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A Beard is Not a Kashrus Stamp

Riva Pomerantz

Yechiel Spira isn’t pounding the pavement of Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market to snag a good deal on tomatoes. With large groups in tow, he tirelessly advances his mission — to educate kosher consumers about what they’re actually eating.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kashrus

The raucous noise of vendors hawking their wares, from chickens to chickpeas, watermelon to iced coffee, makes an interesting if distracting backdrop for our group of about fifteen, clustered on this Tuesday afternoon around our guide, Yechiel Spira of Jerusalem Kosher News.

Described by some as the “Ralph Nader” of the kosher world, Spira is much more than an eagle-eyed spotter of fraudulent kashrus certificates and problematic food products. With extensive experience working as a butcher and treiberer in the United States, as a caterer in both America and Israel, and, for many years, as an investigative journalist, his knowledge of the ins and outs of kashrus have contributed to his ability to ferret out suspicious activity and fraud.

While his volunteer organization, Jerusalem Kosher News, has by now changed the lives of thousands, he began, quite simply, by trying to raise awareness of kashrus among family and friends.

“First thing I'll tell you,” he says, in a Brooklyn accent that belies twenty-eight years living in Israel, “is that not everyone with a beard knows what he's doing, and not everyone without a beard doesn't. You'll see all kinds of people with all kinds of yarmulkes around here, too. Keep in mind that it doesn't mean anything, except that that's the yarmulke they like to wear. It's just a business proposition. I know a bunch of nice guys who wear the yarmulke, kiss the mezuzah at night, lock their store, and put the kippah in the pocket.

“We had a case of a butcher shop here, where the owner wore a big, black yarmulke and had a Rabbanut certificate. I told my wife, 'Something's strange with this place. Nowhere else in the world does the butcher remove the kashrus tags from the chicken until after they're sold, but in this store, he takes them off beforehand.' He had the cleanest chickens in the shuk, at the right price. Well, one day we discovered he'd been importing them from Ramallah! Total treif!”

He addresses his frequent tours to a wide English-speaking audience, comprised of young and old, new immigrants and veteran Israelis, with a special emphasis on assisting the most vulnerable population: overseas tourists. How many visitors, star-struck by illegible Hebrew signs, holy-looking vendors, and the overwhelmingly Jewish atmosphere, have fallen prey to eating in establishments that they would never even enter back home? It is this naïveté that Spira tries to vanquish, speaking regularly in seminaries and yeshivos in an effective bid to educate today's Anglo teenagers about what and where they're eating, and how to make more informed, more halachically acceptable choices.

How many of us actually look carefully enough to ensure that a displayed kashrus certificate is indeed an original copy (not a photocopy), with a valid date? A brief glance at the teudot (kashrus certificates) of stores we frequent even in such “mehadrin” vicinities as Geula may be far from enough.

“Check the teudah!” is Yechiel Spira's battle-cry; and indeed, what you discover may shock you. 

 

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