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Learning tradition, eating locust

A speaker displays a locust at an Orthodox Union dinner featuring unusual kosher species, May 2 in New York. (OU)

A speaker displays a locust at an Orthodox Union dinner featuring unusual kosher species, May 2 in New York. (OU)

NEW YORK, May 3 (JTA) — At $161 a head, most people paying for dinner at an upscale Manhattan restaurant would be upset to be served dessert while eyeing a locust crawling around not far from their plates. But that’s exactly what diners sought when they signed up for the Orthodox Union’s exotic kosher event Sunday at Levana restaurant, in New York. Diners paid for a multicourse meal including cow udder, wild turkey, quail, bison, venison, goat, sheep stew, pigeon, dove and sparrow. In between courses, O.U. kosher officials explained what makes the animals kosher, why they are rarely eaten and how to identify and prepare them. “The whole point of this event is to keep the mesorah alive,” said Menachem Genack, head of the kosher division at the O.U., as waiters collected plates of cow udder from diners. “Mesorah” is Hebrew for “tradition.” The aim of the dinner — and a daylong conference that preceded it — was “to eat animals to re-establish the fact that they are kosher,” he said, so that the tradition of what animals are kosher can be passed on to a new generation. While some animals can be identified as kosher using empirical characteristics — beasts that chew their cud and have split hooves are considered kosher — others, such as bird species, are kosher only because they traditionally have been known to be so and have been eaten by observant Jews. Diners on Sunday ate quail and dove and sparrow to ensure that the memory that these birds are kosher is not forgotten, Genack said. If reaction to the food was any indication, that memory is safe. “I’d never eaten quail before,” said Frada Nager, from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a kosher observer who said she came because she wanted to taste something unusual. “Being kosher, you don’t have that much choice,” she said. Though Nager was not so impressed with the taste of the exotic meats she was served — when asked what she liked best, she noted that the seven-grain bread rolls had been good — she said she nevertheless was glad she came. “It was an experience — a costly one, but an experience,” she said. Earlier in the day, the Orthodox Union held a daylong conference at the Lander College for Men on kosher species, how to recognize them and how to make them kosher. About 450 people turned out for the conference, O.U. officials said. Some were rabbis, some were professional kosher slaughterers, but most merely were curious, kosher-observant Jews, the union said. At one point during the conference, a Yemenite Jew prepared a kosher locust — Sephardi Jews, unlike Ashkenazim, ate such kosher insects until recently — but there weren’t many takers when it came time to eat the fried grasshopper. Stuart Shaffren, a New York dentist, said he canceled a day’s worth of patients to go to the conference. Even if he had skipped the dinner, he said, “the lectures alone were far worth it.” Shaffren, who received the dinner as a birthday gift from his family, said he also was excited to be keeping the tradition alive. There wasn’t a vegetarian in the house on Sunday night. Yet while the tables were full until late into the evening, some plates went back into the kitchen nearly untouched. “I couldn’t eat anything,” said one woman, who left shortly before waiters began passing out plates of cubed goat and sheep stew. “I want to get out of here before they serve goat. Goat I can’t take.” Another diner, Pinchus Merling, a Chasid who lives in Manhattan, said he came for shibuta, a fish that purportedly tastes like pork. But shibuta was unavailable. “That’s what I really wanted. To tell my friends I ate pork. To say I know what pork tastes like,” he said. Nevertheless, Merling said the soup, whose ingredients included pigeon, dove, sparrow, duck and a “fleishig egg” — an unhatched egg found in a slaughtered chicken that is considered meat, rather than pareve, according to Jewish law — brought him back to his childhood. “I haven’t tasted a fleishig egg since I was a child,” Merling said wistfully. “My mother used to open chickens and find fleishig eggs in there.” The egg consists solely of a yolk that is smaller and harder than typical yolks. Avraham Kirschenbaum, who owns Levana along with two of his brothers, said the biggest challenge was not the food preparation — his non-Jewish chef is well-versed in preparing unconventional meats — but finding the animals to kill according to Jewish law. “There are people that put things into theory, but theory is not reality,” he said. “The hardest part of the project is that someone’s got to bring it into reality.” The restaurant’s standard menu includes bison and venison, but things got a little trickier when Kirschenbaum wanted to serve goat. He went to a meat market in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and found the perfect goat. But when Kirschenbaum picked it out, it was given to a non-Jew and slaughtered before Kirschenbaum — and the ritual slaughterer he had brought with him — could intervene. “They killed my goat!” he said. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing, man? You killed my goat!’ ” An alternative goat was selected and slaughtered, along with two sheep, one of which Kirschenbaum described as “drop-dead gorgeous.” The shochet — the ritual slaughterer — was a little nervous, Kirschenbaum said. “All along the way, everybody was shaking,” he said. But “the kill was perfect” he said, and the result made it onto the plate of Rabbi Tzvi Flaum, among others. “To see firsthand the reality of the kosher bird species we learned about in the Talmud,” said Flaum, rabbi at Congregation Knesseth Israel of Far Rockaway, N.Y., “you’re finally finding out about what you learned about in childhood.” “It was a unique life experience,” he said.

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