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Sally Berkovic

Bendicks at risk: can Anglo-Jewry survive this bittermint crisis?

Courtesy George Redgrave - https://www.flickr.com/photos/funfilledgeorgie/

I was wooed by my newly-minted husband over a Bendicks bittermint. As a foreign bride, the hazing ritual on my first Friday night dinner in London left a deep scar. There I was, stuffed from an abundance of over-cooked brisket and under-roasted potatoes, when a glass of lemon tea was offered. And then, THE BOX came out. Forest-green, with an elegant gold trim.

BENDICKS Mint Collection – ‘our expertly crafted collection of dark mint chocolates, including our famous Bittermint.’  And, and…By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, noch.

What parallel world had I entered?

THE BOX was ceremoniously opened and passed around. According to Minhag Anglia [the laws of Anglo-Jewry, codified in the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753] it became an established custom to have a Bendicks mint after Friday night dinner. [There is a debate as to whether they should also be served at Shabbat lunch].

The beauty of these royally appointed Bendicks chocolates is that they are pareve – meaning they are not dairy and so, according to the laws of kashrut, can be eaten after said brisket. Having a Bendicks has come to symbolise fitting into English aristocracy. Having a Bendicks is the ultimate synthesis of your Jewish identity and your British identity. However, as I was not yet accustomed to the etiquette required in the shtetl of Golders Green, I demurred and passed THE BOX to the woman sitting next to me. And that’s when the trouble started.

Don’t you want one? she asked.

No thanks.

Oh. But you must, she insisted. These are my favourite, she said, picking up a thin round chocolate encased in light green shiny crinkly foil.

Go on Sally, said the man opposite me. Take the Bittermint – that’s the big one in the middle. They are the best.

My newly-minted husband kicked me, ever so gently, under the table. Turns out he really wanted it.

OK, I’ll take the long one, I said, lifting it from the side of THE BOX.

My newly-minted husband took the big Bittermint.

And so began my love affair with Bendicks. Every Friday night for the last 30 years, there’s been THE BOX on the table – either THE BOX brought as a gift, or THE BOX I’ve bought in bulk when they are on sale.

But there’s a crisis unfolding that cuts to the core of this dual identity – while Anglo-Jewry has been under siege since October 7th, nothing has galvanised the community more that this week’s announcement that Bendicks intends to drop the kosher certification for all their mint chocolates.

On the useful Facebook page of the Kashrut division of the London Beth Din, they tell their grateful readers that they are working hard to convince Bendicks to continue with kosher certification. They urge  consumers to contact Bendicks via their website to express their disappointment. At the same time, Bendicks acknowledges their own pain and provides some context for their decision:

Kosher certification has been an integral part of our Bendicks brand and its success, and we remove the logo with heavy hearts…The decision not to seek future Kosher re-certification was a complex one and made as a result of necessary changes at our production facility.

The good news is that all Bendicks Mints remain certified Parev when produced before March 2024, but the bad news is that stockpiling has already begun and there are rumours that supermarkets will limit the number of boxes that a customer can buy.  If you’re quick, you can still order them on Amazon with prime delivery – arrival before Christmas guaranteed.

Facebook is buzzing with comments – and it’s clear that a team of trauma specialists will need to be convened to handle the psychological fallout. At such a difficult time, this decision by Bendicks has pushed people to the edge. Emotions are high and there is much talk of conspiracy theories and sanctions. Young children have been tasked with saying psalms and groups of women have rallied to bake challah in the merit of preserving Bendicks as a kosher brand.  There’s even talk of commissioning a Sefer Torah, the situation is so bad. Interestingly, an economics professor highlighted the circular economy of the trade in Bendicks and as one consumer noted:

The 8-10 boxes of Bendicks in my cupboard (fully hechshered) can circulate in my neighbourhood unopened for a good year, I reckon. If each box gets passed on on average five times without being opened (rough guess) that’s gifts for around 50 Shabbat meals taken care of right there before anyone has to worry about the change in the label.

Further, the performative nature of THE BOX has been overlooked in this discussion. As one colleague wrote to me in a frantic WhatsApp exchange  And what do we do with our hands Friday night without the Bendicks wrapper to smooth and sculpt?  Oh, how my heart aches for the little kiddush cups we made out of the foil wrappers.

I took THE BOX out of the pantry. It’s best before March 2024. I smelt it. I caressed it.  The reader should know there four types of mint – the mint fondant, the dark English mint, the chocolate mint crisp and the iconic bitterment. I tried to find meaning in this brutal assault on our collective identity.

Four types of mints, I thought to myself.  How interesting…. there’s the four children and four questions of the Haggadah, four cups of wine at the Passover seder, tzitzit – the four-fringed garment, four compartments of the tefillin, the four matriachs.

Four types of mints, I muttered to myself. Ah, the four species that we bring together on Succot. A traditional interpretation suggests the etrog represents the person who studies Torah and fulfills the mitzvot, the lulav is the one who studies Torah but does not perform mitzvot, the myrtle is the person who observes mitzvot but does not study Torah, while the willow represents a Jew who neither studies Torah nor observes mitzvot. All these are bound together and must be ceremoniously shaken together, highlighting that every Jew is equal with integral value, irrespective of their knowledge or practice. It is a message of compassion and shared destiny.

Four types of mints. With wise leadership, communal resolve, outstanding negotiation skills and empathy for the competing forces at play, there’s still a chance that the Bendicks crisis could be averted. Minhag Anglia must be preserved for the unity of Anglo-Jewry is at stake.

I can still recall that first Friday night as a new bride from a faraway land, welcomed into the home of friends of my newly-minted husband. There are still things I don’t quite understand about Anglo-Jewry, but I know now that my favourite Bendicks is the chocolate mint crisp. I also know that even if our prayers and our lobbying are successful and Bendicks decides to remain kosher, those four types of mint will never taste quite the same.

The threat is real. The existential crisis is on our doorstep. I implore you – do everything you can to help. For this much is true – if we lose THE BOX of Bendicks, we will lose a part of our soul.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic's latest publication, Death Duties, focusses on her involvement with the Chevra Kadisha and is available via her website. https://sallyberkovic.com/ and fishburnbooks.com. Her book, Under My Hat is available on Amazon.com and in the UK, via the author. Reflecting on Orthodoxy and feminism, the 2019 edition includes a new, 75-page introductory essay reviewing the extraordinary changes in Orthodox women’s lives since Under My Hat was first published in 1997. She is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.
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