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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Got Kosher? Yes…obviously…

Louis Keenehttp://unstatable.substack.com
Louis Keene is a writer in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter at @thislouis.

The truth is, I knew that Got Kosher?, a wildly popular Shabbos takeout venture operating basically out of B’nai David Judea’s garage, had made its foray into the restaurant business. I knew that Got Kosher? enabled SoCal college students to keep kosher on campus, and that many families swore by its pretzel challah.

But I didn’t see it translating. A Got Kosher? restaurant sounded like prepackaged turkey sandwiches released from their saran wrap and thrown on plates for ten bucks. So I never went until last week, when a friend took me there early one evening to discuss WashU for her son, a rising high school senior.

There was little about the Got Kosher? dining experience that did not surprise me. The menu, to begin with, dissolved my expectations. A host of starters and entrees ranging from chicken couscous to Côte á l’Os render it diverse and intriguing – I want to come back. And who knew the restaurant had a strong Tunisian influence?

Well, how would I have known?

I went with one of their house specialties (all of which come with soup and either salad or fries): Pulled Beef Brisket Kansas-Style. The beef soup was fantastically rich in flavor and I devoured it. And the barbeque brisket—sweet, tender, succulent meat on a fabulous stirato bun. (Yes! First review of a place that got the bread right!) Even the fries were crispy.

It filled me up yet I wanted more. Having driven through Kansas City (where the ratio of people to BBQ restaurants is literally 80:1) multiple times without ever actually tasting its famous offerings, this became an experience of freedom, too. Wait, I don’t have to skip bread for eight days to taste freedom? Never mind…

The company was wonderful, too, and in GK’s soft light cast on wooden panels we stayed nearly two hours. At one point our conversation turned to the name: Got Kosher?

It does not just bug me that the brand name disguises the style; on a bad day, it’s gimmicky. Primarily, it just does not work as the name of a fancy Tunisian restaurant. Moreover, the restaurant alienates potential customers by betraying its commitment to kashrut in its title.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think kashrut (or any notion of Jewish identity for that matter) should necessarily be concealed. It’s more that Kosher in the name is a signifier of limitation or imitation – see Kosher Subway, for example. “Kosher” connotes even less of a distinctive style than “vegan” unless you’re talking deli or bakery. You wouldn’t go and get kosher food like you would order Chinese or Mexican. And when you have kosher in the name, you are eliminating clientele.

Here’s why: there’s a divide in Jews my age between those whose entire cultural identity comes from Judaism or variations of it (i.e. Sephardic, Israeli, Persian, Camp Ramah, etc.) and those whose cultural makeup contains totally alien elements. As I would tell my dinner companion, only some of my friends at WashU are Jewish, and only some of those don’t eat cheeseburgers. Leaving the bubble (for another bubble, of course, but still) changed who I am, and the name incites this discomfort with considering myself a Jew only, even if I am totally Jewish. To be recklessly reductive and maybe confusing, I have a life outside of Judaism even if I never depart from my Jewish sense of self.

I’m not suggesting that Jews who have jobs in entertainment, or law, or anywhere else in the secular world haven’t achieved a sense of cultural assimilation. I’m saying that restaurants intending to serve those Jews don’t need to advertise themselves as just kosher to reach them. Which would you prefer for taking a non-Jewish coworker to dinner: “Got Kosher?”, or something like, say, “Taste of Tunisia”?

Jews already have a reputation for being exclusive, so with a name that distinguishes itself as a Jewish establishment, Got Kosher? wards off the stranger in our midst, the mysterious Beverlywood Non-Jew. I imagine a 5-10% non-religious Jewish customer base would be found money for a kosher Pico Boulevard restaurant.

So why do so many Pico places insist on forgoing that margin? Would some Jewish people be uncomfortable eating at a kosher place that attracts non-Jewish clientele?

Who and what are we leaving out in our pride in being Jewish?

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