Kosher food certification has come a long way in the past one hundred years (see my earlier posts on the Baff Murder and the L.A. kosher meat scandal). Consumer vigilance has been a key factor in improving the reliability of kosher certification. Of the estimated 12 million American consumers who buy kosher products because they are certified kosher, 8% are religious Jews who eat only kosher food. This core of religiously observant consumers is highly motivated to monitor the reliability of kosher certification. They call agency hotlines to report improperly labeled products—for example, products with a pareve (indicating the absence of any dairy products) label that nonetheless list dairy ingredients on their packages, packages with agency symbols that appear to be counterfeit, or items that contain ingredients that the consumers suspect are not kosher.
The role of active consumers in helping agencies monitor food companies is illustrated by the story of an Orthodox Union (OU)-certified company that made cookies-and-cream ice cream with cookie pieces in it. One day, the company notified OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov Luban that it had received a new account from a client who wanted cookies-and-cream ice cream made with real Oreos, which at the time were made with lard and were therefore not kosher. The company promised to keep the Oreo cookies-and-cream production separate from the kosher production, and the OU, after much deliberation, allowed the arrangement.
Several months later, a kosher consumer called the OU and reported that while eating OU-certified cookies-and-cream ice cream she discovered Oreo cookie pieces in it. As a religious kosher consumer, she knew that Oreos were not kosher certified. Luban went to the company and requested ten boxes of cookies-and-cream ice cream, took them back to the OU offices, and put them under the faucet to melt off the ice cream, whereupon he discovered Oreo cookie pieces in all ten boxes.
When the OU confronted the company, the manager explained that the account for the Oreo cookies-and-cream ice cream had been cancelled after the company had purchased $25,000 worth of Oreos with a relatively short expiration date. After attempting to find a new client for them, the company decided to use the Oreos in the kosher production.
The OU notified the company that it was terminating the certification. The company owner called OU rabbinic administrator Rabbi Menachem Genack in a panic and explained that he had just acquired the company a few weeks prior for $25 million and had been unaware of the wrongdoing. He explained that without OU certification, the company would be worthless since its private-label business depended on kosher certification. The owner offered to fire the entire staff and start over if the OU would maintain its certification. The OU agreed to continue certification if the owner fired the entire staff and paid for constant supervision to oversee production. The owner eagerly accepted this arrangement.
The consumer vigilance demonstrated by this story provides a much needed layer of additional oversight that strengthens the reliability of kosher supervision.
I was trying to figure out how to get people to buy My First Kafka from me directly instead of, say, Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy when anyone buys my book from anywhere, but it’s a nice feeling when you actually sell the copy yourself. (Also, you make slightly more than the 43 cents per copy or whatever that you get from your publisher, but that’s a different story.)
So I wrote this tiny mini-book. It’s a short story, and it’s called “The Last Golem in Prague.” It was an eleventh-hour creation in every sense. The books had just arrived in the mail, people were actually buying them, which I couldn’t (and still mostly can’t) believe, and I had to send out something. For months I’d sat in front of my notebook, page blank, wondering what sort of story I should write for whatever people might buy my weird children’s book.
And then, at 11:59 or so, everything clicked together. Continue reading
This past March, the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, Los Angeles’s largest purveyor of kosher meat, was discovered smuggling repackaged meat of unknown provenance through the back door of his butcher shop. The mashgiach (kosher supervisor), had unlocked the door for deliveries and then, against kosher protocol, left the premises to attend to personal business, leaving the market unsupervised. Erupting the day before the start of the Passover holiday, the scandal cast doubt on the status of thousands of briskets roasting in ovens throughout the city. An emergency council of rabbinic authorities held just in time for Passover seder that consumers could presume that meat previously purchased from Doheny was kosher.
The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which provided supervision to Doheny’s came under fire for the misfeasance of its mashgiach.
As a result of the scandal, the RCC’s reputation suffered. Several restaurants under RCC supervision switched to a rival certification agency, Kehilla Kosher. To stem the damage, the RCC called in the nation’s largest kosher certifier, the Orthodox Union (OU), to audit its supervision at three L.A. restaurants and reassure the public of its reliability. According to coverage by L.A.’s Jewish Journal:
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and [OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov] Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. “To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”
Additionally, the RCC asked the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), the national trade association for kosher certifiers, to promulgate a set of standards for all kosher certifiers in Los Angeles.
It now appears that Doheny may reopen under new ownership with RCC supervision.
Although there are occasional scandals today, kosher meat certification has come a long way since the early 1900s when it was estimated that somewhere between 40% and 65% of the meat sold as kosher in New York City was nonkosher. The Doheny scandal illustrates several features of kosher certification that help to account for its improved reliability. Continue reading
My parents are getting ready to move, to abandon the house I’ve lived in since I was born, and we traveled down to Philadelphia to help them. (No, that’s a lie: We traveled down because I had a reading for my new picture book, My First Kafka, and school is out, and we were getting ready to dump the kids with them for a week.) Everything is in boxes. If there’s one thing my kids are good at (there’s a million things), it’s causing chaos. They promptly set to work unpacking the remains of my parents’ life.
My five-year-old daughter promptly uncovered Treasure Island. Yes, the book. It was an illustrated—though uncut—edition. “Read it,” she demanded.
Hey, what kind of father would I be to deny classic literature to my next of kin? I read.
We reached the first death—a gristly scene where Billy Bones, an old seaman, gorges himself on rum, stabs an old fellow pirate, then collapses dead on the floor. “Are you sure you want me to keep going?” I asked her.
“Read,” she urged me.
Similarly, the second death (Old Pew, trampled by horse-hoofs cutting into his ribs) and the third (the night of Long John Silver’s violent mutiny aboard the Hispanola—no, actually, there was no death here, but a whole lot of swordfighting). We took a breath, not because she demanded it, but because my lungs were getting tired. “Are you really sure you want to read this?” I asked her. “Do you know what’s going on?”
She looked up at me with earnest, pleading eyes.
“The pirates are getting ready to kick off the good people from the ship,” she said. “Now they want to decide if they should kill them or hurt them or leave them on the island all alone.”
Kids: one point. Me: zero points. Robert Louis Stevenson: having a freakin’ veritable party in his coffin somewhere, I’m sure.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a lot about why kids like dark stories. What I told the New Yorker was, it’s because they’re still trying to understand the world, things like death and disease and renewal. They’re still getting used to existence, and they’re exploring this existential state as well as its corollary, what it would mean to NOT exist. That’s why they become fascinated with simple, pretty things like flowers and animals, as well as why they’ll stare in fascination as a just-stepped-upon ant crinkles slowly in its dying throes.
But I also think that the boundary between dark, depressing stuff and normal, happy stuff doesn’t exist for them, not the way it does for us. We as adults have a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize—work and home life, cartoons vs. reality. Kids not only don’t need to do that, they don’t want to. They’re more fascinated with the paradoxes of the universe than the idea that these things could be paradoxes. They don’t sit around all day talking about what it could mean that a person could be transformed into a giant bug and what it represents symbolically because, to them, it doesn’t represent anything symbolically—it’s an actual story.
I’ve been avoiding reading my book to my kids lately. It feels too self-indulgent, too performative; I’m much more comfortable with Maurice Sendak or Arnold Lobel. But at my Philadelphia reading last Sunday, I read one of the stories from the book, “Josefine the Singer, or, the Mouse-People.” The ending is really sad, and I almost cried onstage. My kids, sitting about halfway back, had these huge toothy smiles. After everyone had gone, I asked what they thought of that, weren’t they sad? “It was sad when you were reading it,” said my younger one, “but it’s a story. It’s supposed to be sad.”
The Toronto Star recently reported that several firebombings of kosher restaurants in Quebec may not be the work of anti-Semites but rather part of “a kosher restaurant war in the predominantly Jewish west-end neighborhood of Hampstead.” The Star described the latest bombing in a June 15 article:
Around closing time last weekend two men walked into Montreal’s Chops Resto-Bar, tossed a flaming Molotov cocktail toward the bar and escaped on foot, though not before a security camera picked them up.
The damage was limited to a scorched section of the restaurant’s wall and shock among the 20-odd diners wrapping up their meal shortly after midnight Saturday. But there was clearly something nefarious at play. This was the third time since 2011 that Chops, a kosher establishment that serves Asian fusion cuisine, had been targeted with a flaming bottle.
While shocking, this kind of violence is not new in the kosher world.
In one of the most notorious cases, in 1906, a group of New York City poultry distributors organized the Live Poultry Commission Merchants’ Protective Association, which fixed wholesale prices for kosher poultry and forced poultry retailers to buy exclusively from the association. The association punished retailers who refused to cooperate by establishing competing stores that sold at lower prices.
Thirteen association members were ultimately convicted of illegal price-fixing in 1911 based on the testimony of Bernard (Baruch) Baff, a poultry retailer. Baff’s horse and chickens were subsequently poisoned, his summer cottage and one of his stores were bombed, and he was gunned down in 1914 in the Washington Market by unknown assailants, who fled in a getaway car.
The Baff murder remained unsolved for several years, during which time suspicions focused on the poultry distributors. As it turned out, the murder was paid for by a group of one hundred poultry retailers who resented Baff’s dominance in the retail poultry trade, which he achieved by dealing directly with poultry farmers, obtaining a fleet of trucks, and operating his own slaughtering operations—thereby cutting out middlemen and allowing him to charge lower prices than his competitors.
While kosher food certification today is hardly a hotbed of extortion rackets and drive-by shootings, recent events in Quebec hark back to a darker era in the history of kosher corruption.
Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my navel, when an unfamiliar woman approaches. We chat a bit—she’s a literary agent based in New York, the sister of the hostess—and then she asks the dreaded question. “So…what are you working on these days?” I pause to consider before answering. You know when people say to cute, charismatic single women, “You’re so fabulous—I just can’t believe you’re single!” and they want to punch them in the face and then kill themselves? This was a work version of that.
You see, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years, having left my native New York City to seek my fortune as a screenwriter with a soap opera credit and a fresh pile of TV spec scripts in my kit bag, but the steady ascent I’ve pictured, and that I’ve seen other people achieve, hasn’t happened. I’ve been working so damn hard for so long and I feel like I’m nowhere, other than crushed. How could that be, when I’ve done everything I’ve seen other people doing—and what my various agents have told me to do?
I mean: I got a driver’s license at age 30 in order to drive cross-country in a U-Haul piled with whatever possessions my husband and I didn’t sell when we left Brooklyn. I sat in a rented house in the Hollywood Dell with a vintage metal desk and a pristine view of a walled garden that gave me a squirrely Barton Fink feeling, and I cranked out material and rolled calls. I got a job on a show—the researcher on Law &Order: SVU in its first season—and I wrote two freelance episodes…but I wasn’t put on staff. I re-wrote a teen comedy feature for Paramount…but my broadly comic take was poorly received. I sold a TV dramedy pilot, a high school musical…but the executives involved walked away when I’d banked they’d burst into song. Eventually, motivated by the stretches of unemployment between these gigs, I developed a freelance sideline, writing copy for entertainment-based ad campaigns. And then, just weeks before the beach party at which I’m now a wallflower, a literary manager who’s read what I thought were my best scripts delivers a disturbing critique. “Your work is solid,” she says. “It’s well written and it proves you can do it. But I can’t do anything with it, because it’s generic. I would be interested in working with you, but first I’d need to see material that only you could write. Write some new stuff this summer and send it over after Labor Day.” Generic? New stuff? Sounds like me? Fecch. Continue reading
“Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic.” As a kid, wandering around the kiddish reception at our shul collecting cellophane ruffle-topped toothpicks in a plastic cup, I heard these terms bandied far above my head by adults and had no idea what they meant. Were these languages? Politicians? Street gangs, like in West Side Story? As a first-generation American and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, I was pretty sure these mysterious terms didn’t have anything to do with me. We were Jews who kept kosher and went to shul, but we didn’t eat or do the things that seemed officially Jewy, like, Fiddler on the Roof-Jewy. My single mother didn’t bake kugel, or encircle the flames of the Shabbat candles with her hands when she made her brachot, or bobby pin a white nylon doily to the back of her head for services (nor would she have dreamed of wearing a kippah like some of her friends from her Consciousness Raising group). My mother used no Yiddishims in her speech, other than “shul” and “schlep” and, while cursing other drivers, “schmuck.” I wasn’t sent to Jewish sleepaway camp to meet my future spouse or bridesmaids or employers. And on Christmas Day, we did not go to the movies or eat Chinese food.
What I did know, always, was that we were German, from old families. We ate our pizza with a knife and fork. We liked marzipan, in whimsical shapes like fried eggs and, yes, piglets. We wore pinky rings stamped with a family crest based on the corporate logo of my industrialist ancestors’ metals business. We kept glass bottles of 4711 eau de cologne in the bathroom. Phrases like “yeah” and “okay”were frowned upon. Continue reading
I think of Claudia Silver, the eponymous heroine of my debut novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue, as one in an anxious, spirited line of Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. This lineage starts with Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s A-list flibbertigibbet in The House of Mirth, then moves on to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (who put up with that scoundrel Noel Airman’s hijinks for about 100 riveting pages too long), Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine (if only 30 had been the new 20 in 1972), Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing, and Melissa Bank’s Jane Rosenal. Yes, I know that Lily Bart wasn’t Jewish. But if only she’d married Simon Rosedale! (Sob! Gnashing of teeth! She could’ve given him a make-under!)
Claudia Silver possesses some key traits that connect her to her literary sisters. She’s got a loud speaking voice and wobbly self-worth, she finds comfort in self-destructive habits and relationships, and she’s paralyzed by her own ambivalence. She’s helpful and selfish, fierce and vulnerable. She’s got a keen sense of class and caste, ranking herself ruthlessly in any given social situation. She knows how to dance, and how to accessorize. But unlike Lily and Marjorie, whom I adore, but let’s face it, whether it’s in the back of a hat shop or lower Westchester, they both die from denial, Claudia wakes up. And she does so along a particularly Jewish continuum.
It’s when Claudia hears her ill-fated soon-to-be-paramour, Paul Tate, recite the shehecheyanu prayer as grace over an assimilated Christmas dinner, that her interest in him shifts, fatefully. Once Claudia’s actions cause a multi-family train-wreck, she becomes aware that she has one chance to make it right – and that’s to undertake “teshuvah” – the humble pursuit of repentance. Now, I don’t know how the Rambam or Rav Kook or even my own Los Angeles rabbi, Sharon Brous, would define teshuvah. (Personally, I plucked my definition from the low hanging branch on the tree of knowledge known as Wikipedia.) But Claudia acknowledges her profound misdeed with humility, fesses up, will remember this one for the rest of her life, and even though there’s no sequel in the works, I promise you, dear reader, that she will refrain from committing this one in the future. In fact, once Claudia Silver accounts for her actions, she’s propelled forward to growth and emotional maturity. She marches straight into a possibly dangerous social event and yanks her younger sister free of it, apologizes sincerely to the Nice Jewish Boy Who Was There All Along and gets her love life on track, and even reunites with mother despite a dug-in estrangement. And none of this could have happened if Claudia hadn’t made the worst mistake of her life.
It’s my firm belief and my personal experience that patterns run through families faster than we can usually stop them, which is why we need both spiritual practice and literature – so that a wisdom greater than our own can escort us, lovingly, to awareness and eventually, to change. And it’s my opinion that Lily and Marjorie made huge freakin’ mistakes. Do I need to tell you that if Marjorie Morningstar had understood what Wally Wronken truly had to offer, she might’ve been at the TONY Awards last week in Calvin Klein? Possibly with Calvin Klein? Given her lineage, Claudia was powerfully teed up to repeat history. But having read her Wharton and her Wouk, she, through me, made a different choice. And as a result, the biggest mistake Claudia Silver ever made is the best thing that ever happened to her.
My father’s artwork was always how I made sense of the world around me. The sometimes scary, ghetto Lower East Side I grew up in was beautiful, interesting and safe when shaded by his paints. His devotion to his artwork, but also creative, compassionate parenting inspired me early on to pursue my own artistic passions. I would sit in Dad’s sun drenched studio dictating stories about suicidal whales before I could write.
Dad encouraged my taste for tragedy and drama by reading me bedtime stories beyond my years. With me in the cozy crook of his flannel arm, under soft yellow lamps he turned the pages and read ten year-old me Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, Dickens’s Great Expectations and Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. These guilty, lonely, decadent, sexual stories were a dazzling escape from the Lower East Side of the early ‘90s. They infuse my writing to this day.
I also got my fascination for celebrity from my artist father. He was intrigued by what fame stood for; the levels of luxury, artistic recognition and happiness Americans believed it could get you. Yet, his was an outsider’s stance. He felt more comfortable around the edges. The works which gained him newspaper write-ups and radio interviews were skull shaped masks of American conservatives, people he felt propagated the unfair conservation of money and power. These death heads, wildly colorful in papier-mâché ranged from Nancy Reagan and George Bush Senior to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Andy Warhol. Continue reading
I changed my name from Hazak Brozgold to Royal Young when I was 20 years old. I was a drunk college drop-out who had moved back into my parent’s Lower East Side apartment with big, unrealistic dreams and a drinking habit too large for my childhood bedroom. Getting rid of my hard to pronounce Hebrew name felt like a step toward escaping my youth and my disapproving Jewish parents. My moniker had set me apart in classrooms and the ghetto downtown streets I’d grown up in. The Lower East Side of my youth was broken glass on uneven sidewalks, fast domino games, sneakers hanging from streetlights, Hip Hop blasting bass heavy from car windows. My grandparent’s days, when the neighborhood was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, were long gone. My parents had literally missed the boat.
They named me Hazak Brozgold to make up for it. Hazak means “strong” in Hebrew. But I always felt weak. A shy, quiet bookworm I shrank from the rough streets around me, finding escape in making my neuropsychologist mom administer me Rorsach tests instead of going on play dates, or painting crude canvasses with my artist/social worker father in his cluttered studio.
Perhaps I escaped too much into my parents. By 20, I wanted to run away from them and hide behind dive bars where they couldn’t reach me or speak the slurred language.
Yet, what started out as a pompous challenge—changing my name to Royal Young (my younger brother changed his name to Fury Young in a show of stubborn solidarity)—strangely allowed me to become closer to my parents and my Hebrew heritage. I took to Royal naturally. I was used to sticking out. I cut down on drinking and started getting published under my new byline. Small articles that didn’t pay my rent but made me feel, for the first time in my life, able to provide for myself. I was more comfortable with a name that people pinned to a profession rather than a religion.
There are legions of Jews who have changed their names to take on larger than life careers in writing, acting, as artists. Taking on an identity that encouraged success seemed like a rite of passage to join this group of my fellow tribesmen and women. I began to wonder if picking your own persona had less to do with disguising your heritage and more to do with finding a shield to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of making your work public. Countless rejection, hate mail, harsh editing, scrutiny when my pieces were published, Royal took them all in stride. I’m not sure if Hazak would have been able to.
I also relished having a part of me that was private. My parents would never stop calling me Hazak. The way it tripped off my grandparents tongues was with the “Ch” Hebrew pronunciation at the beginning. I loved being able to catch up with my parents over weekly dinners and be reminded, simply by the name they had so lovingly given me, that I had a healthy, whole, strong family to support me when work became overwhelming.
It’s been eight years since I started calling myself Royal. Only this year, with the publication of Fame Shark,did I change my passport. The change is about coming into my own, accepting the past, but pushing forward. It’s not about shame, or leaving my roots behind. It’s a decision Hazak made. One he is finally ready to fully be proud of.