The Death of a Secular Jerusalem Landmark
Forced to become kosher, Restobar chooses death
Restobar, wedged between Jerusalem’s city center and the residential neighborhoods of Rechavia and Talbiya, has long been a favorite of the capital’s secular population. In fact, it’s been the only restaurant to be both non-kosher and open over the Sabbath in what is largely a residential area – something of a taboo even in one of Jerusalem’s most secular environs. Yesterday morning, Shahar Levy, Restobar’s proprietor, announced the restaurant was closing – effective immediately.
On a notice posted at the restaurant’s entrance – and on its Facebook page – Levy wrote that the property’s owner, a French-Israeli businessman named Loren Levi, had conditioned the renewal of the expiring lease with the restaurant becoming kosher and closing for Sabbath and the holidays.
“It was obvious to us that under such draconian limitations we could not run our restaurant – for personal, business and conscientious reasons,” Levy wrote. “It’s sad that in Jerusalem 2013, we are forced to live a lifestyle that is not our own, in a predatory manner that effortlessly wiped out the livelihood of the 50 workers and dozens of suppliers who made a living off of this business for many years.”
The ever dwindling secular population of Jerusalem has had its fair share of clashes with the ultra-Orthodox. The closing of major roads that run through religious neighborhoods on the Sabbath and the exclusion of women from the public sphere have drawn their ire. They have not been alone in their struggles, however: the movement to allow restaurants to call themselves kosher – without the Israeli rabbinate’s ultra-Orthodox certification – was led largely by the Modern Orthodox Jews who feel no less threatened by haredim than their non-religious brethren.
In addition to being a secular institution for the many students and professionals living in the area, Restobar spearheaded legal battles to protect non-kosher, Sabbath-defying restaurants in Jerusalem. In one landmark decision brought on by a suit led by Restobar and several other restaurants, a municipal judge declared legal the sale of hametz at restaurants during Passover (public display of bread over Passover is against the law here; the judge ruled that restaurants aren’t public places). But Restobar, located just 150 yards from the prime minister’s official residence, was probably most famous for what came before it. In March 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, Café Moment, itself a non-kosher Jerusalem landmark, was struck by a suicide bomber. 11 were killed and 54 wounded; the establishment never recovered. In 2005, it was replaced by Restobar.
On Monday evening, 70 or so people, many of them students, gathered outside the empty restaurant for a spontaneous vigil-cum-closing-party. Earlier, Shahar Levy told me that he didn’t much see the point. While some outside the restaurant were optimistic that the building’s owner could be persuaded, Levy said it was a lost cause. His Facebook announcement, with its rhetoric condemning religious coercion, had provoked a flurry of responses: while most of them were sympathetic, many were not particularly angry with the property’s owner. It was, after all, his private property.
“If he was vegan and demanded the restaurant cease selling meat,” one response went, “Would you all be as up in arms as you are now?”
But Levy told me that he believes this goes both ways. “Could I, as a secular Jew ask that a religious Jew renting out my property, open on Shabbat?” he asked. “I’d never dream of it. This is a Jewish state, not a religious one. For me, going out on the weekends is part of my Jewish life!”
“Restobar was a Jerusalem institution that managed to strike a delicate balance between fulfilling the needs of our secular population without hurting the feelings of the religious,” Meirav Cohen, a Jerusalem city council member from the youth-oriented Hitorerut (Awakening) faction, said. She pledged to continue applying pressure on city hall to help out, “though I know that this situation brings out very strong feelings and creates sinat chinam (baseless hatred) between secular and religious people”.
While I did spot four or five kippot outside Restobar last night, it seems very few of the Modern Orthodox will take this as their cause. Despite, and perhaps because of its landmark status, Restobar – with its cheeseburgers and pizza with shrimp – did stick out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood, particularly on Shabbat (therein lay much of its appeal to many of its regulars).
The morning after the demonstration, Levy told me he felt he was in mourning. “I couldn’t bring myself to go last night, I was just too heartbroken,” he said. But he’s seen photographs of the street full of his former customers, and now regrets not having tried to stage a more public protest when he still had a chance to change things. Whether or not this was another classic case of religious coercion or just a banal business decision by a landlord, the Jerusalem culture wars will shift to other arenas (a new entertainment complex and old railway station refurbished as a culinary center, both plan to open over the weekends soon). But Restobar and its demise, another nail in the coffin of secular Jerusalem, will not soon be forgotten.
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