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After Work: The Rabbi And The Latin King

‘’’ Now in Manhattan you don’t find a lot of glatt kosher restaurants, not even in the old neighborhood of the Lower East side. The best ones have all disappeared: the ones with the Romanian steak, the stuffed derma, the pitchers of chicken fat, but now that I think about it the customers for that kind of food probably died-- from coronary disease…

On the day the rabbi meets the Latin King there are muttered words concerning a huge fish.

Dona Gibbs’s flavourful short story is one of the tastiest you will encounter this month – or year.

‘Glatt Kosher. Under Rabbinical Supervision.” You’ve probably seen these signs: maybe a discreet little notice on a restaurant that aspires to a wider clientele or big one in neon that wants to bring in the hungry observant.

Well, I’m one of those rabbis. It probably wasn’t what Momma had in mind with all those years of yeshiva but here I am making the rounds, making sure food gets to the table, according to the ancient laws.

I’ve got to admit it. Some of these laws are arcane but most make good sense in terms of cleanliness and even humane treatment of animals if you want to put a crunchy granola spin on it.

Anyway my job gets me out of the house for good long stretches of the day. “A mitzvah, a blessing, my wife calls it.” And it gets me out of Brooklyn so I see what’s happening out there in the world. Profane and imperfect as it may be, it’s a lively place even if you’re looking at lox or poking at farmer cheese.

So today I got on the train from Williamsburg and headed to Manhattan. Now in Manhattan you don’t find a lot of glatt kosher restaurants, not even in the old neighborhood of the Lower East side. The best ones have all disappeared: the ones with the Romanian steak, the stuffed derma, the pitchers of chicken fat, but now that I think about it the customers for that kind of food probably died-- from coronary disease.

My ultimate destination was the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a new place, a restaurant that called itself a “grille.” That’s right a kosher grille. A bit pretentious if you ask me but then again I’m a rabbi and not a restaurateur.

The place is all tricked out with a tin ceiling and an enormous collection of hookahs lining some high shelves. There are some rugs hung over the bare brick walls and just so you don’t miss the exotic statement they’re after, there are festoons of camel bells.

I’m a Mittel European kind of guy, from the Russian, Polish, German on-the-run tradition. These young guys who run the restaurant are Israelis. So if you want stuffed cabbage you’re not going to find it here. The menu runs to hommas, tehina, baba ganusha, kibbeh and that kind of thing. Food to attract the young. But because they aspire to a wider dining public, they’ve put hamburgers and chicken wings on the menu. Just in case.

Anyway I walk the long, long cross-town blocks from the subway and I build up an appetite. Nothing a koofta kabob wouldn’t fix. When I round the corner, something catches my eye—a white van parked in front of the restaurant. It’s not one of those delivery type vans. This is more of a momma, poppa, grand momma and four kids van. The side door is open and two guys are wrestling an enormous fish out of the back seat.

I recognize one of the guys as one the restaurant owners. The other I take to be a fishmonger. He’s got a white coat on, but he’s not the usual fishmonger that makes deliveries here. Him, I know. This guy’s got long rows of braids pulled back into kind of a ponytail. He’s stocky and dark and I take him to be Puerto Rican, not that I’m prejudiced. I just call things as I see them.

I walk over to them and look at the fish. It’s a stripped bass, a roccus saxatilis, if you want to be exact about it, and it’s about 22 pounds. And there it is looking a little cloudy of eye, flopped across one of the back bucket seats.

I see it’s already been gutted.

“No good,” I tell them. “Not for here. Not kosher.”

The restaurant owner starts to get excited. He sees the special of the day disappearing and he’s already run the menus off.

He yells, right there on the street. The Ecuadorian grill man scoots out to the sidewalk. The deliveryman and the Yemenite waiter join him. Everyone's putting in his two cents. A regular street opera.

The fish monger stares at me—a cool, squinty-eyed stare. He pushes his coat sleeves up his arm and I see it—a tattoo of a five-pointed crown. Then just so I wouldn’t miss the point he turned his back on me, feinting another look at the stripper, and hikes up his jacket a little above his back pockets.

There it is—a gold bandanna folded just so hanging out of the pocket of his prison droopy jeans.

He’s a Latin King. And he’s letting me know it.

Me, I don’t always have my nose in the Laws and I know the reputation. The Latin Kings are one of the largest, most violent gangs going. They’re spread throughout the urban areas across the United States. They espouse the idea of Latino pride but many of their number have been linked to drug trafficking. I didn’t know they’d gotten into the fish business. Thinking about it, they probably haven’t. This particular Latin King had likely pulled in the stripper himself last night and was looking to get a little money for missing a good night’s sleep.

But it wasn’t kosher.

I turn and walk into the restaurant. The grill man, the waiter and the delivery guy all follow. The owner storms past us, walks to the back muttering in Hebrew—not the words you’d find in the Torah-- and slams his office door behind him.

I want to let them know that my decision wasn’t personal or anything. I’m doing my job.
So I decide to have a little nosh. I walk over and look in the cold case. The hommus is creamy and the tabbouleh is bright with parsley. I pick up a plate and examine it.

Everyone is holding his breath. They think I’m about it find another violation. I’m not; it’s an ingrained habit.

I glance out the window. The Latin King is leaning against his van, waiting.

I tear off a small piece of pita and dip it into the hummus. I’m
going to take my time.

The Latin King has his colors and his traditions. And I have mine.

That’s what makes the world outside so interesting.

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