Moscow Goes Kosher
The Russian capital’s recent boom in kosher restaurants shows that kashrut isn’t just for Jews anymore
“A kosher restaurant in Moscow is like a Russian bear,” Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin told me recently over dinner. “It doesn’t matter how well the bear dances as long as the bear does its dance.”
Boyarin, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who recently acquired something of a pop-culture status when mentioned in the Oscar-nominated Israeli film Footnote, was in Moscow to give a series of lectures about Jesus and kashrut for Eshkolot, an organization presenting classes and “edutainment” on Jewish culture. After his first event, we were part of a group that met for dinner at Noodles, a new “Brooklyn-style” kosher restaurant a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Giant candlesticks on our polished wooden table—which was surrounded by heavy velvet chairs, all empty, as we were the only guests—created the effect of tasteless baroque splendor. The burgers were overcooked and too salty, but as Boyarin had implied, the décor and the food didn’t necessarily matter; the important part was that Noodles simply existed, and on that front, the bear—no matter how clumsy or talentless—was definitely doing its dance.
Noodles is among more than a half-dozen kosher restaurants that have proliferated in Moscow at breakneck speed since last autumn. One of the reasons for this uptick seems obvious: Though most of Moscow’s Jews remain as unobservant as they were throughout the Soviet period, a significant minority of them has become religious; they’ve also been joined by traditionally observant Jews from the Caucasus who have relocated to Moscow. Most of these Muscovites’ needs are served by stores and restaurants connected to Jewish communal organizations, but they still want a larger range of dining and food-shopping options.
The bulk of these new restaurants’ actual and targeted customers, however, are not observant Jews. Non-Jews are purportedly drawn to kosher eateries for a variety of reasons; some think kosher food is safer or higher quality, while others think it will help them lose weight or be otherwise beneficial to their health. And even more so, it seems, the proliferation of kosher restaurants reflects the expansion of the Russian capital’s middle class, people with money to spend who are looking for a novel culinary adventure. They want something new—now that the thrill of sushi and pizza has worn off—and they are drawn by kosher offerings not so much because it is “Jewish,” but because kashrut is being explained to them as part of a system of eating that is thousands of years old. The very old, in this case, is the new new.
Dan Shnaiderman, manager of the kosher section of the Farmers Bazaar, a high-end farmer’s market, recounted the words mumbled by one non-Jewish client filling up his cart with kosher products: “If Jews thought all of this up, it must be good,” the customer said. “Jews would never come up with something that would be bad for themselves.” This customer is, apparently, not alone: With a range of new restaurants that have opened since last fall, serving a variety of tastes, kosher food is among Moscow’s newly emergent culinary trends.
Besides dirt-cheap places where a self-respecting person would never eat, there are two main categories of restaurants in Russia today. One, referred to as pafosnye—literally, “pathetic” (as in: “full of pathos” or even pompous)—includes establishments overpriced in a way that makes people who eat there aware, in a self-satisfied sort of way, that they are paying a lot of money for their food distinguished more by a similar kind of self-importance than by superior taste. The other category includes restaurants referred to as demokratichnye, “democratic.” The word in Russian is formed with a different suffix from the word referring to “democratic” as a political system. (One may say that its frequent use displaces the concept that Russia’s contemporary political system lacks.) The meaning here is “available to broad masses of people,” and the reference is to those establishments that have good yet moderately priced food on the menu and are attractive to an educated clientele. When considering going out to eat in Moscow, one hears the two terms constantly. The chandeliers and the velvet chairs placed Noodles, which opened last fall, squarely in the category of pompously pathetic establishments. Its name comes from the nickname of Robert De Niro’s wily character in Once Upon a Time in America, a film about the Jewish underworld of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, even though the restaurant’s owner, Shota Boterashvili, has shifted the association to Brooklyn—a place he has never visited.
I ended up following Boyarin to Noodles during my very first week in Moscow on this visit. Like any Russian whose dietary preferences and expectations have changed since leaving the motherland (I moved to the United States 16 years ago), I was craving a protein that wasn’t meat and a vegetable that, in its cooked form, bore some trace of similarity to the original (and wasn’t, say, a shredded beet doused in mayonnaise). I ordered a filet of dorado with a side of tempura vegetables. When the food arrived, beautifully arranged on a plate, costing upwards of $25 and quite tasteless, Boyarin, who had ordered lamb stew and a rack of lamb, dispensed the following advice: The kitchen staff at Noodles was probably from Central Asia, and the cooks don’t know as much from fish as they know from lamb.
Boyarin, who unlike me keeps kosher, found that the recent proliferation of kosher restaurants made his weeklong stay much easier to manage than such visits used to be for observant visitors in the past. He was right about the lamb, too. A large proportion of kitchen staff in Moscow restaurants does, indeed, come from Central Asian states that were once Soviet republics, particularly Uzbekistan. Their presence in Moscow speaks to the larger fact that Moscow these days attracts low-wage laborers from the former Soviet colonies; in this respect, Moscow, as an immense postcolonial metropole, is comparable to London. I got to try the lamb on a repeat visit to Noodles several days later, too. It did taste decent, as did Boterashvili’s favorite dish, steak entrecote, though it proved somewhat hard to convince him to let me order it medium-rare. Russians like their meat cooked all the way through.
Boterashvili comes from the small Georgian town of Kulashi, which had a closely knit Jewish community whose members, he told me, have always been observant. When he, along with other Georgian Jews, relocated to Moscow around 1990, fleeing the instability produced by the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union and chasing after economic opportunity (it’s rumored that a number of Jews from Kulashi control major business interests in Moscow today), the situation was hard for observant Jews. Boterashvili, who spent most of our lunchtime interview attending to more pressing matters by phone (“the restaurant is hardly the only business I have,” he said), recalls immense difficulties finding kosher food.
David Rozenson, who left Russia as a child in the 1970s, recalls similar difficulties when he visited Moscow around 1990. Trying to organize a Passover Seder for the local community at the height of Perestroika-era food shortages, he had to appeal to the Jewish sensibility of the owner of Moscow’s very first McDonald’s, which had just opened, to allow the community to purchase an entire cow from the farm that supplied the franchise, so that the animal could be properly slaughtered by a shoykhet in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
Finding kosher food isn’t so difficult anymore. Rozenson, who moved back to Moscow 11 years ago to run the local branch of the Avi Chai Foundation (Avi Chai is affiliated with the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet’s publisher), took me on a tour of the city’s Chabad-run Jewish Community Center. It opened in 2000 and operates stores that stock kosher food as well as a kosher restaurant that, in addition to its regular menu and event catering, offers an affordable business-lunch option that attracts many non-Jewish clients from office buildings in the neighborhood. To enter the restaurant inside Moscow’s JCC, however, one has to go through a metal detector. By contrast, the newly minted kosher restaurateurs hoped for spaces that would exist outside Jewish communal structures and that would seem more open and welcoming to everyone, including non-Jews.
Exploring the Internet led me to knowledge, questions, and, ultimately, leaving the Hasidism I’d grown up with