Of vintners and rabbis
Drunk with power

Of vintners and rabbis

Boutique wineries take a controversial path to kosher certification

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustrative: Harvesting grapes (photo credit: Rahim Katib/Flash 90)
Illustrative: Harvesting grapes (photo credit: Rahim Katib/Flash 90)

Roni Saslove likes to have meetings in her wine cellar, surrounded by casks of aging Saslove wine. The far end of the cellar is cordoned off with a chain link fence safeguarding more casks of wine with a sign that reads: The Vault. These are the kosher casks of the Saslove Winery that are under lock and key because the Sasloves, as non-religiously observant Jews, are not allowed to touch them.

Roy Yitzhaki doesn’t own a key to his winery. If there was a fire raging inside the Tulip Winery, mused Yitzhaki, he would have to let it burn down because he, a non-Sabbath observer, can’t have access to his wines so that they can be certified kosher.

Ya’acov Oryah, the religiously observant owner of Asif Winery in Arad, doesn’t have kosher certification for his wine. He had long questioned Israel’s chief rabbinate about the Jewish law relating to kosher wine and in doing so, found his winery blocked from receiving any kind of official kosher certification.

Eli Ben Zaken with his wines (Courtesy Castel Winery)
Eli Ben Zaken with his wines (Courtesy Castel Winery)

“I’m okay with the fact that I don’t have keys to the cellar in order to allow my wine to be kosher,” said Eli Ben Zaken, the owner of the award-winning Castel Winery, which became kosher several years ago. “The only thing that’s disappointing is that I’m a second-class Jew.”

The business of wine-making has never been a simple one. Requiring expertise in agriculture, chemistry, manufacturing, marketing, logistics and economics, and a very particular love of this ancient elixir, it is an occupation for those who are, as Saslove likes to say, “crazy about wine and fascinated with the process of making it.”

For Israeli boutique wineries, an industry that has grown considerably in the last 20 years, the usual complications in making quality wines have been compounded by a particular marketing and kosher dilemma.

The Israeli wine shelf (photo credit: Sophie Gordon/Flash 90)
The Israeli wine shelf (photo credit: Sophie Gordon/Flash90)

Most of Israel’s boutique wineries were not kosher for many years, as they were established primarily by secular Israelis whose personal discovery of good wine led them to begin growing their own grapes, sometimes crushing the grapes in their garage and then producing and bottling their own wines. As some of the wineries grew over time, reaching thousands and then tens of thousands of bottles per year, they faced a marketing conundrum. The local Israeli market was generally too small to sell all the bottles, but the export market in Europe and North America wasn’t all that accepting of Israeli wines.

“All people know of ‘Jewish’ wine is Manischewitz,” said Roni Saslove, “and they associate Israeli wines with heavy, sweet kiddush wine. They don’t know that Israeli wine is good, and then Israeli wines are expensive, so they see the price and all they know is the news from Israel, and for that you’re going to pay $50? Israeli wine is not competitive at any price level.”

The more obvious market for quality Israeli wines became the global kosher market. North American Jews, whether or not they kept kosher homes, wanted good Israeli wines for themselves and their friends and family.

“Israeli wine has loyal customers, and that’s the Jewish market in America, because everyone wants kosher wines for their events, for their gifts, for the caterers,” said Oryah.

The market in Israel had changed as well. Whereas companies and corporations had once purchased nonkosher Israeli wines for most of their gifts during the busy Rosh Hashana and Passover holiday seasons — buying a few kosher wines for their kosher clients — they began looking for only kosher Israeli wines, creating severe losses for the wineries that were not kosher.

And so, a small trickle of medium-sized boutique wineries began the process of becoming kosher. The first, many people say, was the Tzora Winery in 2000, owned by Ronnie James, who died several years ago.

“I remember Ronnie James telling us that now that he was kosher, he could sleep at night, knowing that his wine would be sold,” said Roni Saslove, who by that time was already working closely with her father, Barry Saslove, in their family-owned winery.

Grape sorting in the Golan Heights (photo credit: Flash90)
Grape sorting in the Golan Heights (photo credit: Flash90)

Tzora’s James may have been sleeping better, but he wasn’t able to actually sleep in his winery, as had been his custom in the winery’s earlier days. He, like the other vintners who were non-Sabbath observers, was now banned from getting too close to his own barrels. According to the rabbinate’s understanding of Jewish law, neither non-Jews nor non-observant Jews can come into physical contact with any part of the wine-making process from the moment the grapes are crushed into juice.

A conundrum of Jewish law

For Ya’acov Oryah, the founder and vintner at Asif, that kind of restriction never made any sense. Oryah was first introduced to wine-making through a course with Barry Saslove, and wine became a fascinating occupation for him, a quest for perfection that balanced agriculture and art as well as creating a bridge to other people. Yet the premise that a wine could be made nonkosher by the touch of a non-religious Jew was disturbing to him, and one which he wanted to explore further.

Wine has always been considered a sanctified drink in Judaism, given its place in Jewish ritual and tradition (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Wine has always been considered a sanctified drink in Judaism, given its place in Jewish ritual and tradition (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

He examined the initial prohibition against non-Jews touching kosher wine, which was established in Babylonian times. It aimed to separate permitted wine from wine used by pagan idol worshipers, and was later applied to Jews who had become idol worshipers. Along the same lines, explained Oryah, the Talmud had established elsewhere that those who do not observe the Sabbath are considered heretics, and therefore the prohibition against touching wine applied to them as well.

“It’s a kind of fine, a penalty to bring a nonobservant person back to the fold. It’s a lowering of his class,” explained Oryah. Frustrated by that blanket prohibition, Oryah pushed on, finding other sources, from Maimonides in medieval times to more modern rabbis, teaching that one can’t punish a person for not practicing what they haven’t been taught in the first place.

Rabbi Doctor Jeffrey Woolf, a senior lecturer in Jewish law and modernism at Bar-Ilan University, agrees in principle with Oryah’s findings, commenting that what needs to be determined is “whether [non-Sabbath observance] is an ideological statement or socialized lack of observance,” he said. “Can you make the case that if [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion [who was ideologically secular] touches the wine there’s a problem, but there’s no problem with an average secular person? It has to be nuanced because of the history of the law.”

Oryah surmised that there could be a way to interpret the Talmudic rulings differently, enabling nonreligious winemakers to take part in kosher wine-making. He tried to garner rabbinical support for his findings, but without success. At that point, he decided to write up the entire matter in an article for the Israeli magazine “Wine and Gourmet,” and began a long wait for the rabbinate to confirm his own winery’s kosher certification. It never happened.

Pouring some Asif (Courtesy Asif Winery)
Pouring some Asif (Courtesy Asif Winery)

“I”m not a rabbi; I can’t give a Jewish law ruling. But I know how to learn, and it’s clear to me the law could and should be different,” says Oryah. “I upset the chief rabbinate in Jerusalem, and I don’t really know exactly why — if it’s because it’s against their policies or because my article was like a Jewish law ruling, but the person in charge of kosher certification called me up and gave me hell, because I had published the article in ‘a newspaper of the secular people.’”

After three years of waiting and extensive financial losses, Oryah decided to go ahead with his wines, printing labels that states the wines are made according to kosher methods, but lack official certification. For now, he sells them directly to customers and restaurants.

“No one is forbidding my wines from a kosher perspective, but I can’t market them as kosher, either,” he said.

Oryah said the rabbinate blacklisting affected his income, but not his personal attitude toward Judaism and religion. Yet he well understands the deep insult felt by other secular winemakers, some of whom still turn to kosher certification to sell more wine.

A Reform wedding in Tel Aviv, not recognized by the rabbinate (photo credit: Serge Attal)
A Reform wedding in Tel Aviv, not recognized by the rabbinate (photo credit: Serge Attal)

“It’s an emotional issue for every nonreligious person in the wine industry; they’re Jewish enough for getting married and divorced and buried by the rabbinate, but not to make wine,” he said. “It’s a matter of approach to Jewish law. In our day, the more strict you are, the more ‘seriously religious’ you are. I think it’s the fashion and a matter of status. I didn’t find anyone to tell me I’m wrong, but nobody wants to deal with such a serious issue.”

The OK guys

The OK logo (Courtesy OK)
The OK logo (Courtesy OK)

Nobody, except for the OK Kosher Certification organization. Established in the 1930s in the US, the OK has been working in Israel for the last 13 years, bringing along their American motto of “Kashrut ze sherut,” translated as “kosher certification is their service opportunity,” said Rabbi Aharon Haskel, the head of OK Israel.

Working with multinational companies in 92 countries, the OK has developed a “worldview” on the system of kosher certification and supervision, said Haskel, which has made it the right address for the local boutique wineries seeking kosher credentials.

In the world of kosher supervision, the OK was the “new kid on the block” for some time but is now considered one of the leading organizations that is accepted by the chief rabbinate and other kosher supervision organizations, said Bar-Ilan’s Woolf.

“We’re not competing with any other kosher certification organizations, but we get along with everyone, and we’re there, on the supermarket shelf,” said Haskel. “We’re relatively new in Israel, but we identified an issue in kosher certification that it’s not just about making something kosher but offering service.”

Indeed, that is the reputation the OK has earned among its winery clients. Saslove winemaker Roni Saslove believes that OK field representative Rabbi Jacob Perlov is looking to make the certification process as painless as possible for her, without weakening the wine’s strict kosher certification. “He told me, ‘If it’ll be difficult for you, you won’t do it,’” she said.

Father-and-daughter winemakers Barry and Roni Saslove (Courtesy Saslove Winery)
Father-and-daughter winemakers Barry and Roni Saslove (Courtesy Saslove Winery)

Haskel echoed Saslove’s words. “They come from another world, the Sasloves. It’s this whole family experience to make the wine and then you have to tell them to change their system, that they will never touch their wine but it will still be just as good.”

What Haskel and his band of rabbinical supervisors did was provide the necessary kosher raw materials — as well as supervisors and staff — for kosher wines that are “just as good,” enabling Israeli wineries to make wines that are the same level of quality as their previous nonkosher wines, that “still win medallions and are kosher,” he said.

“We don’t do it for Zionism, we do it for business,” he added. “None of these wineries have gone back to being nonkosher, which means it’s a process that works.”

Saslove still finds it “simply silly” that she can’t touch her barrels of wine. She recalls keeping her hands in her pockets and losing her voice during that first kosher harvest because she was used to doing the work herself and not telling others what to do.

“I try not to talk to our kosher supervisor about it, because it’s a choice we made and I really do respect that it’s important for people,” said Saslove, who remembers the earlier days of the winery when both observant and nonobservant Israelis would come to the winery for the simple thrill of drinking good Israeli wines. “I would like for it to be different, for Jews to drink the wines of Israel, without kosher certification.”

“It has nothing to do with God, it has nothing to do with religion,” she added. “At this point, it’s politics, and we decided to go with the supervision that afforded us the largest number of followers, because if you’re going to go kosher, you may as well expose your wines to the biggest crowd.”

Four years of disappointment

Roy Yitzhaki of the Tulip Winery (Courtesy Tulip Winery)
Roy Yitzhaki of the Tulip Winery (Courtesy Tulip Winery)

It took Tulip winemaker Roy Yitzhaki more than four years to earn kosher certification for his winery. As the Tulip Winery grew beyond 100,000 bottles a year, he felt he had no choice but to become kosher, in order to access Israeli hotels, the corporate holiday gift segment and the export market.

But he had one significant rabbinic problem that he had thought of as his greatest asset: Tulip is based in the northern town of Tivon, within Kfar Tivka, a village for adults with special needs. Yitzhaki, who grew up in Tivon, has always employed Kfar Tikva residents in the winery. He was willing to work within all the restrictions necessary for obtaining kosher certification, but wanted to find a way to continue to employ the residents, who were not Sabbath observers, but for whom the winery work was a major source of enjoyment in their lives. When the chief rabbinate representative saw the residents working the bottling line, he told Yitzhaki it would never work.

Tivka residents sorting grapes at Tulip (Courtesy Tulip Winery)
Tivka residents sorting grapes at Tulip (Courtesy Tulip Winery)

Deeply hurt, Yitzhaki spent another year talking to other rabbis, trying to find a different solution.

“None of them had the courage to look at it and say, yes, we can try and find a solution for this,” he said.

According to Bar-Ilan’s Woolf, some of the Israeli chief rabbinate’s decisions are not based on actual issues of whether a product is kosher or not, but are part of the general ultra-Orthodox takeover of the body.

“There’s is no question that the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] establishment in Israel is far less aware and far less service friendly, as opposed to a professional organization like the OU or OK or the London Beit Din,” he said. “The Israeli rabbinate is one big large patronage factory and who’s in charge is not a question of qualification but patronage.”

When Yitzhaki met Rabbi Haskel from the OK, he felt he had finally found someone who would help make it work. Haskel found a major Jewish law expert who said that if the residents don’t understand what they do and why they do it — and never decided for themselves whether to be Sabbath observers or not — then they could engage in winery work.

When he talked to them, however, Haskel found they had a broad understanding of their actions and could not be considered lacking in understanding.

Yitzhaki spent another year talking to more rabbis — “If you type the word rabbi in my iPhone, you get 50 names” — and then Yitzhaki and Haskel searched together for the murky intersection of Jewish law and winery work that would satisfy their mutual demands. Haskel examined all the myriad of tasks done in the winery throughout the year, and found he could allow 30 percent of the work to be done by the residents, since tasks done before the wine is in bottles can be done by nonobservant Jews.

Tulip's new kosher label (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Tulip's new kosher label (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Yitzhaki agreed to hire a full-time kosher supervisor, and the OK took on the responsibility of checking in on the winery on a regular basis, visiting several times a year.

“The OK brought me closer to religion — I’m still secular, and I eat whatever I want — but after those four years of disappointment in my religion, I saw that these are good guys who make an effort,” he said. “It was very important to them, and Haskel and Perlov still get excited to see what they’ve accomplished here, to see the residents from Kfar Tikva.”

Once the OK was on board, other rabbinic supervisions followed, including the stringent kosher certification Badatz Beit Yosef, who told Yitzhaki they fully relied on the decisions of the OK.

Tulip’s first kosher wines are now in stock, and Yitzhaki is satisfied, although there are certain twinges of disappointment, such as the fact that he can no longer touch his wine. He can’t spend his customary two or three days a month working with his wines, getting his hands black from the juice of grapes.

“It’s a severing from my personal connection to the wine,” he said. “But kashrut is an important element in Israel, and there’s no getting away from it.”

Over my dead body

Veteran winemaker Yair Margalit, of the eponymously-named winery based in Caesarea, can’t imagine having the pleasure of making wine taken away from him.

Yair Margalit and his son Asaf in their vineyards (Courtesy Margalit Winery)
Yair Margalit and his son Asaf in their vineyards (Courtesy Margalit Winery)

“My colleagues all made wine out of the pleasure of it, and now they can’t touch their wine,” he said. “[Castel winemaker] Eli Ben Zaken doesn’t have a key to his winery — what is that? Someone else should be his landlord? And all that just to sell wine? It’s all about the money. And is it really worth the headache?”

According to Ben Zaken, the process of kosher wine-making hasn’t changed the quality of Castel wine, and while he can’t touch his wine, he says that doesn’t bother him.

“It touches on the spiritual and the purposeful,” he said. “We are able to sell all of our non-kosher wine in Israel, even 100,000 bottles. But when we export our non-kosher wine, it doesn’t sell. I think that making good wine is proof of the Judeo-Christian imperative, and to be able to be part of my culture, to offer the non-Jewish world a high-quality wine from Israel, was my pride, and I worked hard to provide it. But then I saw that I was looking to convince the non-Jews but my own people couldn’t drink it because it wasn’t kosher.”

Nevertheless, the entire issue is a source of embarrassment and indignation to Margalit and one that he touches upon in the various wine-making courses he teaches at the Technion and Tel Hai College.

“First Jewish law says that a non-Jew can’t touch kosher wine, which is already troubling, and that a nonobservant Jew can’t touch it either,” he said. “A Jew like me, like 80% of Israel, can’t touch kosher wine. What does that say? That there’s better quality Jews and lesser quality Jews? If I, as a client, buy kosher wine, that means I agree with that. And I manufacture wine, and I’ll never make kosher wine and go along with that.”

With some 250 boutique wineries in Israel, most of them small, mom-and-pop operations, the matter of kosher certification is the issue of only a handful of wineries, perhaps a dozen in all. Despite the general success of the Israeli wine industry, and the proliferation of boutique wineries, most of the small boutique wineries struggle, and many of the medium-sized wineries have a hard time succeeding as well. Given those odds, it’s not surprising to find that more than a few Israeli winemakers have made the tough decision to make their wines kosher, turning in their cellar keys and maintaining a hands-off role in the most literal sense.

Yet those who have are surprisingly resigned to it — not sanguine, but realistic. They know they won’t be able to change the system of Jewish law and don’t intend on trying. They’ve allowed their hobby to turn into a business, but that happened long before they became kosher, after somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 bottles.

“The rabbis love the power they have in this business and you see it in them,” said Castel’s Ben Zaken, recalling a time when Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef invited himself to Castel. “They got us, the wineries, and they knew it. But at some point it becomes reciprocal, an arrangement, because it is a business.”

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