It was business as usual during the Wednesday lunchtime hour at Pasta Basta, a popular pasta bar situated smack dab in the middle of Jerusalem’s outdoor Mahene Yehuda food market.
“Everyone’s doing what they usually do here, eating pasta,” said Haim Avrahami, one of the two owners of the seven-year-old restaurant that serves inexpensive, fresh plates of pasta (no meat sauces, just tomato or cream) accompanied by cheap glasses of wine or a glass of fresh brewed iced tea.
It was less than 24 hours since the pasta joint had been served with a NIS 2,000 ($555) fine for displaying its new kosher certification from Private Supervision, the “alternative kashrut” initiative that was founded as a friendlier alternative to the government-run rabbinate, which many view as a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.
“They showed up with a closed envelope [ordering the fine], that was dated September 27, which was the next day,” said Avrahami. “I won’t pay it. Show me what I’ve done wrong.”
The High Court of Justice ruled on September 13 that Israeli restaurateurs are permitted to inform their clientele that they serve food that is prepared according to Jewish law, even if they do not have kashrut certification from the Israeli state rabbinate.
The word “kosher” can’t appear on the certificate, but the ruling was hailed for appearing to have marked the end of a years-long battle over whether the ultra-Orthodox-controlled state rabbinate is the only body which may publicly claim a food establishment is kosher.
The new certificates were handed out Tuesday, said a spokesperson for Private Supevision, to 40 restaurants in Jerusalem, Ramat Gan, Ashkelon and Beersheba. A rabbinate representative came to Pasta Basta several hours later, said the spokesperson, a clear signal that the rabbinate was just looking to make trouble.
“They have no case,” he said, “and it’s obvious that Pasta Basta won’t pay for it, but will fight it in court. Their writing is on the wall, the Chief Rabbinate knows the end is in sight, but they want to frighten the restaurant owners.”
Avrahami wasn’t perturbed. In fact, he said, the fine has brought him plenty of free media attention.
“People have been calling me all day, offering me money to help me fight in court,” he said. “I can’t get over all the support.”
Avrahami and his partner opened the business in 2010, and for the first five years, were certified kosher by the chief rabbinate, as there was no other option at the time.
“We suffered for five years,” said Avrahami. “They didn’t care whether the place was actually kosher, just about the logistics, like which suppliers we used, because they had cut their own deals with big companies. They don’t really care what’s kosher, and what’s not.”
Avrahami turned to other organizations pushing a more pluralistic form of Judaism, but didn’t find any plausible alternative to the rabbinate until 2014, when Private Supervision was begun by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a local Yerushalmim Party member in Jerusalem.
“My restaurant has to be kosher for my clients; many of them wouldn’t eat here otherwise,” stressed Avrahami. “It wasn’t an easy decision for us.”
He received a previous fine from the chief rabbinate two years ago, which he paid, “without any drama.”
It was the High Court decision of two weeks ago that brought about Tuesday’s fine, with the decision to allow Private Supervision restaurants to list what steps they take to prepare their food according to Jewish law, but without saying the word “kosher” on its certificates.
“It says what steps I take to wash vegetables, which suppliers I use,” said Avrahami of his non-rabbinate certification. “Our kosher supervisor from Private Supervision speaks to my staff every week. They all had to go through a workshop about kosher processes. There’s supervision and a real desire to make sure that this restaurant and kitchen is kosher.”
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