Denes Ban
Israeli tech entrepreneur-turned-investor on the weekly parshah

Kosher: Blessing or Curse?

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During my travels — especially, these past five years in Asia — by far one of my biggest challenges has been keeping kosher. Those of you who are working in the finance sector know only too well that wining and dining are a vital part of the client culture — and this is especially so in Asia. High-profile investors first want to get to know you on a personal level, and this nearly always includes hosting you in a relaxed setting and getting to know what makes you tick, your weaknesses, your strengths, and all your secrets. This is often accomplished by treating you to the very best food and drink in existence and hopefully overwhelming you with the beauty of the meal/evening and of course, getting tipsy.

Many people ask me how I actually keep kosher, especially while working with clients in Asia, where the cuisine is not exactly near the kosher diet (think of such delicacies as raw horse meat, turtle jelly, snake drowned in sake, etc., etc.); and there are really no kosher alternatives like one may find in NYC, London, or Paris.

I thought I would share with you what keeping kosher in such an environment has taught me; and how being kosher, although it may seem to be a real pain, actually has helped me to be more successful in my business. Here is one “Businessman’s Guide to Keeping Kosher in non-kosher dinner settings,” i.e., my humble take on how I’ve managed to deal with maintaining my Jewish integrity while in unfamiliar and challenging environments.

0. Always be preemptive — prepare the host in advance so that you don’t put them in an awkward situation. After I secure the meeting, and they suggest lunch or dinner, I always have my assistant or myself write a very polite email explaining that I am a Jew who observes our strict dietary laws. We usually work it out from there. (How you deal with where you go and what you do there is up to your own standard and relationship with the Halacha; for more guidance to your particular situation please ask your local rabbi, but being upfront is the name of the game).

1. Fun not affliction — Once you are at the restaurant, you will be surprised that many people are actually interested in learning about you and your diet. Make explaining your kosher diet exciting, fun and educational rather than something you are suffering through or trying to hide. The key is to strike the delicate balance of sharing the inspiring qualities of kosher without making others feel that you are preaching or inadvertently making them feel inferior because you are not touching their food (this can be somewhat challenging and definitely will develop your backbone for finesse!).

2. Education – speaking about kosher can be a great icebreaker and it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate your passion about a subject, show off your eloquence, sophistication, your depth and your intelligence by for ex quoting the Bible and science and explaining the depth of Judaism etc. Discussing a subject you know well and which someone else wants to learn about will break the ice and open doors for you and for your next – professional – topic, whatever it may be.

3. Health – if you look healthy and fit, use it to your advantage. People may connect the two “ohh you keep kosher that’s why you look so …” (while really you look fit because you have been “fasting” since that canned tuna you had yesterday 😉 Also, don’t destroy their notion of kosher being healthy, by bragging about your last Shabbat’s meal of tasty heimishe schnitzel, kishke, cholent, and kugel at the local Chabad or Jewish Center.

4. Spirituality – even the most secular people are interested in learning about self-discovery and growth. You will find that people are actually rather curious about the “secret of the Jews’ longevity and success” and of course the secret (and kosher!) sauce of Israel. Make it interesting to them, by, for example, telling them that by keeping these seemingly strange and restrictive laws, you connect to your ancestors across 5,000 years of history, given from father to son through generations and generations and you just can’t break the tradition; and for ex. how blessing the food can be a mindfulness exercise.

Perhaps also share with them how being able to say NO and developing your conscious thoughts surrounding immediate pleasure has helped you to become more principled and disciplined. Again, try to avoid mentioning the extra three energy bars you couldn’t say no to before leaving the hotel.

5. Wine – well that’s a hard one. My humble suggestion is to try to avoid the discussion and if, you have to, again try to emphasize those 1,000 years of traditions that comes with everything else: our education, our moral and ethical teachings, our obligation to give back (charity), leaving the corner to the poor etc. – and the fact that we can’t just pick and choose what we keep, wine is part of the package. This usually creates respect, especially from eastern clients who also have a cultural value of ancient traditions…trust me I’ve had to say “NO, thank you” to some of the best chateaus I have ever seen and all for FREE! (As the saying goes: what is the greatest Jewish dilemma? sausage at 50% off…)

And then, if they are still questioning you, I would suggest something like…“well let’s save something for next time. Do they have a good single malt here…?

Before listing the laws of Kashrut, this week’s parsha (Re’eh) begins by saying: “See, I set before you a blessing and a curse”. This is typically understood to mean that G-d gave the Jewish people TWO options – 1. a blessing OR 2. a curse – of which you must choose one. However, we may also interpret this to mean:

“Everything I set before you can be seen as BOTH a blessing and a curse”

i.e., they are not two distinct items but rather can be described as just one item, depending on you, on how you SEE things (which is actually the title of our parshah: Re’eh – means to see!). Thus, it is not that we have to choose between a blessing and a curse, but everything that happens to us carries with it the possibility to become a blessing or curse. It is in the eyes of the beholder; it is up to you how you see everything that happens to you and how you use challenges for opportunities.

In my Kosher practice what could have easily been only a curse has proved to be a big blessing, time and again.

A story from the field: Once, I was sitting in a lunch meeting with a potential investor and at the end he told me “hey you must be so disciplined and principled for saying no to this most amazing food and wine. So, if you can say no to all of this, you must also be the most disciplined and principled investor – I’m happy to invest with you.”

Another time, when I told another potential investor that I am kosher (after he offered me a live wiggling not-sure-what-it-was), he told me, by the way, I am also kosher. I said what? It was clear that the person was as far from kosher as one could be. He continued “you guys are smart, very smart; but I figured you out and I learned your trick: Every time I fly I choose kosher food, so I get the food first before everyone else…” We had a laugh and immediately became friends.

To summarize the juxtaposition of the parshah’s two ideas (the laws of kashrut and the choice between blessing and curse): 

  1. Being Kosher (and in fact any mitzvah, like Shabbat, fasting, praying, etc or any situation) can be seen both as a blessing and a curse. It is up to you what you do with every mitzvah or in fact with any situation in your life.
  2. Try to make the explanation of your commitment and difference exciting – try to bring in the spirituality, the health and the fun aspect to make it exciting and see it as a great ice-breaker opportunity.
  3. People respect people who respect themselves. By being proud of who you are, and especially sticking to your ideals when they are not popular or convenient, you will be respected even more.

Enjoy your meal!

About the Author
Denes Ban is the Managing Partner of OurCrowd, Israel’s leading venture capital fund. A serial entrepreneur turned serial investor, he founded and sold an HR company and co-founded PocketGuide, one of the world’s leading travel apps. Denes has lectured at Harvard, Kellogg, and INSEAD and trained thousands of CEOs and entrepreneurs around the world. After growing up without knowing he was Jewish, Denes found his way to a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and learned Torah for two consecutive years before returning to the business world. Now he uses his experiences representing Israel in Asia to share examples of what it can mean to be a Jew in the 21st c and writes a weekly blog that has spread to countless subscribers, combining the world of business, technology, philosophy, and psychology with his insights into Judaism and Zionism.
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