Soul food: Aspiring haredi cooks train for restaurant jobs

Five haredi Orthodox men are standing around a large wooden table crowded with bowls of chopped tomato, garlic, carrots and greens, their ritual fringes poking out from under their aprons. Each is wielding a large chef’s knife.

Their instructor, wearing an embroidered chef’s outfit and grasping a raw chicken thigh, tells his charges to cut the limb along the bone and pull it apart with their hands.

Hunched over their cutting boards, the men get to work.

“I like good and tasty food, and I think I need to get to a higher level,” said Avraham Blau, a haredi father of seven hoping for a career as a cook. “I’m always critical of others’ food. I always have suggestions that bug me with their food.”

Blau and his four classmates are the first students in a six-week culinary arts program run by the Jerusalem Kivun Center, a government-funded initiative launched last year to train haredi Orthodox Israelis for full-time employment. After the program, they hope to become professional chefs in Jerusalem restaurants.

Increasing haredi participation in Israel’s labor force has been a central goal of the Israeli government, which has passed a raft of legislation since 2013 aimed at integrating haredi Israelis into the country’s military and economic ranks. Many haredi men receive stipends to study Torah well into adult life and only 45 percent participate in the labor force, as opposed to 81 percent of all Israeli men.

Most of the 2,500 haredim who have attended Kivun’s classes have trained for desk jobs with minimal physical labor and relatively steady hours. But Kivun director Yehiel Amoyal said the culinary class helps meet Jerusalem’s high demand for chefs and appeals to those who want to work with their hands.

“We want to stream jobs to where there’s employment,” Amoyal said.

In an effort to help the job search, Kivun invited hotel and restaurant managers to watch the students chop vegetables. Managers offered jobs to students pending completion of the course based on, among other things, how fast they chopped, whether they maintained posture and how many chopped carrots fell on the ground.

Though seven of the initial 12 students dropped out of the course, the remaining five are guaranteed jobs in kosher Jerusalem restaurants after they graduate this month.

“Regarding inclination to cook, whoever has the motivation to learn and advance will get where he wants,” said Maor Gross, the manager of Papagaio, a South American restaurant that will be hiring one of the trainee chefs. “I’m looking for good people who want it, who have a work ethic.”

A love of cooking drove some of the students to the course.

Blau, 37, who has managed a print shop and jewelry store, revels in cooking at home and has long dreamed of becoming a chef. But concerns about cooking non-kosher food and working with women kept him from culinary school until he learned of Kivun’s course.

“I have a lot of experience with meat, and I was weak on dairy,” said Blau, who now enjoys making lasagna and quiche and will work at a branch of Cafe Cafe, a chain of upscale dairy restaurants, after the course. “Cooking entrecote, I would do it too well done. Now I do it medium-well and it’s much juicier. That raised my skill level.”

The course, which meets two to three times each week, covers 21 cooking skills, from desserts to pasta, meat and fish. Instructor Itai Farkas calls it a crash course in what can be a demanding profession.

“It’s like basic training — taking people who haven’t worked and making them work 200 hours a week,” Farkas said.

Cooking may prove difficult for haredi men, as restaurants and hotels often demand they work nights, weekends and holidays — times the men are used to spending with their families. But Blau says he’s willing to make that sacrifice to pursue a craft he loves.

“If I have a career and a salary, it’s worth it to take evenings, Saturday nights and minor holidays,” he said. “In a few years I’ll have experience and a salary, and the ability to go far.”


Police: Women prohibited from saying Kaddish at Western Wall

Women will be prohibited from saying the Mourner's Kaddish and other prayers at the Western Wall, Jerusalem police told Women of the Wall.

Jerusalem police commissioner Yossi Pariente in a letter sent Thursday to Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman said he would enforce the Justice Ministry's strict interpretation of a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting women from violating the traditional practices at the site, which is overseen by haredi Orthodox officials.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall, saying it disturbed the “public order.” The ruling was legally expanded in 2005 by the Justice Ministry to prohibit women from saying certain prayers in a minyan, or prayer quorum.

Women of the Wall has held a prayer service at the holy site, known as the Kotel in Hebrew, almost every month for the past two decades. The service is held on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section.

The next scheduled prayer service is on April 11, the first day of Iyar. Pariente said in his letter that police would enforce the ban on certain prayers.

Hoffman told Israeli media outlets that the women will say Kaddish, something she said is acceptable throughout the Jewish world, at next week's service. She added that it is particularly significant that the police would choose the month of Iyar, which includes Holocaust Remembrance Day and the country's Memorial Day, to enforce the ruling.

Last month, when three female Knesset members joined the Women of the Wall for the group's monthly prayer service, marked the first time in months that no arrests were made during the Rosh Chodesh gathering. The prior month, Jerusalem police arrested 10 women, including the sister and niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, for disturbing public order.

For new Israeli coalition, haredi army exemptions issue is front and center

Israel’s new unity government may not alter Jerusalem’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program or do much to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it could dramatically change something at home about which a huge number of Israelis care deeply: haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

For years, haredi issues have been something of a third rail in Israeli politics. Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs like the military exemption politically untouchable.

This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.

But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring Kadima and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference—at least, until the next elections, scheduled for October 2013.

The question now is how far Netanyahu will go in taking advantage of a historic opportunity to end this special treatment afforded to haredi Israelis.

The question is likely to hinge on political considerations.

There already is movement on putting together an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted haredi Israeli men military exemptions but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.

Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the top four priorities set forth by the new government coalition. The other three are passing a comprehensive budget, reforming the structure of government and making progress toward peace. The budget issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other, as budgets generally are, but there is something pie-in-the-sky about the other two priorities.

That leaves the Tal Law alternative as the potential historical legacy of this 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.

On Tuesday, that alternative began to take shape.

The Jerusalem Post reported that, under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law—the Israeli equivalent to a constitutional amendment—requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.

Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in one of a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.

The question is whether such a plan—which would radically alter the relationship between the state and its rapidly growing haredi Orthodox population—could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties.

On the one hand, Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.

On the other hand, it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if his Likud party wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.

Those considerations, say political analysts, will mitigate whatever changes are made to haredi exemptions.

There are some other factors at play.

For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defense Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are religiously opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?

For another thing, a sudden, dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset, but from haredi citizens. They would see the sudden change as a broadside against their way of life, and mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. It would make the haredi riots against parking lots opening on the Sabbath and a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh seem like child’s play.

The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army; what Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.

Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption (religious women are currently granted exemptions from army service upon request). That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.

Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls, reduce haredi dependency on welfare and help integrate haredim into Israeli society.

There is great debate within the haredi community about whether or not to welcome these changes. Some haredim see it as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slipperly slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.

Ultimately, whatever change comes to the haredi community is likely to come gradually.

Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year, without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.

For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”

Haredi Orthodox children attacked in Jerusalem

Two haredi Orthodox children say they were attacked in Jerusalem by non-Orthodox Jews in recent days.

An 11-year-old haredi Orthodox boy filed a complaint with Jerusalem police Tuesday alleging that two non-Orthodox teens attacked him and shouted at him at a bus stop in Jerusalem, and tried to prevent him from getting on the bus because he is haredi Orthodox.

On Sunday, a haredi-Orthodox girl, 11, told police that a non-Orthodox bus passenger on a Jerusalem bus spit at her and pushed her, saying “We will destroy the haredim.”

The haredi Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat reportedly opened a hotline for haredi Orthodox people to report violence against them. It has reportedly received numerous responses.

Diverse trio running for mayor in troubled Jerusalem

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A rabbi, a Russian oligarch and a high-tech millionaire are running for mayor of Jerusalem. Except there’s no punch line, just each of them offering up himself as salvation for the hallowed capital’s many troubles.

Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections, scheduled for Nov. 11, as a historic turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. At stake, many say, is Jerusalem’s very character and future viability.

Among the foremost concerns for Jewish Israelis is the hemorrhaging of Jerusalem’s Jewish population, particularly its middle class. These Israelis are being driven out of the city by high housing costs and scarce employment opportunities.

For secular residents, the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population is further cause for concern that the Orthodox will dominate the personality and priorities of the city.

In the predominately Arab eastern half, where most residents long have refused to vote in municipal elections in protest of Israel’s sovereignty over the city, basic social services have been neglected for years by local government. Many families live in cramped quarters because building permits are difficult to acquire, classroom shortages are so bad that at some schools different grades take turns using the same room and road repair and garbage collection are routinely ignored.

Some observers argue that the neglect of eastern Jerusalem ensures that the capital may again be divided by an international border. Within the city’s Arab community, many warn that the gap in services leads to resentment that can be seen in the growing political and religious radicalization of Arab youth. Several times this year, relatively young Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem perpetrated terrorist attacks against Jews in Jerusalem, sometimes with deadly results.

Elias Khoury, a lawyer who represents Arab residents of Jerusalem on issues of property, building and residency rights, said the boycott of municipal elections by Jerusalem Arabs only hurts the community.

“Today the situation in East Jerusalem is ‘tohu va’vohu,'” he said, using the biblical term for chaos. “If we don’t participate in elections, we need an alternative to managing our lives.”

The youngest of the three mayoral candidates is Nir Barkat, 49, a City Council member who made his fortune developing pioneering anti-virus software in the 1990s. A secular Jerusalemite, Barkat advocates reviving the city and its economy by focusing on tourism and making Jerusalem a world-class center for medicine and life sciences.

The Orthodox candidate is Rabbi Meir Porush, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and longtime fixture on Israel’s Orthodox political scene who officially joined the race at the last minute.

The current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who is ultra-Orthodox, had agreed to step aside for another Orthodox candidate, but it took the Orthodox political establishment until the 11th hour to settle on a final candidate. Several names were floated, but Porush became the man of choice only after Aryeh Deri, disgraced ex-Shas Party chairman and Knesset member who spent time in prison for taking bribes, was disqualified from running because his crimes constituted acts of moral turpitude.

Porush, who advocates holding the federal government accountable on unfulfilled pledges to invest millions of dollars in Jerusalem, hopes to win the mayoralty by galvanizing the city’s powerful, Orthodox voting bloc. Orthodox residents make up 30 percent of the city’s Jewish population but comprised the majority of voters in the city’s last municipal election, helping usher in Lupoliansky, the city’s first Orthodox mayor, in 2003.

Porush cites Jerusalem’s Arab-Jewish demography as the city’s greatest challenge. He said the first thing he would do as mayor would be to declare “an emergency situation” to boost the city’s Jewish population, which stands at about 66 percent.

Rounding out the field is Arcady Gaydamak, Israel’s flashiest political enigma, a billionaire who says he speaks for the people. Gaydamak’s past includes an international arrest warrant for allegedly illicit arms dealing in Angola and paying out of his own pocket to house Israelis fleeing the rocket fire in the north during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Zuhir Hamdan, who briefly ran as Jerusalem’s first Arab mayoral candidate, recently joined Gaydamak’s campaign in the hope of becoming his adviser on Arab affairs if Gaydamak is elected.

On a recent campaign foray to Jerusalem’s open-air Mahane Yehudah market, Barkat shook hands and smiled for the cameras. His plans include tapping international philanthropists and private-sector funds for support of Jerusalem.

Addressing the poverty issue, he noted that the average annual Jewish income in Jerusalem is $16,000, compared with $24,000 in the Tel Aviv area and $4,000 among Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem.

All of the candidates are trying to woo voters on the issue of affordable housing. Foreign demand for property in Jerusalem has contributed to skyrocketing housing prices and a dearth of new middle-class housing. Most of the city’s current building projects are luxury housing for Diaspora Jewish buyers, with prices per meter ranging from $7,000 to $10,000.

The high cost of living in Jerusalem has driven many residents to the suburbs.

Two new parties comprised of young Jerusalemites have made the issue their focus in the race for City Council seats. Aimed at trying to stem the tide of young people fleeing the city, one party is made up predominately of university students and other 20-somethings and is called Hit’orerut, Hebrew for “wake up.” Earlier this month, it merged with the other like-minded party, Yerushalmim, Hebrew for “Jerusalemites.”

“We need a change, and we understood it had to come from within,” said Ofir Berkovitz, 25, head of Hit’orerut.

A Jaundiced Lens

An edgy moodiness pervades “Kadosh,” Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s jaundiced examination of haredi Jerusalem women oppressed by religious extremism. There is little nuance in this uneven film or in Gitai’s intentions: to expose the fanaticism of the haredi community and the misogyny inherent in their beliefs. There are, however, inaccuracies and misinformation.

The film’s title, Hebrew for sacred, is heavily ironic. In the opening scene Meir, a Torah scholar, recites numerous blessings to invest his every act with the sacred and thanks God for not having made him a woman. What follows is image after jarring image of the denigration haredi men inflict on their wives and daughters in the name of divine law.

But are the images valid?

Art attempts to underscore message. Though shot in color, the film is remarkably colorless, much like, one is led to assume, the drab lives of the haredi community. The music grates. Jangling, whiningly insistent chords with traces of shtetl instrumentation foreshadow catastrophe. The paucity and starkness of the locations — the boxlike synagogue; the cramped, dark bedrooms; the narrow, curved streets — suggest the meanness of a life hemmed in by restrictions. There is no indulgence here, no beautiful furnishings or objects unless they are sacramental, and rows and rows of holy texts.

Against this background Gitai presents the usual haredi stereotypes: the autocratic father intent on marrying off his resisting daughter (he is rabbi, too, and bully); the cowed wife (she runs the mikvah, the ritual bath); the boorish suitor who substitutes zealousness for intellect; and not one, but two beautiful daughters, Rivka and Malka. Each is trapped by her traditional role and prevented from achieving happiness and self-fulfillment.

After ten years of a childless marriage, Rivka and Meir, still in love, share tender looks and long, brooding silences but are not intimate. Sex for mere pleasure, Meir informs her, is forbidden. Rivka is overwhelmed by the shame of her barrenness. Her mother blames her. Her father commands Meir to obey the law and take another wife. A childless marriage is pointless; a barren woman, useless. When Meir argues that Abraham did not abandon Sara, the father-in-law counters that children are the haredis’ weapon to vanquish the non-religious.

Malka, too, pays a heavy price. In love with an ex-haredi-turned-pop-singer, she flirts with rebellion but obeys her father and marries Yossef. The wedding is a rushed, joyless event. Even the mother is grim: she knows the wedding canopy promises no happiness. Later the bride weeps as she lops off her long hair (her sister’s hair remains inexplicably unshorn). She lies stoically on the Spartan marital bed and screams when Yosef, who prefaces his advances with prayers, quickly and brutally consummates their vows. This is a rape, not a marriage, and it sets the stage for the beating Yossef inflicts when he suspects Malka of infidelity.

Meir is spineless, not man enough to defy his father-in-law (perhaps not man enough to father a child, a doctor suggests to Rivka). He takes another wife, and his mother-in-law, bending to her husband’s will, must supervise the spiritual cleansing of the woman who will take her banished daughter’s place. Rivka retreats into an island of despair and silence. Relief, Gitai ultimately shows, is possible only through escape of one form or another.

These disturbing images of the helplessness of women, their subservience, and victimization, are potentially powerful, but their power is diminished by the film’s flaws. As art, the movie is bogged down by a jagged, amateurish quality and stretches of tedious silence, by puzzling gaps in the narrative, unanswered questions, and an improbably melodramatic ending. As social commentary it is suspect and filled with inaccuracies. Just as the rooms in the film are deliberately narrow, so is the lens through which Gitai tells his story. That is my problem with “Kadosh.”

The wedding night scene is a distorted caricature. Torah law forbids forced sex or abuse; it encourages loving intimacy and obligates a husband to pleasure his wife, not only for procreation. A “brilliant scholar” like Meir would know this. And while a couple may divorce after 10 years of childlessness, this is never done — certainly not at the directive of a father-in-law/rabbi.

The daily prayer men recite for not being created female is not intended to be sexist. It signifies man’s gratitude for being obligated to perform concrete acts of observance (mitzvot), from which women, whom the Torah considers spiritually superior, are exempt.

The mikvah scenes depict preparatory ritual as primitive and humiliating; the mother grills her barren daughter with patronizing, accusatory questions and shoves her head beneath the water. At my mikvah there is dignity, privacy and the gift of spiritual renewal.

The lives of Gitai’s haredis, uniformly and unrelentingly oppressive, strain credibility. Are there no loving, compassionate fathers? No noble husbands? No fulfilled wives? No men or women rejoicing in religious observance? Are we to believe that haredi men don’t seek infertility treatment? (They do.) That domestic violence is sanctioned? (It is not.) That all haredi men regard women as objects, as baby machines? That haredi couples procreate to outnumber the secular population?

Chassidic, fervently Orthodox, and Modern Orthodox young men are taught, along with the laws of family purity, to treat their wives with love and dignity, with respect and gentleness. Sadly, some men fall short; some abuse their wives. But Gitai misinforms in suggesting that the pursuit of the sacred leads to and justifies this abuse.

There is nothing kadosh about the subjugation or abuse of women, but there is something abusive about “Kadosh.”

Rochelle Krich is an award-winning Los Angeles mystery writer. Her most recent novel, “Dead Air,” has just been published by Avon Books. Her Web site is