Sunday, October 17, 2010

Basil Pizza and the Limits of Kosher Supervision

Last week's New York Times Magazine featured an article about Basil Pizza and Wine Bar, an upscale pizza and dairy restaurant on Kingston Avenue just north of Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The establishment, like most kosher eateries in Crown Heights, is under the supervision of the OK, a kosher supervision orgnization popular with the Lubavitch community in the area. I never visited the restaurant so I can only comment on what I read in the article. According to the author, the establishment was visited by Rabbi Dan Yoel Levy, head of the OK, who expressed concern about the conduct and dress of patrons and demanded access to surveillance video. Rabbi Levy, who disputes details of the author's account of his visit, apparently had received complaints about lingering youth in the establishment. He asserts that it is his responsibility and that of kosher certifying agencies in general to monitor the entertainment (no crude comedy, no female singers and so forth) and make certain that young men and women were not socializing inappropriately.

I beg to differ. We look for the hashgaha (supervision) sign in the window for assurance that the food is kosher. We cannot determine that by looking at the food. We are fully competent to judge the quality of the entertainment, the socializing, the ambiance for ourselves, thank you very much. Basil was established with the idea of attracting a mix of Hasidim, other Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews under one roof. It is a setting where people are expected to linger, to talk, to socialize. Such establishments often cater private birthday parties and waitresses bring out a cake and sing "Happy Birthday." No Happy Birthday at Basil. No Ella Fitzgerald over the loudspeakers. Things were not always so uptight in our community. I remember attending community sedarim at my late uncle's shul in the late 1960s or early 1970s where my female cousin sang. She was a member of the Zamir Chorale at the time, a high school choir that regularly performed in public. Her singing was superb. Nobody complained; we all kvelled.

The owner of Basil Pizza is understandably conflicted about Rabbi Levy's request for ongoing access to video feed. On one hand, he does not want to lose the hashgaha because that might kill his business. On the other, he feels that complying would violate his customers' privacy and that it just feels "creepy" - to which I might add "un-American." While I doubt if there is any legal right to privacy in a restaurant open to the public, I as a customer would not want my every move scrutinized by a bunch of greybeards, and knowing that that was the case might cause me not to go in. The owner and non-Jewish manager already require waitresses to dress modestly and even admonished customers for contact between men and women that would go unnoticed in any other restaurant of its type in the city. What goes on in the kitchen is within Rabbi Levy's purview; what goes on at the tables and at the bar is, quite bluntly, none of his business. If he or any kashrut supervisor receives complaints on that account, he should direct the complainers to the restaurant's management and/or advise them to exercise their unquestioned prerogative to withhold their patronage. While video cameras in the kitchen might facilitate the requirement of yotze v'nikhnas [the supervisor's need to go in and out of the kitchen unannounced], the purpose of surveillance video in the public area of a restaurant is to deter and, if need be, detect criminals, not to give rabbis a window on the behavior of patrons.

Accordingly, my advice to the restaurant's owner is this: If you gave Rabbi Levy your word, contractually or otherwise, that you would provide a video feed, you have to keep your word, at least for the duration of the contract. Post a sign informing your customers that the restaurant is being monitored by video and that the kosher supervisor has access to the feed. If you did not give him your word, then respectfully decline to provide the feed. If the hashgaha is taken away, there are other hashgahot who would be glad to pick your establishment up, and that most of your customers would consider reliable.

I am not likely to patronize Basil, since I have little occasion to be in Crown Heights except when I run there in summertime. I would feel funny entering an upscale establishment of that sort in my summer running attire. Nevertheless I like the idea of such a place, and I wish it success.

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