An owner of the restaurant formerly known as Jezebel says the idea to ditch the biblical troublemaker’s name was decided before the Orthodox Union took over kosher certification last week.
“The notion that the change was forced on us is completely incorrect,” Henry Stimler said in a phone interview Tuesday night, five days after the pricey downtown eatery became JSoHo. (It will also be known in shorthand as The J.)
“We went in, from the first minute, and understood that to have the OU there, there has to be some change,” Stimler said. “We started the conversation with that.”
In a letter to investors that was obtained by the website Kosher Today, Stimler and his partner, Menachem Sendrowicz, described the change as one of two “concessions” to the OU; the other was the removal of non-mevushal, or uncooked, wines from the menu.
Last week Rabbi Moshe Elefant, head of the OU’s kosher supervision department told The Jewish Week, “We felt the name Jezebel does not represent a person who has a positive reputation in the Tanach [Bible] and was not a name we want to promote.”
In the interview Tuesday, Stimler did admit that in addition to the name and wine change, he also, at the request of the OU, removed a few pieces of art from the restrooms that might be considered risqué.
A range of people commenting on The Jewish Week’s website this week, after the paper published an article on the name change, debated about whether the changes were reasonable or a case of rabbinic overreach.
“The Talibanization of Judaism is in full force,” said one commenter, using a false Hebrew name.
Another commenter said the proprietors “wanted the additional business that [OU certification] would generate. If so, it is their responsibility to raise themselves up to the standards of the certifying agency not for the agency to drop theirs.”
Stimler said the name of the ancient queen — who promoted pagan worship in Israel in the ninth century B.C.E. — had proven controversial among patrons, who joked that they may as well have called it Hitler or Haman. “When we came up with it we thought it was cool and funny and tongue-in-cheek,” said the 33-year-old London native, for whom this is a first-time business venture.
“We set out to do something different,” Stimler continued. “You have to adapt. We never went into it with the intention of p—ing people off. We wanted to take kosher dining to another level of ambience. That was our goal and is still our goal.”
The name, he said, was meant to evoke not the biblical character but a 1938 film, “Jezebel,” which starred Bette Davis and was set in the post-Civil War South.
“There is a scene where, in a sea of white, she is wearing red,” said Stimler. In the same way, “among normal kosher restaurants we wanted to make quite a bit of a splash.” But although he is Orthodox and has a yeshiva education, Stimler said he underestimated the implications of invoking the ancient temptress, whose name is often associated with loose morals.
Mashgichim, or certifying agents (they need not be rabbis), and the agencies that employ them are increasingly emboldened to look beyond the kitchen at an establishment’s general atmosphere, says Menachem Lubinsky of Lubicom, a marketing firm that deals extensively with the kosher industry.
“This is not a new debate,” he said, noting that back in the early 1990s a floating restaurant called Glatt Yacht that plied the Hudson lost its certification because mixed dancing took place on board.
In Israel, he notes, kosher hotels are under pressure not to allow check-ins on Shabbat. But in the past few years, he noted that the OU has become particularly stringent about the ambience of establishments seeking their certification. Mevushal wines, proper décor and the type of entertainment are all factors that are considered.
Across the East River from JSoHo, another kosher eatery, the trendy Basil in Crown Heights, has seen supervision taken to a whole new level. The New York Times reported in 2010 that OK Laboratories, which certifies the restaurant, expressed concern about the level of clothing modesty by female patrons and how couples at the bar behaved — even requesting access to security cameras to keep an eye on things.
Lubinsky said it is, on one hand, a matter of these agencies protecting the brand that is displayed in the store window — many, like the OU have a recognizable symbol — but it was also protecting the reputation of the mashgiach on duty. “They don’t want to put a rabbi in a [kitchen] and say he has blinders on and doesn’t see anything else that goes on,” he said.
Lubinsky, who dined at Jezebel before the changes, said the ambience “was different and meant to be different — to reach a wider audience of what I would say are young professionals that are in the fast lane. They keep kosher but also want some attributes of the popular culture.”
So, where does an owner draw the line? Can a mashgiach require that diners ritually wash their hands and recite grace after their meals?
“It all boils down to the character of the ownership,” Lubinsky said. “It’s not how customers behave, it’s what kind of establishment the owners are setting up.”
Stimler said he had no fault with the original kosher supervision, Rabbi Aaron Mehlman of National Kosher Supervisions, but found it was not well known enough to appeal to a wide audience. He said there was no difference in the cost and that the same mashgichim are still on duty in the kitchen.
Stimler said the seven months since the restaurant opened have been difficult, particularly in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in October, but he was optimistic that JSoHo is on the right track, with a new name, new chef, new catering director and the new certification. On the first night open under the OU, they served 158 meals, up from an average of 115 to 120. “The Orthodox community is now embracing the restaurant,” he said.
Admitting that JSoHo was a blander name, Stimler said, “If you are defined by a name, you have problems. The important thing is that people have a great time and enjoy and come back.”