A few hours before the festival of Purim began, the Johannesburg Jewish world was turned upside down. An urgent notification from the Beth Din (South Africa’s singular kashrut body) announced that the oldest and probably largest kosher caterer, Stan and Pete, had had its certification withdrawn. Food already purchased could not be used but we didn’t need to “kasher” our homes.
I love good food. And I love gorgeous restaurants and beautiful wine and the ambiance and décor of establishments that make my heart smile. I have also been kosher all my life, which meant that on many occasions, I would need to fight an internal war in order to not transgress Jewish dietary laws.
Mostly I won.
But not easily.
Which makes the kashrut explosion in Johannesburg all the more difficult for me to swallow. Because it would seem while I have been struggling to stay on the right side of the kashrut divide, I have naively most likely been happily eating treif at smachot (catered events).
News about Stan and Pete spread through social media and many wondered out loud if this was not perhaps an inappropriate — and not funny — “Purim schpiel.” But it wasn’t. The owner of Stan and Pete confirmed on Facebook that the issue was real and that he was working with the Beth Din to resolve the issue. He thanked the community for the years of loyalty.
Which of course fueled speculation even more.
On Friday, the Beth Din issued a formal and detailed announcement that more than 20 non-kosher chickens were found in the kitchen of the kosher caterer. From the look of it, it certainly seems that there was a deliberate attempt to obfuscate, and to date no reasonable explanation has been provided by the caterer.
The fallout has been massive. So popular is Stan and Pete that it is unlikely that any Jew in Johannesburg has not eaten its food. And without knowing what else was compromised and how long this has been going on, it is unlikely that South African Jews will ever have any clarity as to how many times they failed to eat kosher.
The reaction of Johannesburg Jews can be divided into a few categories:
- People like me who are repulsed and nauseated and would be happy to see criminal charges pursued if fraud has been committed.
- People who believe that it is the Beth Din who is responsible.
- People who think that we should be more tolerant and be mindful of the owner’s family. This group believes we need to be as concerned as to what comes out of our mouths as much as what goes into them.
I am infuriated. I believe that the person responsible needs to live with his actions and needs to accept that whatever follows is a result of the choices that he made. If his family is affected, it is he who affected them.
I am gobsmacked that a person can be so disrespectful as to deliberately feed people non-kosher food. I can’t imagine what goes through the mind of a person while he stands at the side of a hall watching young couples celebrate a wedding, possibly with separate dancing, listen to words of Torah as they start a Jewish life together, knowing full well that he has fed them non-kosher food.
I can’t imagine what goes through his mind when he watches a family celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah — the coming of age of a child who will now walk in the ways of God. Knowing full well that he has fed them non-kosher food.
I can’t imagine that he has not considered the damage he has done to non-observant Jews, who have paid the additional cost for kosher food, out of respect for others. Or because the Beth Din demanded it.
And because he doesn’t know me, I can’t imagine that he even considers how hopeless I feel knowing that I have fought to eat kosher for nought. Because as much as I might have tried, I was probably eating treif in any event.
No one wakes up one morning and decides to be Bernard Madoff. Rather, it’s a slow process where step by step boundaries are breached and there is no going back. Ultimately, it’s like riding a tiger that you can’t get off because of the fear that it might eat you. There is no doubt that Stan and Pete was one such tiger.
In order to pull back from this, the Johannesburg Beth Din is going to have look inward and determine what responsibility they hold. They are going to have be transparent with the community and they are going to have to rebuild trust. Trust that they might not have broken, but are responsible to re construct.
The community is going to have to take more responsibly and be more vigilant, because even good systems fail. Let alone imperfect ones. And when they do, there are major consequences.
And I am going to have get over myself. I am going to have to accept that there was nothing I could have done and that it doesn’t make it all futile. I know that in theory. Now I just have to believe it.