the Ben’s Kosher Deli chain — all of which are open on Shabbat — and is now a part-owner in Mr. Broadway, estimated that only about 20 percent of his clientele, across all his restaurants, keep the Jewish dietary laws.
Most of the kosher delis in New York were historically open on Shabbat, from the heyday of the kosher deli in the 1930s, when there were a staggering 1,550 such delis in the five boroughs, to today, when less than one percent of that number remains. Deli owners needed their establishments to be open on the weekends to make a profit — in Manhattan, they did the bulk of their business on Friday and Saturday nights, as opposed to kosher delis in the outer boroughs, which were typically busiest on Sunday nights for both eat-in and takeout.
Some kosher delis, especially in the outer boroughs, did close for the entirety of the Sabbath. As Alfred Kazin writes in his lyrical memoir, “A Walker in the City,” “At Saturday twilight, as soon as the delicatessen store reopened after the Sabbath rest, we raced into it panting for the hot dogs sizzling on the gas plate just inside the window. The look of that blackened empty gas plate had driven us wild all through the wearisome Sabbath day. And now, as the electric sign blazed up again, lighting up the words JEWISH NATIONAL DELICATESSEN, it was as if we had entered into our rightful heritage.”
In Manhattan, many owners of kosher delis got around the strict rules of kashrut by “selling” their restaurants to non-Jews, usually employees, before sundown on Friday and buying them back on Saturday night, so they technically didn’t own them and so weren’t doing business during the Sabbath. (This echoes the practice that many Jews engage in by selling forbidden food items to a non-Jew before Passover.) Many justified staying open on Shabbat because it enabled Jews to remain faithful to Jewish tradition in their food consumption, without regard to other ways in which they were transgressing Jewish law.
Kosher delis nowadays adopt different strategies to deal with this issue. Some, like the 2nd Avenue Deli, do still sell their businesses to a non-Jew. Yuval Dekel, the owner of Liebman’s, the last kosher deli in the Bronx (which is about to debut a second store in Westchester) told me that he just ensures that all his ingredients are kosher and leaves it at that.
Some kosher delis, especially outside the New York area, like Abe’s Kosher Deli in Scranton, Pennsylvania, are owned by non-Jews. While relatively unusual, there is nothing new about this: The Kosher Irishman, a deli in East Orange, New Jersey, was open for more than a half a century.
Staying open on Shabbat in the city, however one did it, could be a problem if a neighborhood became heavily populated by Hasidic Jews. My mother worked in the 1950s in her uncle’s kosher deli in Williamsburg, Brooklyn until the restaurant was forced to close because of opposition from the growing haredi population in the neighborhood, who insisted that keeping an otherwise kosher restaurant open on Shabbat was a chillul haShem (desecration of God’s name).
In today’s world, in which most Orthodox Jews will eat only in glatt kosher delis like Mr. Broadway, Jewish food doesn’t play the kind of unifying role it once did, according to Jeffrey Gurock, a professor at Yeshiva University and a historian of Modern Orthodoxy. In the past, Gurock has explained, seeing a neon Hebrew National sign in the window made even Modern Orthodox Jews comfortable eating in a deli, whether it was open on Shabbat or not.
Early one Wednesday afternoon in July, I stopped at Mr. Broadway for a bite. I had a ticket to “Funny Girl,” so I didn’t have too much time to eat. I sat and chatted with Dragoon while I chowed down on a brisket sandwich and a potato knish. Two kippah-wearing businessmen were sitting at a nearby table and we took bets on what they would order, since it was during the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av and observant Jews refrain from eating meat during that time of year.
I glanced at a huge, framed oil painting that was sitting on the floor, leaning up against one of the walls that, when it was still Ben’s, was decorated with the famous deli joke about an immigrant Chinese waiter who speaks Yiddish (and thinks he’s speaking English). In its place, the oil painting showed a tall Orthodox rabbi standing on a plush red carpet before the ark in a synagogue; he was clad in sumptuous blue and white robes and sported a long, flowing white beard. The painting seemed like the perfect symbol of what had happened to the deli as it had acquired a depth of religiosity that neither Lou G. Siegel’s nor Ben’s had ever aspired to.
Ronnie saw me looking at it. “Do you want it?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “No, I really don’t.”
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Major Israeli Tech Entrepreneur Gil Shwed Retires
Gil Shwed, one of Israel’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, announced his retirement on Tuesday, bringing an end to his 30-year tenure as CEO of Check Point, an Israeli software firm.
“This year Check Point celebrated 30 years since its establishment, in which we managed to generate growth and reached a peak in almost every parameter. I feel that this is the right time for me to focus on Check Point’s next leap,” Shwed, 56, said. “We are now looking for a replacement for the position of CEO. It’s a process that will take time and even when it ends I will remain involved. I want to focus less on the daily work, and more on the future of the company.”
Check Point was founded in 1993 by Shwed, Shlomo Kramer, and Marius Nacht. Shwed and Kramer were friends from their time together in Israel’s elite cyber unit 8200.
The company provides AI-powered advanced software and hardware for cyber security to more than 100,000 customers globally, bringing in more than $2 billion per year in revenue.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv and publicly traded on the NASDAQ, Check Point has a market cap of more than $19 billion dollars, making it Israel’s second most valuable company, $2 billion less than automobile giant Mobileye Eye. Shwed’s role as CEO has allowed him to amass a fortune of $4.4 billion due to his 20% share ownership in the company.
Shwed is also a recipient of the Israel Prize, an annual award given to Israelis who have shown a high level of excellence in their specific fields. Shwed was given the first award in the technology field when it was introduced in 2018.
Israel’s Leading Hotel Chain Expands Internationally
Israel’s leading hotel chain Isrotel has announced the opening of their first hotel outside of the country.
The brand, under a new division called ALUMA, meaning “ray of light” in Hebrew, will open its Skylark Hotel in Athens, Greece next month.
“We succeeded in doing the best in Israel, creating a culture that people love, so if you know Isrotel you will want to visit,” Benny Levy, the VP of sales and marketing at Isrotel, told The Algemeiner.
Levy says just because they are expanding outside of the Jewish state, “We aren’t stopping opening in Israel … Outside of Israel the potential is endless, it is a significant opportunity.”
Lior Raviv, CEO of Isrotel, added, “ALUMA is an international chain of hotels that will benefit from Isrotel’s longstanding experience and uncompromising standards of excellence, offering global travelers a wide range of city hotels and leisure resorts to choose from, and providing unique hospitality experiences. As a sister company of Isrotel, ALUMA is guided by our approach to hospitality as a way of life.”
They said most of the workers will be Israelis, ensuring the culture of the brand remains. “Israeli tourists, and especially loyal guests of Isrotel, who return to us time and again due to our hospitality experience and high standard of service, will find those same qualities and sense of a ‘home away from home’ at ALUMA, backed by the international standards of perfection and excellence,” added Raviv.
According to Isrotel, the Skylark hotel will be followed by the Anise Hotel, also in Athens, a month later. An additional hotel in Athens and one in Thessaloniki will open by the end of 2024. They said the total investment in the project is 70 million euros, with plans to expand elsewhere in Europe in the future.
Isrotel has 23 hotels across Israel, including eight in the resort town of Eilat in the south of Israel. Their international move comes as Israel’s National Planning and Construction Council announced this week the changes to the city’s height limitations for hotels, allowing up to 20 floors from the previously permitted eight floors.
Tourism Minister Haim Katz praised the move, saying, “We are bringing good news to Eilat. Hundreds and even thousands of rooms will be added in the city. The move will encourage competition, remove excess bureaucracy for a hotel that wants to renew itself, and allow entrepreneurs who have not yet built to increase supply.”
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Investment Firm Announces Recommendations for Preventing Corporate Anti-Israel Bias
Morningstar, Inc., a Chicago based investment firm managing over $250 billion in assets, has issued a report including several recommendations for reducing anti-Israel bias in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings its Sustainalytics subsidiary assigns to corporations.
For several years, Sustainalytics gave poor ESG ratings to Israel affiliated companies, a practice that led Jewish civil rights groups and lawmakers to suspect that the company was violating state laws against engaging in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate and weaken the Jewish state.
The firm denied the allegations, but a review of the its ratings by JLens, a leading Jewish investor network, found that Sustainalytics created “BDS blacklists” and used in its internal reports “politicized anti-Israel language” to describe Israel. JLens’ work, which was the first to raise alarms about the issue, led to Morningstar’s cracking down on the practices and adopting policies for ensuring that Sustainalytics does not become a BDS collaborator.
Released on Jan. 31, Morningstar’s new report builds on that commitment, outlining several policy changes, including: eliminating a designation which identified companies as being involved in “occupied territories/disputed region,” quashing reliance on disinformative media reports aimed at distorting a company’s ESG rating, and appointing legal experts to examine matters relevant to international human rights law.
“We welcome Morningstar’s commitment to eliminate anti-Israel bias in Sustainalytics research products,” Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on Wednesday. “We look forward to ongoing engagement with Morningstar to ensure the expert recommendations are fully and effectively implemented.”
The ADL took a leading role in combating anti-Israel bias in ESG ratings, incorporating JLens in Nov. 2022. ADL noted at the time that BDS activists target firms managing ESG rated funds, which attracted over $500 billion in investments in 2021, a 55% increase from the previous year, according to JP Morgan. During 2022’s proxy season, a time when publicly traded companies hold annual meetings to assess performance and weigh suggestions from shareholders, Israel was named in eight of 20 resolutions targeting foreign governments, “making the country only second to China.”
Morningstar’s recommendations will shield ESG from political bias and increase its reliability, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law founder and chairman Kenneth L. Marcus explained in a statement applauding the report.
“Anti-Israel external forces are doing everything they can to infiltrate campuses, boardrooms, the [United Nations]., sports leagues, and the securities industry,” he said. “We commend Morningstar for engaging with us, examining their ESG product, and committing to make the changes necessary to ensure that their rating system is apolitical, objective, and honest. We believe that implementing the experts’ report is critical to achieving this goal.”
Ari Hoffnung, managing director of JLens, added that “investor are entitled to research that is both objective and devoid of any anti-Israel bias.”
Last July, Morningstar removed 109 negative “controversy ratings” that Sustainalytics subsidiary had given to companies operating in Israel. The firm has also stopped referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ or ‘occupied territory” and committed to educating its employees about antisemitism and amassing information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from “independent, recognized experts.”
Morningstar, however, has repeatedly denied that it ever supported BDS. In June 2022, Morningstar CEO Kunal Kapoor issued a statement arguing that an external review of Sustainalytics found no evidence that it “encouraged divestment from Israel” but acknowledged that at least one of its departments singled out businesses “linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “sometimes used inflammatory language and failed to provide sourcing attribution clearly and consistently.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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