Moscow Goes Kosher
The Russian capital’s recent boom in kosher restaurants shows that kashrut isn’t just for Jews anymore
At the Farmers Bazaar, which opened this spring, kosher products from hummus to meat to salsas to many kinds of wine are spread throughout the organic market. The space is bright and airy, and Shnaiderman’s enthusiasm is infectious. Having grown up in Ukraine, where he gradually became religious, Shnaiderman, following a brief stint as a new immigrant in Israel, moved to Moscow, where he is on a kind of self-imposed mission to educate others about kashrut.
The site of the new shopping mall and farmers market next to Moscow’s famed circus on Tsvetnoy (Flower) Boulevard was the location of a flower market in the 19th century and an open-air food market during the Soviet period, so the owners of the mall had a contemporary spin-off in mind, Shnaiderman told me over a pot of ginger tea in a café overlooking the market. The concept of a high-end farmers market isn’t new in the United States (think a kind of a cross-breed between San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Farmers Market at the Grove in L.A.), but in Moscow, such a place still does more to cultivate the tastes of the middle class rather than to respond to them.
In many ways, it is the very expansion of the middle class that is itself part of the story of culinary adventurousness in contemporary Moscow. Russia’s capital city could be more appropriately described as a city-state—a magnet for money and talent from across Russia, a city well-oiled by petroleum and media rubles whose accumulation of wealth has little to do with the dire financial conditions in the country as a whole. As is common with the newly moneyed the world over, there is an ever-growing need for new commodities and experiences. Sushi, for example, which on average costs twice as much in Moscow as it does in the United States (and isn’t any better for it), has become somewhat ubiquitous. However, now that sushi no longer surprises anybody, there is a niche for something new. And for non-Jewish Russians, kosher food is one such new interest.
There was a phrase that I kept hearing from different purveyors of kosher food in Moscow: “You are what you eat.” I first heard this phrase from Ilya Kiselev, who runs a restaurant and bar called Tel Aviv across the street from the Farmers Bazaar, to describe his rationale for promoting kashrut as a system of eating that feeds the soul in addition to the body. Kiselev, who is not observant, is a designer by training—training that’s readily on display at Tel Aviv, where many black-and-white photos of towns in Israel cover the walls, in addition to political posters and reproductions of Israeli advertisement. Tel Aviv was created as a restaurant oriented around hosting events. It doubles as a concept bar by night. One night, I had met a friend there during a klezmer concert; this was among Tel Aviv’s tamer evenings, paling in comparison with their vaccination-theme party, during which barmen dressed in white lab coats served cocktails out of syringes. More straightforward events take place there, too: Kiselev told me of hosting Israeli film nights and lectures about Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv, the city.
Not all potential clients of kosher restaurants, however, are convinced that kosher food can be eaten by non-Jews. Over a tasty lunch at Tel Aviv that included hummus with mushrooms, borekas, and a bowl of Yemeni soup, Kiselev told me of a non-Jewish friend of his who, after being invited to Kiselev’s birthday party at Tel Aviv, called to double-check whether her very presence would somehow profane the establishment.
Anna Adanina, who manages the only kosher branch of the Shokoladnitsa (“Chocolate seller”) chain of coffee shops, recounts similar troubles in explaining kashrut to non-Jewish clients. Unlike Tel Aviv and other establishments, which advertise themselves as kosher, the kosher branch of Shokoladnitsa, which opened last fall a short walk from one of Moscow’s synagogues, doesn’t make this obvious. So, on a busy morning when I visited, there were several men in kippot there eating breakfast (I had potato pancakes with an egg and smoked salmon on the side) along with customers who weren’t there specifically because of kosher food. For the former, the existence of the kosher Shokoladnitsa is a huge relief: Two young men eating there that morning told me that they could now take their non-Jewish clients and business partners out to a place where they were free to order off the menu themselves. For the latter customers, it’s often a surprise that the menu, unlike throughout the ubiquitous Shokoladnitsa chain, does not include meat items. These customers get an impromptu lecture on the laws of kashrut, with its separation of dairy and meat products, and while some occasionally decide to leave, most are intrigued enough to stay. One such new customer at Shokoladnitsa I spoke with told me that even though she had been trying many new things since she started eating at the kosher branch, she hasn’t even gained any weight.
The odd-sounding equation of kashrut with weight loss, though the two things do not have any direct correspondence, isn’t that farfetched a conclusion for some. Arye Fein, a whimsically funny mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) at Tel Aviv—all kosher restaurants employ the same half-dozen mashgiachim sent by the kashrut department of the rabbinate; they rotate between restaurants in shifts—took me into the kitchen to show how difficult it is to wash mint and other herbs to ensure that there are no small bugs left in them. While doing so, he gave me his rationale for why the idea of kashrut may be appealing to Moscow’s non-Jewish clients: Kosher food is checked many times over, the kind of food that a discerning customer concerned about food safety can trust.
Some of this marketing clearly works: At a regular supermarket, I came across a line of dairy products under the brand name “Tevye-molochnik” (“Tevye the Dairyman,” named after Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s most famous protagonist). The milk and kefir cartons have a faint image of the violin—either hinting at the sort of cultural refinement that comes with a cultural stereotype that all Jews in Russia are violinists, or going by way of Tevye’s Americanized image as a character in Fiddler on the Roof. The word “luxury” (in English) is printed above the Russian word identifying the product (milk, kefir, or cream), appealing, together with the above-average price and the kashrut stamp, to some kind of middle-class shopper looking for some kind of certified refinement.
In addition to different attempts at branding kosher food as healthy, there is also a demand to show some of this food as specifically Jewish. Though a place like Tel Aviv tries to be a hip concept restaurant serving mainly Middle Eastern fare—and though a restaurant called Zucker (“sugar” in Yiddish) tries to serve mainly Italian food (it offers, among other dishes, inedible risottos that have to be cooked without key dairy ingredients)—even they cannot function without some Eastern European Jewish foods, such as forshmak, a traditional herring appetizer.
Exploring the Internet led me to knowledge, questions, and, ultimately, leaving the Hasidism I’d grown up with