It started with a simple question.
Five years ago, the head of a local kosher supper club approached Rabbi Jonathan Benzaquen and his wife, Esther, knowing of their deep family connection to the kosher meat industry.
“Can we have a kosher filet mignon?” he asked them.
And so began the couple’s journey that is part business venture, part religious crusade. Today, they make up the team behind Bakar Kosher Meats, an online retailer hoping to bring hindquarter meat back to the Jewish table.
The process of stripping forbidden flesh from the back half of a cow, called nikkur achoraim, is something of a lost art in North America. Choice cuts like sirloin, tri-tip, and, yes, filet mignon are thus missing from kosher markets.
Which is a shame, as far as the Benzaquens are concerned, since it was an economic rather than a halachic reality that kept some of the most desirable cuts of meat out of kosher kitchens.
“Each piece has to be worked on,” Esther explained, sitting across from her husband at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Beverly Hills. “So it became cost-prohibitive for [kosher butchers] in mass scale, and there is so much abundance of meat in America, they didn’t need it.”
Today, it’s common practice for kosher butchers to sell the back half of the animal to conventional distributors. But about five years ago, the Benzaquens decided to break from common practice.
Jonathan returned to the Jerusalem yeshiva where he was originally ordained to learn how to remove the sciatic nerve and belly fats Jews are forbidden from eating, the tricky and time-consuming process that makes kosher hindquarter meat such a rare delicacy.
Now, he personally butchers each cut of meat sold by Bakar, whose name derives from the Hebrew word for cattle. Citing “business reasons,” he wouldn’t reveal the source of his meat, only that he does his work in a slaughterhouse outside Los Angeles.
His personal attentions don’t come cheap, even by the pricy standards of kosher meat: At $55.26 a pound, the average 4-pound cut of filet mignon he sells comes in at $221.04. But for the price, the cuts meet glatt and Beit Yosef standards, and come from Angus, pasture-raised and hormone-free cattle.
What’s more, Bakar’s website (bakarkoshermeats.com) is one of the few places kosher foodies can fetch the coveted cuts, making the Benzaquens something of an outlier in the American kosher community. Though practitioners of nikkur achoraim are commonplace in Israel, for a combination of rabbinical and economical reasons, in the United States they are rare: In 2013, a Beverlywood kosher supper club flew in an expert from New York to oversee the preparation of hindquarter meat.
Because the practice has fallen into obscurity here, the supervision infrastructure largely doesn’t exist. Rabbi Yakov Vann, the director of kashrut services for the Rabbinical Council of California, said his organization won’t lend its seal for hindquarter meat.
“Kashrut has to be by consensus,” he told the Journal. “Because your community and my community and the New Jersey community and the Philadelphia community — all of us want to have common ground.”
Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, the executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations, an umbrella group for kosher certifying organizations, said the process of butchering the back half of the animal is so fraught that “you just don’t want to play with that.”
Like trained chefs who remove venom glands from puffer fish to serve up the delicacy, any slip threatens to poison the consumer — though, in this case, it’s spiritual rather than physical poisoning, Fishbane said. Nikkur achoraim puts consumers at risk of accidentally consuming unkosher meat, and there are so few experts in the U.S. that the practice is largely abandoned, he said.
“In America, we say we don’t know enough and there’s enough meat; we won’t have filet mignon,” Fishbane told the Journal by phone.
The perils of nikkur achoraim lie in the sciatic nerve and the belly, or peritoneal fats. The prohibition on the sciatic nerve arises from a passage in Genesis where Jacob, in a dream, wrestles with an angel. In the course of the scuffle, the angel touches Jacob’s gid hanaseh, or sciatic nerve, dislocating his hip.
“That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip,” the verse states.
As for the belly fats, “this represents wealth,” Jonathan Benzaquen said, holding the fat around his gut.
“It’s extra,” he said. “The fact that you have a fat stomach means that you’re blessed, you have abundance. So out of a lack of arrogance, or humility, the Torah tells us we need to burn the fat that’s around the stomach.”
But the Benzaquens reject the argument that nikkur achoraim is simply too difficult, citing a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading figures of American Orthodoxy: “If someone is certified and qualified in doing nikkur, one should not prevent them from doing so,” the famous Talmud scholar wrote in his nine-volume commentary, “Igros Moshe.”
“Judaism is kind of like brain surgery,” Jonathan said. “The brain surgeon is not going to lob off extra stuff just in case. ‘Oh, let’s just be machmir [strict], let’s just say no, let’s just take it anyway, just in case.’ ”
Esther added: “It’s a lot easier to say everything is not OK. You need to know a lot less to say no to everything than you do if you say yes or no to something.”
Besides, the couple pointed out, nikkur achoraim is common practice in Israel, so why not here?
The Benzaquens’ path was made easier by the fact that they didn’t need to look beyond their own family for certification: Jonathan and his uncle, Moshe Benzaquen, run Kosher LA, a local kosher certifying company with Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf among its clients.
It also helps that Jonathan grew up in kosher slaughterhouses.
Born in England to Moroccan parents, he moved as a child to Maracaibo, Venezuela, where his father, also a rabbi, ministered to the Jewish community. Among the elder Benzaquen’s responsibilities was operating the local schita, or kosher slaughterhouse. Often, he worked from the late evening into the pre-dawn hours to avoid the heat of the day.
Jonathan remembers visiting the slaughterhouse with his father; once, he brought home a sheep’s eye for his mother as a gift.
Today, Esther and Jonathan live in the San Fernando Valley with their four sons. Jonathan — a rabbi for all seasons, after a certain Sephardic mold — is a trained mohel and can brag that he wielded the knife for each child’s circumcision.
When he and his wife talk about meat, they seem to speak with a passion most people reserve for love, God and politics. They see themselves as bucking a trend toward extreme stringency in the Orthodox community that tends to disempower kosher consumers.
“That’s absolutely what we are striving to change in the kosher world,” Esther said. “And that’s really what drives us behind Bakar. … You need to learn how to do something properly and do it. And it’s part of our heritage. It’s part of our Torah.”