Walking into Bell Wood Bar, dressed in a dark jacket and black skullcap, Rabbi Semelman greeted Eitan Ratpan, one of the owners, and went behind the counter. The bar looks like any you may find in a college town; the most popular menu item is a chicken wrap.
The rabbi pulled a bottle of Mombasa Club Strawberry Edition gin off the shelf. “This is not O.K.,” he said. “It is infused.” Mr. Ratpan quickly stashed the bottle behind his cash register.
“Gin is always tricky,” the rabbi said, “because they like to experiment with God-only-knows-what products to give it a special flavor. Same for ouzo.”
If, for example, real strawberries were used in the gin’s production, and if those strawberries fermented alongside the grain, the presence of fruit would mean that the spirit is a wine, sacramental in Judaism, and thus prohibited unless overseen by a rabbinical authority. On the other hand, if the gin was flavored with a chemical agent: How was that produced? How was the gin stored? The questions can seem endless.
To make such determinations, Rabbi Semelman, who immigrated to Israel from his native France almost 40 years ago, consults with food scientists and Jewish communities, and travels the world to inspect distilleries. He plans a visit to Tokyo in the coming months to research the making of Japanese whiskey.
Like Cypriot ouzos and Peruvian piscos, Japanese whiskies are produced in places with no established rabbinate to determine kosherness. Elsewhere, some large distillers have experts on hand, and declare specific batches kosher.
In Israel, any kosher food producer, winemaker, brewer or distiller is subject to intense supervision by the state rabbinate. To cover the expense of a recognized hechsher, or kosher certificate, products cost an average of 15 percent more than noncertified drinks, said Rabbi Eliahu Schlesinger, the former director of kashrut for the Jerusalem rabbinate. All kosher establishments pay 500 shekels an hour, or about $135, for the services of an official mashgiach, or kashrut supervisor.
In 2015, Rabbi Semelman banned Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky after he discovered that one importer was fraudulently labeling an uninspected batch with the internationally recognized OK Kosher Certification granted to another production run.
Many Jerusalemites laugh at the notion of kosher certification. Packed establishments serve pork, shellfish and uncertified alcohol throughout the Israeli weekend, which includes Fridays and Saturdays. On a Sabbath night in downtown Jerusalem, one can enjoy such nonkosher abominations as bouillabaisse at Zuni, bacon risotto at Barood and buttered steak at Katy’s. Pointing at Katy’s, Rabbi Semelman lightheartedly muttered, “Trayf mehadrin!” — certifiably nonkosher.
A growing rebellion against Israel’s state rabbinate by those who do keep kosher is also complicating the panorama. Several scandals, including the recent conviction of a former chief rabbi for corruption, have eroded public confidence. Religious women are revolting against their exclusion from the ranks of kashrut supervisors and joining alternative kashrut boards. Hotels are threatening to abandon traditional supervision because of the costs.
But Rabbi Semelman works in a world in which news of approval for a desirable drink comes with headlines like “Southern Comfort Kashrus Alert.” (Kashrus is an alternate spelling of kashrut.)
“Produced in Ireland, with a hechsher from Badatz Basel and Badatz Beit Yosef,” that emailed news alert said. “This is ONLY the case if the kashrut symbols are visible on the bottles, which are parve. A special run has been imported with approval via the Jerusalem Rabbinate due to the efforts of Rabbi Semelman.”
At Bell Wood Bar, finding a bottle of Glenfiddich Scotch stamped by a recognized London authority, Rabbi Semelman exclaimed, “A hechsher! Amazing!”
But at Dorothy, a nearby bar he had visited a few weeks earlier, matters went downhill. “No, no, no!” he said. “Chartreuse? I took this down two weeks ago. Why is it back?”
The barman, terrified, said he served it all the time and no one had complained, further infuriating Rabbi Semelman. “You have to decide if you want to be kosher or not,” he said. “If not, no problem. We live in a democracy. But the people will not be cheated!”
“The kashrut of alcohol is physically and morally taxing,” he said later. “It is not obvious, like confirming where a steak comes from. You have to be able to make immediate distinctions between seemingly small matters, and stand your ground.”
With that, he wandered into Habibi Bar, a popular hookah joint, saying, “Let’s see what the hippies have been up to.”
The hippies passed with flying colors.
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