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A battle over food, tradition, and autonomy in Stamford Hill. Words and photos by Martin Francisco Saps.
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Keeping Kosher?, by Martin Francisco Saps
A battle over food, tradition, and autonomy in Stamford Hill
There aren’t many anarchist converts from Shreveport, Louisiana in Stamford Hill; even fewer who oversee which food is kosher. Three years ago, shortly after he’d arrived in the city, my friend Baruch moved out of his south London squat and fully integrated himself into north-east London’s Hasidic community. He rented a room in a HMO, went to shul almost every day, and worked odd jobs with Moishe, a local builder, before becoming a mashgiach – a supervisor of kosher status. I’m less religious than Baruch (and haven’t integrated into the community quite so steadfastly), but I’ve spent a lot of my time lately at holiday gatherings with Moishe, eating gefilte fish and roast chicken in people’s homes, and learning about Stamford Hill’s cultural norms – which are unique, even among London’s Jews.
Jews, historically, have tended to live in close proximity to one another. Nearly 90% of the United Kingdom’s 300,000 Jews live in just 20% of its neighbourhoods, with half living in just eight boroughs in London and Greater Manchester. There are 35,000 Hasidic Jews alone living in the two square miles that make up Stamford Hill – the sharpest concentration in the country. Very religious Jews – a minority of the total population – need to live near each other to live comfortably: if you keep the sabbath strictly, you cannot take public transport, spend money, or carry things outside of your home (unless you’re in an eruv, a controversial set of wires that replicate a walled city). Living in an area that is densely populated by other religious Jews means that, on the Sabbath, you can carry your child to synagogue without breaking any Jewish laws. It also means much easier access to kosher food.
Whoever coined the old phrase ‘Two Jews, three opinions’ underestimated how divisive kashrut (the practice of keeping kosher) is. There are an estimated 1,500 kosher food agencies worldwide, reflecting the customs and traditions of different communities. Operating a kosher restaurant or food business means knowing and catering carefully to your clientele’s specific needs. For Ashkenazi Jews, it’s enough that a mashgiach in a restaurant lights the ovens; Sephardic Jews need food to be cooked by Jews themselves. Some groups eat dairy right after meat; some wait an hour, or three, or six. Certain sects have a fear of bugs getting into food, which leads to them vigorously washing all fruits and vegetables; others will avoid berries and some fruits altogether. Often, the question of whether something is kosher is answered with, ‘It depends who you ask.’
The overwhelming majority of London’s religious Jews, including the Modern Orthodox, are content to follow the London Beth Din (LBD) or any of the ‘Big Five’ kosher organisations. Many Sephardi Jews, although outside of LBD’s tradition, will follow their hechsher (the kosher stamp). For more traditional Sephardic Jews (and 10% of British Jews identify as such) there’s the Sephardi Kashrut Authority, which enforces the kosher standards of Jews originating from that tradition, while for Jews who are stricter – namely the ‘Litvish’ sect – there’s the Kosher Federation (KF), which prides itself on ‘providing the highest standards of kosher food certification’. This means most people’s choice of kosher certification comes down to, ‘These are my people, this is my community, I’d rather have the one that I know’, as Yanky Fischer, owner of Stamford Hill’s largest sit-down restaurant Asado, explains. Like with everything, Stamford Hill plays by its own rules: the rules of HaShem, as interpreted by the Kedassia.
The Kedassia was formed in the 1960s as the enforcement arm of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Israelites, with the explicit goal of ‘protecting traditional Judaism’. The broader organisation now regulates all aspects of Hasidic Jewish life in London, from marriages and legal disputes within the community to the boundaries of Jewish Stamford Hill itself (while there are many eruvs in north-west London, overseen by the more liberal London Beth Din religious authority, Stamford Hill’s bifurcated eruv was only recently approved by the Kedassia). Most of the Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill follow the standards of the Kedassia, which upholds the specific cultural standards of the community.
The Hasidim aren’t necessarily more religious than other ultra-Orthodox groups, but they are more traditional. Hasidic Judaism began in the eighteenth century as a reaction to the Jewish Enlightenment, and those who practice seek to preserve the traditions of their forebears from the shtetls of Poland and Hungary. They broadly resist ‘assimilation’ by refusing to use technology and maintaining the Yiddish language, practices which cement their Jewish identity whilst isolating them from the majority of other Jewish groups.
In Stamford Hill, this means most food establishments are Kedassia-certified – whether a deli, pizza shop, sit-down restaurant or caterer. Even the local Morrisons sells Kedassia-certified food. For restaurants and delis, getting a Kedassia hechsher isn’t easy. First there’s an annual fee of roughly £3,000 (slightly cheaper than the London Beth Din and the Kosher Federation hechshers ‘because they [Kedassia] see it as a service to the community,’ according to Fischer). On top of that, restaurants must pay a mashgiach to ignite any flames or ovens that are used for cooking. The Kedassia also ensure that workers are following strict kosher standards. In Stamford Hill, this is not optional: without the Kedassia seal of approval, no one will come to your restaurant. In effect, this means a select group of Rabbis and community leaders has control over what the community eats, where they eat it, and from whom they buy it.
‘The more religious you get, the less common it is [to eat out], because… people have a distrust of other people’s kosher certification,’ explained Sari Yudashkin, who has been part of both the Brooklyn and Montreal Hasidic communities. Women are often full-time mothers, and families will typically have between six and twelve children, making restaurants a difficult and unnecessary expense. From personal experience, I’d estimate that 60–70% of the community doesn’t eat out; instead, Stamford Hill’s thriving food culture takes place in the home or at the synagogue, where you’ll find cholent, kugel, gala (jellied calf’s bone) and various other foods – dishes which originated as a result of scarcity in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.
This culture also keeps the Hasidim isolated. Without being able to eat with other communities, Jews from Stamford Hill have less exposure to the more liberal Jewish culture of Golders Green, while north-west London’s cosmopolitan kosher restaurant scene is effectively off-limits. It’s a self-fulfilling relationship: many Hasidim won’t visit other areas because they distrust outside food, but not spending time in other neighbourhoods entrenches suspicion of that food.
There are some people in the community who believe that the Kedassia is driven by its own commercial interests (its office currently has a single one-star Google review which simply says ‘Money and politics’). ‘The reason every community has their own kosher certification,’ explains Pini Brown, a tour guide and musician who grew up in the Hasidic community, ‘is that kosher business brings in a lot of money. If you have a kosher business, you can make deals.’ Brown is well acquainted with the Kedassia’s workings, having tried to import grains from Israel and create a Kedassia-certified brand. ‘They [Kedassia] said they don’t want to do it, and they started talking about new regulations and making excuses; they made it very difficult to work with them.’ He ultimately gave up, concluding that ‘they want only one supplier to maintain the monopoly and keep the market small’.
Yossi, a mashgiach at one of Stamford Hill’s restaurants, told me that the mashgiachs that work for the Kedassia also sometimes work for the London Beth Din. Technically, Kedassia standards require food to be checked more thoroughly, and the mashgiachs are therefore vetted more stringently. In practice, however, he says, ‘The job isn’t that different really. People will just pay for the stamp.’
As much as Stamford Hill may appear frozen in time, everyday life changes. Due to high birth rates, the community is growing. A report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in 2015 estimated growth at almost 5% per year with 30% of the population between fifteen and twenty-four years old. At the same time, it’s losing its sectarian diversity. According to the cultural critic Gaby Lock, Stamford Hill has become more religious since the 1960s, with people who wanted to be less religious moving to north London. The consolidation of Hasidic culture in Stamford Hill has only given the Kedassia more power, which many non-Hasidic Jews within Stamford Hill resent.
Despite the strict food standards, the type of food available in Stamford Hill has been expanding. ‘Twenty years ago, there were no dips,’ explains Lock, referring to humus, amba and harif. In Israel, the food culture has more Middle Eastern influences, and over time those foods have been incorporated into the Jewish palate worldwide. In this sense, local fast-food restaurants like Tasti Pizza and Uri’s Pizza, which specialise in American-style pizza and falafel, represent a fusion of the two contemporary poles of the Jewish world. Similarly, foods from outside the Jewish world have integrated into the Hasidic palate. Sushi can now be found in almost any Stamford Hill deli, chiefly because most fish are kosher and pareve, meaning they can be eaten with meat or milk. New sit-down restaurants feature eclectic menus – like Asado, which provides a Kedassia-approved experience of jollof rice and duck pancakes – for the small number of Hasidim who eat out.
For the large families of Stamford Hill, the cost of living is high. Many locals are beginning to move north of Markfield Park, into South Tottenham – which is, notably, within the newly expanded eruv (despite the Kedassia’s initial opposition). Nowadays, you’ll find Hasidim strolling the grassy greens of the park and dining at Deli 98 and Parkside Kosher, well within the borough of Haringey. What this will mean for the Kedassia’s power is more complex.
Many of the more affordable areas to which Stamford Hill Jews are moving, including Manchester and Gateshead, observe other local kosher standards – like the Manchester Beth Din’s MK stamp, which is less strict. Meanwhile, the UK’s newest Hasidic community – in Canvey Island, Essex – is a rapidly growing satellite; it follows the Kedassia and imports all its food from Stamford Hill.
I still see Moishe, the Stamford Hill builder, regularly. In the time I have known him, he has expanded his business to over a dozen employees, gone bankrupt, and started again by himself. Baruch, the Louisianan mashgiach, has gotten divorced, remarried and re-divorced. He has moved to Edgware (in the same city, but a different world), and still has his cash-in-hand job as a mashgiach at London’s biggest kosher restaurant. When I asked him whether he’s ever worked for the Kedassia, he looked at me dumbfounded and said, in his trademark low-country accent, ‘Naw, I’m not a Kedassia mashgiach. They would never certify me. Listen, they are hardcore.’ The Kedassia, to him, is a political organisation, one which keeps a tight grip on community life. ‘I work for the Kosher Federation. It’s Orthodox but not meshuggeneh.’
Baruch represents a rapidly disappearing faction of the Stamford Hill community: a group of religious but less-Hasidic Jews who have moved to North London in search of a different kind of Jewish life. For these exiles, the Kedassia represents what keeps most of Stamford Hill isolated from the modern world. The Kedassia’s authorities probably wouldn’t dispute this; in fact, they might take pride in it. After all, hundreds of Hasidim are born each year, with the overwhelming majority carrying on the community’s way of life as adults. At the same time, the grassroots push to build an eruv in the area reveals that the Kedassia is not immune to pressures from the community it represents. After all, the ultimate authority is that of HaShem: the job of the Kedassia is simply to enforce it.
Martin Francisco Saps is a Uruguayan-American writer who covers urban life, immigration, and contemporary Jewish identity. He is also a PhD student in Urban Studies at King's College London.
Vittles British-Jewish Food Week is edited by Molly Pepper Steemson, with additional editing from Jonathan Nunn and Adam Coghlan, and subediting by Sophie Whitehead and Liz Tray.
All illustrations are by Georgia Turner, a freelance illustrator and neuroscience PhD student from London.