Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The July 4th BBQ

Yes, diversity.  We all love it.  But mostly when your “group” is in the majority and the “others” agree to do everything your way.  But once the Latinos want to speak Spanish, the Jews grumble about nativity scenes on public property, or men demand to speak at BlogHer, you know there’s going to be trouble.

Growing up, my Queens apartment building was mostly filled with Jews who moved from Brooklyn and the Bronx to the “greener” pastures of Queens.  Queens is connected to Long Island, so it was sort of moving to the suburbs, but still close enough to take the subway to work.  Most of these families were working class.  The Jewish children went to Hebrew school, although most of the parents weren’t religious.  I used to return from Hebrew school at night, scolding my parents for not doing the right Jewish rituals, such as lighting the Friday night shabbos candles.  My mother always had the same excuse –“I forgot.”

Today, the building has a wider assortment of residents.  While there is still a large percentage of Jews, these are different than types than before – Russians, Israelis, and the Orthodox.  I’m surprised by how many Russians are living here now.  Just when I’m trying to get Sophia out of my mind, all I hear is Russian in the elevator every day. 

There are also many black, Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani families.

Although the apartment building is a Mitchell-Lama middle class housing, sort of a fancy “project” — it is a co-op where tenant own their apartments, even though when the tenants leave, they don’t make any real profit from it.  The co-op is run by elected Board of Directors.  My father was on the Board of Directors for many years, and used to tell us stories of the infighting among the elected “officials.”  It was my first introduction to politics.  Every single issue about the apartment building resulted in an enormous fight between the tenants, matters such as where to put the garbage can  to the amount of the Christmas bonuses given to the “porters.”  When one board of director would get angry at another one, he would inevitably start a hate campaign, travelling to each floor of the co-op and slipping an “anonymous” letter under each door, accusing this person of some evil deed.  And there was some crookedness going on.  Many of the board members were tradesmen or salesmen.  One of them happened to sell washing machines.  Guess who became the supplier of the apartment buildings washing machines in the laundry room?

My father always complained about the Board of Directors, but every year he would run again for office.  I was his campaign manager.  I would type a letter up for him (even as a twelve year old I was quoting “Profiles of Courage”), Xerox hundreds, and then slide the propaganda under each door.  Even though he said he hated the Board, he obviously loved it.  Finally, after twenty years on the Board — when I was in college, — he was kicked out of office.  They wanted some fresh blood.  I remember him being very hurt.

Now, these were the days when the majority of the tenants were all Jewish.  One group — a lot of infighting.  Imagine what it is like now, when there are twenty different ethnic groups.

About a month ago, the Board of Directors had an idea to bring the building together:  have a July 4th BBQ in the back of the building, near “the benches.”  It sounded like a good idea.  However, one of the Board Members reminded everyone that many of the Orthodox religious families were kosher, so the Board decided to only buy kosher meat.  Soon, the board received a letter signed by several of the families that were “Glatt Kosher.”  This is a more super-stringent kosher that is followed by those who are even MORE orthodox than the Orthodox.  Even I had to look up exactly what made something “glatt kosher” —

For meat to be kosher, it must come from a kosher animal and be slaughtered in a kosher way. For meat to be glatt kosher, in addition to the two above conditions, the meat must also come from an animal with adhesion-free or smooth lungs.

The word glatt means smooth in Yiddish. In Jewish Law, the term glatt is used to refer to the lungs of animals. After the animal is slaughtered, the animal is opened and examined to determine whether the lungs are smooth. If defects on the lungs are found, the meat is considered treif (torn, mortally injured, non-kosher). If the lungs are found to be defect-free or smooth, the meat is considered to be glatt kosher.

While the term glatt technically means the lungs of the kosher and kosher-slaughtered animal were smooth, the term is often used colloquially to imply a higher standard of kashrut, similar to the term mehadrin.

Furthermore, even though only meat can be technically glatt kosher, the term is often loosely used today to refer to non-meat items. Many suppliers of glatt kosher items will refer to all their products at glatt kosher. So one may find fish with the same glatt kosher sticker as used on meat being sold one aisle over. In addition, many suppliers of glatt kosher meat will refer to their whole service as glatt kosher. So there are glatt kosher caterers, restaurants and stores.

Got it?

Surprisingly, the Glatt Kosher tenants mostly pissed off the non-religious Jewish tenants, because to make sure it was glatt kosher the building would have to buy the food from a glatt kosher deli and the price would be twice as much — all for a few families. 

The story doesn’t end there.  As I mentioned, this apartment building is now more diverse than in the past.  The Jewish tenants don’t run the show anymore. All of a sudden, the Indian and Muslim tenants were bringing up their OWN dietary issues.  Shouldn’t the food also be halal?  Will beef be served? 

The Board of Directors arranged for a special meeting to discuss this issue.  They convened in their war room.

To cap it off, after the recent death of a tenant, her son from Vermont took over the apartment.   He seems like a nice guy — he has a long beard and is into yoga and meditation.  He follows this local guru named Sri Chinoy, who believes in health through running races (!), and he went to the Board of Directors and insisted on a vegetarian BBQ.

The BBQ has been canceled.

Important update:   Just heard from someone in the elevator that there is a last-moment attempt to revive the BBQ by changing the food plan to sandwiches that are made at a glatt kosher and halal SUBWAY.

44 Comments

  1. This is a great New York slice-of-life story, Neil. I enjoyed it tremendously.

  2. what happened to BYOBBQ. People need to be more accomodating on both ends. Sheesh.

  3. Anon — they discussed this, but it is hard to do with dietary laws. What happens if the plates get mixed up, and stuff like that! Seriously. I actually respect kosher and halal lifestyles, but sometimes it just is too rigid.

  4. “…or men demand to speak at BlogHer…”

    Are you sure that’s not just “man”. Like, a man demands to speak at BlogHer i.e…. you? Heh.

    As always enjoyed this post. And I can see why its been cancelled. Its why I travel in packs of small groups, I only want so many opinions. True story! 😀

  5. Sorry to hear that it was cancelled. I was hoping for a discussion of the proper grill and whatnot since it made me think of the episode of Hulk Hogan’s show in which he invited the neighbors over to get to know them. He went out and bought all this kosher meat. And then threw it on the same grill as non-kosher meat. *sigh*

  6. This is why you moved, Neil. Because there’s no crazy quite like NY crazy.

    They could have done a BYO, and let each cultural group share their creations. The non-kosher people can eat from any plate and mix their meat and dairy, and the kosher people could have brought their own dishes.

    Still, logic isn’t what drives conflict. It’s the need to make waves and see how far you can toss other people up in the air, and whether you can make them break. Best of all, it always makes for a great shake-your-head story!

  7. Dude, make it a pot luck. No problem.

  8. Whoops, forgot I let Ellie use my computer earlier. C’est moi.

  9. I’ve got it! I just needs to be a drinking party. Tap water for everyone, no clinking glasses to spread the germies.

  10. How about everyone go outside and shoot water guns at each other? or have a Watermelon seed spitting contest? You could just paint a picket fence.

  11. Too funny, I love your blogging even more since you went home to mom.

  12. That’s priceless. How do we expect the countries of the world to get along when one simple apartment complex in Queens cannot come to terms on a bbq?

    It’s hopeless.

  13. This is a brilliant story. God bless American.

  14. It never dawned on me that apartment/condo living in an area with so many different ethnic groups could have such problems over some food! But it makes sense. Never heard of glatt kosher either. I wonder why problems with the lung’s smoothness makes it unacceptable.

  15. Kenju — someday I’ll tell the story of how our junior high school “prom” never happened because the black and white kids couldn’t agree what music should be played.

  16. This brought tears to my eyes. I knew you were going to work in vegetarian and cancellation. Just having pot luck over at my house with my own family is a major ordeal. Oh paper plates, plastic utensils and plastic cups would have covered all the varieties of kosher out there! 🙂

  17. i could have told you from the first paragraph that your bbq was going to get cancelled…jew politics. fun. it’s just like my husband’s family dinners…

    hhahaha.

  18. I found this story very sad.

  19. Miguelina — sorry. but look at the positive side – you should be proud of people sticking to their guns with their traditions. I sort of like that. we’ve moved beyond the melting pot concept. we just need to figure out a way to get different types to keep their traditions, but still sit at the same event.

  20. Oh, sorry to hear they canceled the bbq.

  21. i’m with the pot luck, bring your own plates and cutlery and try what you want.
    such a shame.

  22. Important update: Just heard from someone in the elevator that there is a last-moment attempt to revive the BBQ by changing the food plan to sandwiches that are made at a glatt kosher and halal SUBWAY nearby.

  23. I think perhaps the 4th of July should be in Boston, not NYC. We have a 2 day celebration with a nice kosher BBQ brisket to die for. 2 nights of fireworks. Miquelina in the next town (where we do fireworks, night one) and Rhea right nearby, too.

    That story made me a little sad, too. It was funny, and SO typical, but it’s hard for such diverse people to understand each other’s dietary practices, isn’t it?

  24. Of course, if you were still in California, the vegetarian guy would have won.

  25. That sounds like the events we try to have for the ESL classes at school. Everyone wants their needs to be met, you know? I totally get it. I would encourage a potluck, too, but SUBWAY sounds like a brilliant idea.

    This post almost makes me wish I lived in NY. Almost.

  26. You definitely have to respect tradition. It is a rigid lifestyle but if you can do it then more power to you.

    I have to say I feel more more enlightened to Jewish customs and practices after reading this now. Thanks for the education! 🙂

  27. Lady Jaye – I was a little worried about writing this post because I didn’t want to give a negative connotation to being kosher or halal. I’ve always thought these dietary laws were pretty cool, even though I don’t keep to them, because they were both ancient and modern. They almost seem “green” in the way they make you think about the food you eat, with specific laws on killing the animal humanely, and acknowledging that a life was taken so you can eat. And by separating certain foods, for whatever reason, the idea of eating seems more sanctified.

    That said, once any religious ritual or belief gets so rigid that you can’t sit next to someone else at a BBQ, using paper plates, something seems “unkosher” about it.

  28. To be honest, I think organic food is as good or better than Kosher. A lot of those old Kosher butchers use antiquated killing methods — are you familiar with the pen?

  29. Subway to the rescue! Your NY life is full of interesting twists and turns, isn’t it?

    I second Margalit’s suggestion, but unfortunately this year’s fireworks are CANCELLED. Not because of dietary laws, but because of construction. It’s a shame, because you can see them from my house so we could avoid the crowds.

    Still, you have an open invitation to come to Boston. There’s always the Fung-Wah bus if you’re feeling adventurous. With your life.

  30. (I just read my comment and realized it sounds vaguely threating. I meant that the buses have a potty safety record. Boston is safe. We’ll protect you!)

  31. Miguelina — I’ve always heard of these infamous “Chinatown” buses to boston, and I am sort of intrigued…

  32. It amazes me that the SUBWAY is so accomadating to different lifestyles.

    That’s probably a only in NY thing.

  33. Maybe it should be a pot luck. Bring something and don’t eat whatever it is that’s going to send you straight to hell. Then shut up.

  34. If I were on the committee I would have suggested a Watermelon and toasted Marshmallow 4th of July party.

  35. I agree with the very first commenter that this is such a perfect slice of life in NY. It’s a Seinfeld episode.

  36. So, I’m guessing the Christmas-Chanukah-Kwanzaa-Festivus decoration debates get really interesting in this building? No internally lit Mary and baby in the lobby. They can all agree on candles, but not which day to light them?

    Seriously, great post. I’m really enjoying your NYC writing as well.

  37. This type of thing makes me sad and a bit angry.

    I love the idea of holding dear one’s traditions…I wish I had more of them myself.

    But this seems less about understanding each other’s dietary practices and more about people forcing their practices on everyone else.

    I don’t get that. I really, really don’t.

  38. MIquelina…CANCELLED? WTF? Oh well, I guess you guys will have to come to ours on the actual 4th. Although I have to admit, I’m a bit POed that my two nights of fireworks have been dashed this year. Damn freaking high school!

  39. Christine, you’re reading it incorrectly. It isn’t forcing dietary practices on everyone else, it’s YOUR ability to keep kosher or hallal at a party where the food, bbq, utensils, etc. make YOU unable to eat. Nobody is telling other people what to do, it’s called ACCOMODATION. Do you know anyone Jewish who keeps kosher? Perhaps you might be less judgemental if you asked more questions about the WHY and wherefore of Kashrut and Hallal.

  40. Whoa… whoa… whoa, Margalit. I just found out that people come her for the lovable comments. She probably didn’t really get it what the dietary laws are all about.

    And frankly, I can understand where she is coming from. This is a case where the glatt kosher people (there are only six of them) should have just said — screw it — let everyone enjoy themselves and we’ll eat later. We’ll just hang around and talk.

    We’re not talking about people not caring about those who are kosher. The BBQ was already kosher! And then halal. They just wanted it extra kosher.

    I firmly believe that compromises should be made for the minority, but at a certain point it gets ridiculous.

  41. I’m amazed that even the regular kosher people would be willing to participate. Certainly they would have to use their own grill or a brand new one. I’m also surprised they would go to an event like that in the hours before Shabbat started. Although I don’t keep kosher, I’m not remotely surprised at the demands from the kosher or glatt kosher people, I’m used to it and I don’t judge it even though I realize it’s a pain for others. Obviously they have the right to not attend (which is what would usually happen) but there’s no way they’re going to eat stuff they feel they can’t just to “compromise” with their neighbors. They could have just brought their own food in plastic containers.

    My orthodox relatives from around the country are always thrilled to come to L.A. because there are SO many glatt kosher restaurants. To tell these people that they don’t “need” glatt kosher food but that regular kosher is enough–we might as well taunt them for not eating a ham sandwich, there’s just no point.

  42. P.S. But just for the record, I agree with Neil that the glatt kosher people should have let it go since there were only six of them. But I lay most of the blame on the board for allowing the minority to intimidate them to the point of canceling the BBQ. Still, you gotta love NY–such a problem of diversity would never happen here in L.A.–you’re just not going to find buildings where the ultra-orthodox are mixing with any other groups.

  43. Danny –You make some great points. Who would expect you to be the defender of the ultra-religious?! As you might expect, I was a little wary of bringing up this glatt kosher, thinking that those who didn’t know about it would just consider Jews crazy. But I figured every religion has different levels of orthodoxy and ritual. As you said, it wasn’t really the glatt kosher people making demands on the Board. It was the Board trying so hard to cater to everyone that they ended up catering to no one. Maybe by next year, they will be better prepared for how to deal with this new melting pot in the building.

    (You also have to remember that this “Board” is not a bunch of seasoned executives, but just some tenants — some blue-collar, some retired, one a public school teacher, etc., who may never have had to deal with this issue before.)

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