April 10, 2013
Making Doheny kosher
My mother called Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats “Tiffany’s.”
She often bought her briskets and chickens at the now-infamous shop on Pico Boulevard, and each time the owner added up her purchases on a piece of scratch paper on the high counter, my mother held her breath for the total. She called it Tiffany’s, she said, because the meat seemed to be worth its weight in silver.
Yes, you paid premium retail at Doheny Meats, but this was high-quality stuff, and, of course, kosher, too.
Or, it turns out, maybe not.
In the span of two weeks, a private investigator provided video proof that the owner of Doheny Meats loaded merchandise into the store while the kosher supervisor, or mashgiach, was off premises. The P.I. also found thousands of forged kosher labels, all bearing not just the faked seal of kashrut, but a counterfeited federal USDA mark as well.
Our reporter Jonah Lowenfeld’s subsequent probe revealed that the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the body that deemed Doheny Meats kosher, had fielded many allegations of improprieties against the store over the past three years. The organization either failed to act or was not up to the task of true oversight. Moreover, Lowenfeld found the store’s owner had been implicated in another kosher scandal decades earlier in Los Alamitos — something the RCC wasn’t even aware of.
The immediate fallout to the scandal was the quick purchase of Doheny Meats by a local businessman and philanthropist, Shlomo Reichnitz. When I told a former customer that it turns out the store was grossing $8 million per year, he said, “Sure, that’s like four briskets.”
The sale may offer a neat ending, but it leaves several messy questions. The now former owner claims he was passing off kosher meat as the more stringent and expensive glatt kosher. But beyond the word of someone who has engaged in serial subterfuge, what proof is there that at least some meat Doheny sneaked in wasn’t kosher at all? Was the lapse of RCC oversight due to negligence or something more nefarious? Who oversees the overseers? Throughout the scandal, I kept thinking of Hebrew National’s brilliant slogan: “We Answer to a Higher Authority.” It would be nice, for starters, if that Higher Authority were the consumer.
That is what makes the story of Doheny Meats so resonant. The problems of a single meat counter in Pico-Robertson don’t amount to a hill of chopped liver in this crazy world. But kosher food is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business, and to an even larger extent it is part of the Jewish “brand.” With kosher certification, Judaism literally enters the marketplace. Even in towns where Jews are few and far between, those little symbols carry the weight of our values and our traditions. Kosher standards, practices and values define us, set us apart. By defining how we approach the most basic human need — eating — kashrut defines our relationship to nature, to one another, to God, to just about everything.
Last February, during a lunch at Got Kosher? on Pico, I got into a long discussion with the owner, Alain Cohen, about observing kosher laws. Dr. Michael Held, the founder and director of Etta Israel, walked over to say hello. We filled him in on our various points and posed the question: What’s the best reason to keep kosher if “kosher” does not always mean the most healthy or the most humane?
Maybe, Held said — nodding his head at us both — maybe the argument is the point. It was 2 p.m., Held pointed out, and Cohen and I had been deep in discussion for well over an hour on why we eat what we eat.
As explanations for the kosher laws go, it’s better than most. It was the arcane rules that got us debating what we put in our mouths, taking none of it for granted. Kashrut, whether we observe it or not, has always forced Jews to be aware of what society is only now fully appreciating: the holy link between our food, our world, our bodies and our souls .
Whether your approach to the table came straight from Leviticus or from Mark Bittman, food has to satisfy more than just hunger. It has to answer to these higher authorities.
That brings me back to our little neighborhood butcher shop, Tiffany’s. The new owner has a rare opportunity, and the resources, to create a new model for what a kosher butcher store can be: In two words, transparent and transformative.
As for transparency, cameras and digital tracking technology can allow managers and consumers to monitor every step of the distribution process. The kosher supervisors should make their operations clear to the public as well. Customers, outside experts and disinterested rabbis should be part of the oversight.
As for transformative, the new Doheny Meats should cleave to the underlying values of kashrut. The meat it carries should all be humanely raised and slaughtered, following the most sustainable practices. The store’s employment practices should also be state-of-the-art.
Several non-kosher butcher shops are pioneering in these practices — kosher has to catch up. How significant would it be for the reborn Doheny Meats to be not just the Tiffany’s of price, but of ethics as well.