On the way out of his goodbye party last night, my doppelganger-in-name Shimon Roth grabbed me and said, “Are you gonna write about this on your website?” Usually, I hate those questions, but between Shimon’s good-natured drunkenness on one of his last nights in Crown Heights and the sheer Hasidic wackiness of our day, there was no way I couldn’t say yes.
It started at about four P.M., when we went to a kosher wine and cheese tasting at BenZ’s Gourmet. If you don’t know, wine and cheese are two of the hardest items to find kosher, and until recently, most Orthodox Jews — especially outside of New York — had to put up with a very small selection of both. (To this day, when we visit Melbourne, my in-laws order us to bring back as much cheese as our suitcases can fit: “Anything but the processed crap!”)
In the past few years, however, due to the combined force of Internet ease-of-purchasing and the greater availability of disposable income in certain demographics of the religious Jewish community, and a small but noticeable closet industry has sprung up: a Hasidic fine food industry.
Because my wife is a personal chef, I’ve got a bird’s-eye view of the situation: In this section of the community, people are struggling to learn as much about fine food as they can, and the easiest way of investigating is with their wallets.
Thus, we rolled up to BenZ’s thinking we wouldn’t be the only guests with a kid in tow (we were). Instead, we found a crowd that was part gourmands (actual and aspiring), part food-industry people, and part businessmen. That last group were the easiest to spot — they were the ones at the pouring station who were complaining that the pours were “too stingy.” (Author’s note: I still have to figure out the correct way to ask for more, since apparently you aren’t really supposed to drink the same wine twice at a wine tasting.)
To make matters even more unspeakably complicated, the night before had been Crown Heights’s first poetry slam ever (oh, geez, that’s another blog entry — remind me) and, randomly, I kept catching snatches of conversation about “the slam recital” and “hippies yelling hip-hop rhymes.” I felt instantly both scandalized and famous. Add that to the fact that some middle-aged dude kept coming up to me and asking if I was Matisyahu (in Crown Heights, mind you) and it was as trippy an experience as Sunday afternoons get.