Who Wants Pizza! 

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Yesterday, I quoted Prof. Jack Wertheimer of JTS, who was very gracious and informative, about Hansen’s Law. However, that was just one of many profound observations he shared about the resurgence of observant Judaism in the 1960’s. Here’s actually, my favorite: 

They also invested in summer camps and even pizza parlors. One can’t minimize the effect of kosher pizza. 

Yeah, effect on the community and my waistline. Rav Shalom Gold talked about building the first modern Eruv in the US, and he built a mikve in West Hempstead, but he added: 

One more thing to make West Hempstead a successful Jewish community: I got a Pizza parlor to open up. 

And Rav Reuven Bulka, discussed with me the passion for Torah which sparked the renewal, but then exclaimed: 

Don’t underestimate the Power of Pizza. 

So, let’s talk Kosher pizza. 

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Personally, given a choice, I’d prefer a Kosher Chinese restaurant for my neighborhood. There’s a long history of Jews and what we call Chinese food. Today, it seems that Jews have a love affair with Sushi. But back in the 60’s, Pizza was the pioneer.

Pizza was really the no-brainer, because the ingredients are so easy to replicate as Kosher. Plus, it lends itself more to hanging out. It gave Jewish teens a social outlet, which hadn’t previously existed. Also, for youth groups after a Saturday night activity, what’s easier or more appreciated than pizza? In NCSY, we went through, literally, tons of pizza! 

There is some debate over which was the first Kosher pizza parlor in the US. One claim is that it was on 13th Ave in Boro Park and owned by Yemenites. I think the most popular story is that it was Levy’s Pizza on Pitkin Av in the East New York section of Brooklyn in 1959, that pizza is now known as Amnon Frozen Pizza. Another claimant is Meyer Mendelson also in Boro Park.  

Anyway, by the end of the 1950’s Kosher Pizza was available in NYC, and by the end of the 60’s it was widespread. By 1975, most modern orthodox couples would expect a pizza shop when scouting out Jewish neighborhoods to move to.  

Two quirky facts: When I lived in the US, most of the pizza shops were run by Israelis. When I made Aliya (for the first time) in 1983, most of the pizza shops were run by Americans. I have no significance for that reality. Maybe, immigrants open pizza shops. However, since I’m back in Israel, my pizza world has improved greatly, because Pizza Hut is Kosher (and often Mehadrin). But for some reason beyond my ken, most Domino’s Pizza shops in Israel aren’t Kosher. Sadly, I can’t do a taste test.  

Also, the Pizza Hut ‘roof’ looks like a hat, making Chareidim feel at home.

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But I think that the significance of Kosher Pizza shops goes beyond the social advantages of hanging out at the local Kosher Pizza Emporium. 

Back in the 50’s, the members of Orthodox shuls (remember up to 40% of them did’t buy Kosher meat regularly) observed Kashrut in 4 ways: 

  1. Totally ignored it (that was my family, except we didn’t drink milk with meat or eat bread on Passover).
  2.  Keep Kosher in the house, but totally ignore Kashrut when outside the home (I had relatives like that. The Kosher home was so that other family members would visit.)
  3. Keep Kosher in the house, but eat dairy, salads and fish at non-Kosher restaurants outside the home or on the road. This group was considered to be really keeping Kosher back in those more innocent days.
  4. Really observing Kashrut, maintaining the same standards everywhere, because God gets around. 

Kosher Pizza parlors were, eventually, the death knell for category #3. Once your neighborhood has a Kosher Pizza shop, and you support it, you’re moving towards category #4. Pizza (without sausage, of course) was, formerly, a go to item for people in category #3 when on the road. 

And that really happened. The changeover took longer in some areas, but by the 80’s and certainly the 90’s, category #3 was seen (when it even existed) as some dinosaur from a long-gone era. So, it’s true:  Don’t underestimate the Power of Pizza. 

When I went to YU in 1968, and started patronizing Chopsie’s, I never thought that I was joining this sociological phenomenon. I just thought that I had lowered my Pizza standards. What can I say, Italians do Pizza better (especially in Boston), but we’re working on it. 

Next: Did God Die in 1966?  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.