Get Your Kosher Ice Cream: A New Parlor Draws Crowds and Critics

By Covering Religion Staff

By Yaffi Spodek and Josh Tapper

With men serving women, there's opportunity for inappropriate touching at Zisalek. (Yaffi Spodek/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM – Zisalek, the first ice cream parlor in Jerusalem’s Haredi enclave of Geula, was jammed with rabidly enthusiastic customers on the day it opened early in the spring. They came by the thousands to the compact shop on Malchei Yisrael Street to sample the ice cream made on site, under strict rabbinical supervision.

Since opening day, business has thrived. Young couples lounge at the shop’s two tables, and men and women flock in and out of the store’s open glass doors. It was likely the first time many in the neighborhood had tasted gourmet ice cream. While packaged kosher ice cream is readily available, getting it fresh in a store that adheres to the appropriate kashrut regulations is a challenge for the ultra-Orthodox.

“There’s no place nearby that sells kosher ice cream,” said Avi Press, 19, a Geula resident and student at the Mir yeshiva, as he enjoyed a kiwi-flavored double scoop. “There is Katzefet on Ben-Yehuda Street; we would eat there, but not everyone relies on that hechsher,” a kosher certification label granted by a rabbi.

“Zisalek is better and tastier,” Press continued. “And it’s cheaper too.”

Orthodox Jews require a kosher certification on items like ice cream to ensure that the cream, sugar and butterfat are made of pure ingredients that contain no animal products. But the Zisalek hechsher goes a step further. It requires that the shop comport itself in a kosher way. A sign hangs on an inside wall of the shop, saying it’s “improper and undesirable” for customers to linger. This is a warning that no socializing between the sexes is permitted on the premises. In a society where men and women are discouraged from mingling in social situations, Zisalek’s close quarters almost welcome coed interaction.

But even the sign and the certification were not enough to satisfy everyone in Geula. According to a report on a popular Orthodox blog, The Yeshiva World, dozens of Haredi men – most from Eida Hareidit, a competing kashrut label – recently gathered outside Zisalek to protest what they perceived to be customers’ immodest behavior.

Zisalek, which means “sweet lick” in Yiddish, received its hechsher from Rabbi Avraham Rubin, whose Badatz certification endorses dozens of stores in the area, and requires an effort to preserve modesty.

In anticipation of a large crowd on opening day, hired security guards made sure that men and women passed through two separate entrances. Since then, some believe the rules have slackened. Indeed, the store now uses a single entrance.

“Besides the food and ingredients, we are very strict about modesty,” said Rabbi Menachem Gorlitz, Rubin’s primary mashgiach. “There shouldn’t be a mixture of men and women hanging out in an environment that is lacking in modesty. If we see or hear that there are problems in this area, I would definitely take away the kashrut certificate.”

Menachem Friedman, a sociologist and professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University, said the opening of Zisalek reflects an entrepreneurial spirit in a historically poor community. But communal norms still prevail. He predicts it’s only a matter of time before Zisalek shuts down. “It only takes one incident where men and women establish relations and that’s it,” he said.

Rubin’s hechsher requires the store to use camera surveillance to monitor food preparation and a mashgiach to visit twice daily. “Regular customers will also call us to report problems,” Gorlitz added. Even still, the measures aren’t enough to appease the more widely accepted Eida Hareidit, which has existed for 60 years; Rabbi Rubin’s hechsher, by comparison, is only 14 years old.

“Everyone accepts the Eida Hareidit hechsher because it meets everyone’s standards, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim,” said Yaakov Meir, who works at Uri’s Pizza, an Eida Hareidit-certified store down the block from Zisalek. Meir also claimed that local stores that lost the Eida Hareidit label for various infractions were granted Rubin’s hechsher, implying that the Rubin hechsher is inferior.

Gorlitz denies the allegation. “If a store lost its hechsher from a different organization, for whatever reason,” he said, “Rabbi Rubin would not certify them either.”

As far as food preparation goes, the differences between Eida Hareidit and Rubin’s hechsher are negligible. The prevailing concern for Eida Hareidit is over Rubin’s willingness to dole out certifications to stores outside Hareidi neighborhoods, where it’s more difficult to monitor coed interaction. While Rubin does issue certifications to mixed-seating stores like Zisalek, Gorelitz said he’s mindful of location, even when servicing stores in the same chain. Sam’s Bagels, for example, is under Rubin’s hechsher – but only the Geula franchise. The locations on Yaffo and Ben Yehuda Streets – both high-traffic hubs in downtown Jerusalem – are not certified.

The Zisalek flare-up wasn’t an isolated incident. In a community that places an immeasurable value on the stringency of its kashrut labels, there’s deep-rooted tension surrounding the legitimacy of different rabbis. After pressure by Eida Hareidit to drop Rubin’s hechsher and adopt its own, Yaakov Halperin, Zisalek’s owner and proprietor of an Israeli eyeglasses chain, agreed to a set of concessions, according to Matzav, an Orthodox news site.

Now, non-packaged ice cream won’t be sold after 1 p.m. on Fridays, coinciding with the dismissal time of the local high schools. “In past weeks, the young girls would come when school was over to buy ice cream and hang out,” Gorlitz explained. “Now, they can still get ice cream, but it won’t be eaten on the street.” The store will also close at 10:30 p.m. each night and not open on Saturdays after the Sabbath, to further prevent the area from becoming a hangout.

On a recent Friday afternoon before the concessions, Zisalek’s tables and counters were crowded with customers stopping for a snack while running their pre-Sabbath errands. Employees filled cones and cups with heaping scoops of ice cream – Zisalek features 36 flavors, split evenly between dairy and pareve. Despite the controversy, Gorlitz believes Zisalek has staying power – as long as it follows the rules. “Every time there is something new, there will always be people who don’t like it,” he said. “For now it’s new and people aren’t used to it. Soon they will become accustomed. They also want to be able to eat good ice cream, just like everyone else.”

One Response to “Get Your Kosher Ice Cream: A New Parlor Draws Crowds and Critics”

  1. Michele says:

    An interesting story, but it took a long time to get to the “nut graf,” about the religious tensions.

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