The power of non-traditional kosher food

I was pleasantly surprised to read Frank Bruni’s expose about Basil Pizza & Wine in this week’s NY Times Magazine. It is the story of an upscale Kosher restaurant just across from the “Jewish” side of Crown Heights. The story is about breaking down the boundaries between Jew and non-Jew while enriching the particularism of the Jewish tradition.

It’s also a cross-cultural experiment, trying to promote better integration of, and communication between, groups in Crown Heights that haven’t always mingled much or seen eye to eye. Although its food and wine are strictly kosher, Basil isn’t located on what is known as the Jewish side of Eastern Parkway, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare and dividing line. It’s on the West Indian side and, with its deliberately diverse staff, courts the black residents there. The trendy menu of individual-size pizzas, raw-fish compositions and pasta dishes is also meant to appeal to them — and to the young, liberal-minded professionals who, in slowly growing numbers, are choosing Crown Heights as a cheaper alternative to the Williamsburg or Prospect Heights sections of Brooklyn. Basil wants everyone under one roof.

And since its opening in March, it has stirred strong feelings, illustrating how restaurants can wind up being so much bigger than themselves. Many of them mirror — and a few even mold — the communities around them.

We too are trying to re-imagine Kosher food and connect those on the inside with those on the outside. Kosher food that moves beyond ashkenazi staples (goulash, kugel, brisket) or “Israeli” comfort food (hummus, shnitzel, felafel), that plays with the world around us, integrating, fusing and inventing, can step forward with open arms while retaining and enriching a dynamic tradition. Hats off to Basil’s principle owner Danny Branover and all the staff there!

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