Edible Why I Love Terrible Kosher Pizza, and Other Mysteries of My Jewish Life
I am no gentile, but a Jew, with chill Jewish parents, who loves the pepper-and-onion slice at Alfie’s.
One of the enduring mysteries of Jewish life, historically unknowable even to Solomon the Wise, is that kosher pizza is vile and nobody knows why . People theorize that the issue is the plasticine mozzarella, which uses a rennet substitute––rennet is an enzyme that comes from a calf’s stomach, and therefore can’t be mixed with dairy even though it’s a key element of treyf mozzarella. The substitute allows kosher mozzarella to avoid the Talmudic prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, but prevents the cheese from stretching or melting the way treyf mozzarella does. And there’s so much more that’s wrong with kosher pizza: Crusts are uniformly screwy, whether cracker-thin and cardboard-flavored or doughy and tasting entirely of salt. Pies tend to be over-sauced and so any toppings are damp and unpredictable, sometimes sliding off the slice as if trying to sneak out of a party they didn’t much want to attend.
But I am not a chef and, in any event, this is not a hatchet job. See, I like kosher pizza, or in any event I like the kosher pizza served at Alfie’s, the pizza joint par excellence in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood where I work.
At least twice a week, I leave the office and plant myself in the formidable line at Alfie’s—sometimes I can call ahead with my order, but more often they’re too busy to answer the phone. I suspect that I’m the only Alfie’s regular who doesn’t live in the neighborhood. I watch as the other people in line chitchat, reformulating the queue to stand with friends, calling over each other’s heads to ask neighbors how their husbands are, and their children, and their renovations. I hear the details of doctor’s appointments and miscarriages, shockingly intimate stuff hollered over the roar of a restaurant’s lunch rush. Yet at Alfie’s, the intermix feels natural. I wouldn’t know how to react if I visited one day and found the place quiet.
The cheese on Alfie’s pies is as runny as any other kosher joint’s, the crust as chewy, the toppings as wet; it is, in short, boilerplate kosher pizza, which means it’s bad. Yet every week, there I am along with dozens of others, in the one line where I wouldn’t dream of tapping an impatient foot no matter how long I’m stuck waiting.
“The usual?” asks my guy once I’m finally at his register.
And he shouts it over the din. “Two pepper-and-onion slices to go!”
Alfie’s may be wildly popular, but the food is bad and the service so slow that I waste most of my allotted lunch break standing in line there. The neighborhood has other lunch spots. Why do I love this one so dearly?
When I was a kid, I learned at a Passover seder about the three “kinds” of Jews: Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. As it was explained to me at the time, these were named in ascending order of devoutness, and while that’s not exactly accurate, it’s the way most people still understand the three denominations. I asked my dad which kind we were. He responded, “Oh, God, none of the above. Gentile.” I didn’t get the joke at the time, believing ‘gentile’ to be some special fourth kind of Jew—and in a way, that’s exactly what he meant. We weren’t very observant. My father didn’t read Torah. He was fluent in Yiddish but had only learned it so he could listen to his parents gossiping about him. On Friday nights, no glistening braids of challah adorned our table, no candles were lit, no wives sang.
Yet we were still undeniably Jewish. During trips to visit my mother’s family in southern Virginia, my father was often the subject of gawking. He resembled Santa Claus’s cousin from the other side of yiddishkeit: tall and hefty, with a mane of grey hair and a long grey beard. He liked to joke that he looked like Nazi propaganda of a Jewish person, a joke which never failed to make non-Jews squirm—Jews, of course, do not have one universal physical appearance, but non-Jews (and racist Jews who are determined to erase non-European Jews) certainly love to remind us that they think otherwise. One genteel older woman put a hand on my father’s arm at dinner once and told him how very sorry she was that the Holocaust had happened. In typical gadfly fashion, he responded, “Ma’am, thank you, but it would really mean more coming directly from Hitler.”
It wasn’t always the case that a secular Jewish existence warranted self-conscious jokes about being a gentile. At the turn of the twentieth century, secular Jewish communities were arguably as numerous and as “Jewish,” in their way, as religious ones. As writer April Rosenblum describes turn of the century Jewish life in her wonderful essay “Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: The Decline of Actively Secular Jewish Identity in the 20th Century United States”: Secular Jewish schools provided children with education in regular academic subjects as well as in Jewish history, Yiddish language and literature, and social justice ideals. One could read a multitude of Yiddish newspapers, sing in choruses, join activist organizations and live in apartment buildings, all created by and for secular Jews.
This secular Jewish culture shared one major commonality with the JCC ice cream socials and laissez-faire bar mitzvahs of my own childhood: Jewishness was in the air, so to speak, while religious solemnity was not. But then, the secular culture outlined in Rosenblum’s essay differs in one critical way from the aggressively laidback Jewish gatherings of my youth: One predates the Holocaust, and the other was formed in reaction to it. In other words, Jews who gathered in the year 1890 to sing Yiddish socialist hymns and play baseball were not haunted by the same ghosts that tormented the later Jews who decided that Jewish activities had better look as clean-cut and American as possible, just in case. Hell, most secular Jews in 2020 couldn’t sing in Yiddish if they wanted to; the language’s fluent speakers were decimated by the Shoah.
I know plenty of secular Jews who would like a closer relationship with the religion of their ancestors, and plenty, too, who are indifferent to it. Most of this group were raised in casual Reform congregations whose solemn holiness was overshadowed by a frantic desire to get Jewish bodies in the room at any cost, using the same gimmicks employed by congregations everywhere (acoustic guitar singalongs, perhaps a dusty air hockey table in the synagogue rec room). On Friday nights, no glistening braids of challah adorned our table, no candles were lit, no wives sang. Yet we were still undeniably Jewish.
I now work for Orthodox Jews who come from a very different background in every way imaginable. They have money and I do not; they own their homes and I probably never will. But the earthly differences between me and my employers are less painful for me than the glaring spiritual one: They grew up steeped in Jewish tradition and scholarship, and I did not. Their relationship with our shared religion lives comfortably close to the surface. Should they desire to learn more (a desire that’s seemingly common to Jews, religious or not), the building blocks are immediately available to them. They share a community that encourages religious ideation; their lives are underpinned by decades of religious education.
And then there’s me, inscribing Yiddish letters into my copybook in a child’s halting scrawl, desperate to learn my family’s language but humiliated to be tackling it at a toddler’s level. Unwilling to expose my baby’s-first-Yiddish to mockery from people who actually speak it, I hide my study from the devout Jews in my office, laboring over my exercises in my local dive bar and lying to my coworkers about the class I take on Mondays. And Yiddish is a secular tongue, even. To delve into the glorious mysticism, the ancient traditions, the meaning within even the most arbitrary-seeming halacha, the thing, whatever it is, that brings tears to old men’s eyes as the Torah is passed around the room during a service . . . I’d be starting not even as a toddler, but as a newborn. How can I place the burden of my lifelong religious cluelessness on my people? And if I do indeed feel that it would be a burden, can I even call them my people?
At the register recently, my cashier surprised me by going off-script. “I dig your tattoos,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said and, feeling it inadequate, followed up with, “I like your shirt.”
The cashier’s dress was a blend of styles. He wore a backwards Mets cap every day, under which I knew he also wore a kippah. Poking out from his Harley-Davidson T-shirt were the expected tzitzit , as well as a second long-sleeved T-shirt, early-2000s-style. When I’d first begun working in the neighborhood, I had been surprised at how rarely I saw the austere black suits that I’d always considered the Orthodox men’s uniform, and then I had been ashamed at myself for being surprised. Surely I, of all people, should have known that a Jewish person can look any which way.
“Thanks—I actually have a Harley. My parents hate it,” he confessed. “It’s a compromise. I can ride the bike but no tattoos. But yours are cool. I wish I had chill Jewish parents like that. Your folks are chill, right?”
“Pretty chill, I guess,” I said, surprised. Not that he’d noticed I was Jewish; people did notice, particularly the chipper gentlemen of New York’s infamous Mitzvah Tanks. More that he’d considered it obvious enough to casually drop it into conversation, an instant and unremarkable connection between us. It was much more common for people to ask if I was Jewish, always in a conspiratorial murmur, as if they were asking if I knew who’d killed the butler.
“Have you ever been on a motorcycle?”
I told him that I had, once.
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
I conceded that it was. In truth, motorcycles had never been my thing, any more than skydiving or roller coasters had—I had never craved adrenaline. But I enjoyed the young man’s warmth and excitement, and his willingness to horrify his non-chill Jewish parents with his bike.
My pizza came out of the oven and he boxed it up for me. “Let me know if you ever want to go for a ride,” he said. Then, maybe realizing how it sounded, he quickly added, “Not in a weird way! Not like that! Just, you know. The wind in your hair and whatnot.”
“Yes,” I said, touched by the impropriety of the invitation and the genuine kindness that seemed to motivate it. “The wind in my hair.”
And I walked on air all the way back to my office, where I ate my terrible kosher pizza with more enthusiasm than ever before.
Look, I’m an imperfect Jew—a gentile to this day. I never go to shul and I can’t remember the last time I lit a shabbat candle. When I recite prayers, words stick in my mouth and I want to cry, so estranged do I feel from the most elemental aspects of my religion. I long to embark on a course of religious education that I simply can’t manage at this stage of my life. I’m too busy and struggling too much, and every Friday evening when I hear the Shabbos sirens, it strains my heart. Remember that famous song from Fiddler on the Roof , “If I Were A Rich Man”? Sure, Tevye wants a nicer house and better livestock, but what he yearns for most fervently is the time and ability to read Torah with the learned men.
When I recite prayers, words stick in my mouth and I want to cry, so estranged do I feel from the most elemental aspects of my religion.
So, okay. My god is distant from me at this moment. I have to accept that for the time being, and hope, I suppose, for a calmer future in which I have time to engage in a deeper way with my religion.
But in the meantime, my cashier saw me. He made contact on a deliberately Jewish plane. I can’t imagine that it meant much to him—he’s a chatterbox, that guy, which is why the line at Alfie’s is always so unmanageable, and I imagine he’s warm and congenial with everybody. But it reminded me that while my religion may be distant from me at this moment in my life, my membership from Judaism will not be revoked any time soon. I am still bound to these people, regardless of the limited ways in which I’m able to share our traditions with them; I am no gentile, but a Jew, with chill Jewish parents, who doesn’t care for motorcycles and loves the pepper-and-onion slice at Alfie’s.