Reporter's notebook'It was the rabbi's idea'

Want kosher gefilte fish in Cologne? Go to that nice Iranian Muslim

Tehran native Kambiz Alizadeh sells 250 products imported especially for the city’s Jews. And it’s not his fault there’s no kosher sign on his storefront

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Tehran native Kambiz Alizadeh at his Getränkemarkt Beethoven convenience store near the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne, Germany (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Tehran native Kambiz Alizadeh at his Getränkemarkt Beethoven convenience store near the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne, Germany (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

COLOGNE, Germany — In Germany’s fourth-biggest city, the only person providing Jews with kosher products is a Muslim from Iran.

Out of his small convenience store around the corner from Cologne’s Roonstrasse synagogue, Tehran native Kambiz Alizadeh sells frozen poultry and red meat, wines, cakes, pickles, olives, gefilte fish, crackers, cakes, soup nuts and many other items bearing kosher certifications. In the kind of fridge usually reserved for beer and soft drinks, he stores fresh goods such as hummus, eggplant and tomato spread, and a variety of soft and hard cheeses.

“We started with kosher sweets from Belgium and over the years we kept on adding more and more items,” he recalled on a recent afternoon as he dealt with frequent interruptions to deal with clients. “Originally, it was the rabbi’s idea. He always stopped by my shop after taking his daughters to the nearby park. One day he asked me if I could get kosher wine gums (pastille-style sweets). I said I had never heard of them, but that I was happy to get them for him if he told me where I could find them.”

The rabbi, Netanel Teitelbaum (who no longer serves in Cologne) made the connection to a vendor in Belgium and since then Alizadeh’s store has steadily increased his foray into the kosher market. He has even spent time with kosher food supervisors to learn more about Jewish dietary laws.

Today, his shop gets kosher certified goods from Israel, the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic and offers some 250 products, including a range of 50 wines. “Two years ago an Israeli vintner was here, [from] Teperberg. He was happy to see I had his wines.”

For decades, religious Jews in and around Cologne had to manage without a kosher store. They either traveled to nearby cities with larger Jewish communities, such as Frankfurt, Antwerp or Amsterdam, or had kosher goods delivered to them by mail at great cost.

In 2006, Daniel Lemberg opened “Hamason,” the city’s first store offering exclusively kosher goods. But Lemberg quickly closed shop when he realized he was unable to make a living. In a city with just 5,000 Jews, of whom only a tiny fraction observes Jewish dietary laws, selling only kosher products is not a viable business model.

‘It’s impossible to make a living from this. In Cologne, you have no chance to survive by running a kosher-only store’

Alizadeh, 46, who came to Germany when he was 15 and still regularly travels to Iran, has been selling kosher goods since 2007. His recipe for success is the combination of a regular convenience store — selling newspapers, cigarettes, candies and beverages for the general public — with a kosher section.

“It’s impossible to make a living from this,” he says in his Persian-accented German. “In Cologne, you can’t survive by running a kosher-only store. It only works because I offer kosher products in addition to the other stuff.”

While he carries dozens of products from Israel, he has never thought of selling Iranian products. “I don’t have the right connections for that,” he explained. Also, there are enough other stores in Cologne that cater for the 20,000 Iranians living here. “These days, every Indian or African-themed market has a Persian corner. Even the Turks started selling Iranian products.”

But when it comes to kosher, Cologne has only two options: the outrageously expensive, reservations-only, in-house restaurant at the synagogue, or Alizadeh’s Getränkemarkt Beethoven, which is named for the street in which the store is located.

Tehran native Kambiz Alizadeh's Getränkemarkt Beethoven convenience store near the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne, Germany (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Tehran native Kambiz Alizadeh’s Getränkemarkt Beethoven convenience store near the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne, Germany (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Most of his customers are tourists, businessmen or local Jews who either eat kosher themselves or have guests who do. When The Times of Israel dropped in for an hour, two or three of the dozens of shoppers who entered the store bought items from the kosher sections.

“We don’t eat much meat, but tonight I want to make a turkey dish, so that’s why I stopped by,” said Schira Rademacher, grabbing some groceries and handing a bag of Bamba — an Israeli-made peanut snack — to her one-and-half-year-old son Elisha. Rademacher, who lives in the neighborhood, decided to keep a fully kosher household a few years ago when she got married.

Twice a year — before Passover and Rosh Hashanah — she and her husband travel to Antwerp to buy large quantities of kosher food ahead of the holidays. The Belgian city, home to a large Orthodox community, offers more choice and cheaper prices. But throughout the year, she said, the Rademachers buy all their groceries that need kosher certification at Alizadeh’s, which is conveniently close to Elisha’s Jewish day care center in the synagogue building.

‘I am perhaps a little patriotic, but not nationalistic’

Alizadeh was sent to Cologne by his parents during the Iran-Iraq war to avoid being drafted to the army. While he has been living in Cologne for more than 30 years and did not teach his two daughters Persian, he is still close to his homeland and its culture. A map of Iran and calligraphy with Persian proverbs adorn his back office. He visits family in Iran every two years, which is also why he is reluctant to talk politics.

“I am perhaps a little patriotic, but not nationalistic. I like the country. I don’t like this regime. But I also don’t belong to the opposition,” he says. While he himself is not religious, he respects all religions, he emphasizes. “I don’t like radicalism. When anything gets radical, I stay out of it. That’s not for me. I am a liberal.”

Soft-spoken and courteous, Alizadeh says he has never faced any problems because of his decision to carry Israeli products. His kosher corner sometimes leads to chats with clients but almost never to arguments (during the 2014 Gaza war, two buyers started debating the merits of Israel’s operation against Hamas, but when it became too loud he asked them leave and they obliged, he recalls.)

“Once a group of students from Israel came to my shop and looked around the aisle with the kosher products. A girl asked me where I’m from. I said Iran. She was like: Iraaaan?! She was shocked,” he remembers, laughing.

‘I am not afraid about my security, otherwise I wouldn’t do it’

It is tempting to view the fact that the devout Jews of Cologne depend on a secular Iranian Muslim to properly fulfill their religious obligations as a beautiful illustration of peaceful coexistence. The uncomplicated relationship between Alizadeh and the Jewish community is hard to imagine in other parts of the world, certainly the Middle East. And yet, even this story has its warts.

Because running a kosher shop in Germany apparently is still not without risks, there is no sign in the storefront indicating that kosher products are sold here. From the outside, Getränkemarkt Beethoven looks like any other convenience store. No Star of David, no menorah, not even the word “kosher” can be seen from the outside. This inconspicuousness is certainly intentional — but it was not Alizadeh’s idea.

While he has never been attacked or even threatened, the security guards responsible for the Roonstrasse Synagogue — which is 100 meters from his store — advised him against announcing his kosher section in the shop window. A nearby pharmacy that had several flags in its storefront, including the Israeli one, was constantly vandalized, he was told. (To ensure people know about his kosher goods, he advertises in the Jewish community’s monthly and operates a website called Koscherland.)

One regular customer told him that when four Jews were killed in the January 2015 attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris, she immediately thought about him and worried. But Alizadeh is not deterred. “I am not afraid, otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “Community members ask me often about security. They are more worried about me than I am.”

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