Kosher Pizza?

This is the first post in a series about kosher pizza and related topics.

In 1985, a journalist by the name of Frank Rossi unknowingly walked into a kosher pizzeria. Rossi, described by a colleague as a “gentle-fingered writer who liked the street, not the office” wrote about his experience in his Philadelphia Inquirer column.  As Rossi’s experience is emblematic of many other newspaper articles relating the discovery of kosher pizza, I will quote much of what he wrote.

Rossi: “The sign read Petom Pizza. Interesting name; didn’t sound Italian. Must be Greek[i]. I was hungry, and I needed something quick. Inside, there were two other men besides myself, and both wore yarmulkes. That wasn’t surprising. The place is in the Northeast (section of Philadelphia), and the Northeast has a large Jewish population[ii].

I looked up at the menu: Pizza, regular and Sicilian; calzone, stromboli, antipasto, ziti, lasagna, falafel, Israeli salad, knishes, kasha and Coke – small, medium and large. If you’re a little confused, so was I. I mean, I’d never been in a pizza shop, even in a Jewish neighborhood, where they sold falafel, knishes and Israeli salad. I was starting to get a disoriented feeling, like I’d taken my Chrysler to a Ford dealer for repairs.

Then I saw that the guys who were making the pizzas were wearing yarmulkes, too, and they didn’t have names like Vinnie or Franco. They were Mayer and Mark – it said so on their shirts. One of the kids working the counter asked what I’d like. “Could you give me another minute?” I said.

Finally, I asked the kid what the story was. He smiled. “This is a kosher pizza shop,” he said. I’d never gone into a delicatessen and asked for a slice of pizza, but here I was in a pizza joint ordering a spinach knish.”

Frank Rossi was far from the first person, Jewish or not, to be bemused and surprised by the phenomenon of kosher pizza.  The first kosher restaurants serving pizza opened in 1959.  Both restaurants, Levy Brothers Kosher Pizza and Zion Kosher Pizza, opened in neighborhoods of Brooklyn with large Jewish populations, Brownsville and Borough Park.  Their clientele were Orthodox and other Jews who observed or were sensitive to the religious proscriptions of kashrut, colloquially known as ‘keeping kosher.’ The proprietors of these restaurants were both members of New York’s small Yemenite Jewish community and they also served falafel, a food of Middle Eastern origin which was quickly growing in popularity in Israel but not well known in the United States[iii].   

Kosher pizzerias quickly spread throughout New York’s Jewish neighborhoods.  By 1965, at least six kosher pizzerias could be found in three of New York’s boroughs, not only in residential neighborhoods with large Orthodox populations but on the Lower East Side and the increasingly Hasidic section of Williamsburg.  In addition to serving pizza, these restaurants supplemented their menu with dairy and pareve foods available at other kosher dairy food venues, especially knishes which had been sold by knisheries and street vendors in New York for half a century.

In the early seventies, a sociologist wrote that in New York “kosher pizza and falafel stores, usually run by Israelis, are the newest fashion in Jewish neighborhoods. They serve particularly as a meeting place for the young, similar to the old neighborhood candy store.[iv]” Caterers, synagogues and youth groups made their own kosher pizzas at special events in communities that lacked a pizzeria.  As kosher pizzerias became better known, especially in places where Jewish teens and college students socialized like Yeshiva University, the demand for kosher pizza and falafel increased, spreading outside New York and its suburbs to other Jewish communities like Toronto (1969), Chicago (1972), Jerusalem (1972), Tel Aviv (1972), San Francisco (1973), Detroit (1974), Philadelphia (1974), Melbourne (1975), Cleveland (1975), Pittsburgh (1976), Los Angeles (1977), Miami (1978), Paris (1981) and Baltimore (1984.)

Image in an Philadelphia Inquirer article, comparing Haifa’s street food to Philadelphia’s, 1984

The success of these new pizzerias and dairy restaurants varies. In Philadelphia, for example, Petom Pizza had been preceded by a short-lived venture called Italo-Israeli Kosher Pizza.  A nearby Israeli restaurant called Tel Aviva Pizzeria and Restaurant, which was not kosher, perhaps took away some of Petom Pizza’s potential business.   In addition, Petom Pizza was located in the Rhawnhurst neighborhood, whose Jewish population was declining, as younger families moved to outer suburbs. Petom Pizza attempted to attract vegetarians and offered gluten-free pizza, but disappears from newspaper records soon after Rossi’s visit in 1985. 

Frank Rossi noted the fluctuating demand for kosher pizza in his column.  In his words: “Petom Pizza is the only kosher pizza shop in the Delaware Valley…(some) Orthodox Jews are driving two hours for a pizza. Unless you’ve lived with such food restrictions- dietary, religious or otherwise- it might be hard for you to understand. Following kosher is more than a religious expression; it’s a way of life.”

Rossi concluded his column with the controversial declaration that Petom Pizza’s slice was one of the best he had ever tasted, almost as good as his Italian American grandmother’s[v].  This comment drew a backlash of disbelief from several readers who responded to the column with scornful letters, one group of writers declaring that they had thrown their half-eaten pizza slices from Petom’s Pizza in the trash. 

Susan Glickman, however, a patron of Petom Pizza responded that she  was happy with Rossi’s thoughtful perspective and added “there’s something for everyone at Petom, as witness the number of non-Jewish patrons enjoying lunch, dinner or “noshes.[vi]”  By the early 21st century, most kosher pizzerias would also serve sushi and some would offer items as varied as burritos, vegetarian ropa vieja and lecso, depending on their location and staff.  More than a half century after pizza became kosher, questions of it’s Jewish culinary and cultural identity, the appropriateness of interactions between patrons in kosher restaurants and debates over the quality of the food served would remain on the menu.


[i] Petom is Hebrew for ‘instant’ or ‘sudden.’

[ii] Frank Rossi “A Place To Get Kosher Pizza” Philadelphia Inquirer November 13, 1985

[iii] Felafel in New York was first served in a Jewish venue at Habibi, an Israeli café in Manhattan open from 1950 to 1953 and then at Café Sahbra, an Israeli nightclub that opened in 1957.  Falafel is documented as having been served at Lebanese restaurants in Brooklyn in the sixties but surely was eaten earlier. The opening of Mamoun’s Falafel in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1971 by a recent immigrant from Syria, brought felafel to a broader audience.

[iv] Kranzler, George The Face of Faith: An American Hassidic Community Baltimore Hebrew College Press, 1972.

[v] Rossi’s roots stemmed from an Italian working-class family who lived in Scranton.  Rossi defended the quality of Petom Pizza’s cheese slice (but not it’s knishes) in a rebuttal column titled “Pizza, knishes and sweat suits”, published on November 29, 1985 which included Susan Glickman’s letter.

No medal? Cheer for that country.

71 National Olympic Comittee’s (nations and territories) have not won an Olympic medal, but some have come closer than others.

When Kirani James won a gold medal at the Olympics, his nation of Grenada was ecstatic. Grenada, a nation home to 107,000 residents had now joined many of its island neighbors as nations or territories with Olympic medals.

The celebratory messages poured into the GrenadianConnection.com website with sentiments such as: “thanks for taking us to new heights”, “we Grenadians are celebrating our first world championship”, “Grenada is now visible on the map because of our excellent performance”, “we may be small but can produce great things”, “it’s time to celebrate Kirani with a postage stamp.”

Mr. Killa, a soca musician who frequently makes music related to current events, made “Kirani City” a song to honor James and Gouyave, the town they both grew up in.

Like a Greek bard in the original Olympics, Mr. Killa (whose real name is Hollice Mapp) sings of the glories of Kirani and their town “Gouyave City, where the champion from” and brags “The U.S sweet, but Grenada sweeter, Grenada sweet but Gouyave sweeter”, a reminder that countries that compete at the Olympics are of vastly different sizes. 

In the video for this song, Kirani leaves the modest pink house he grew up in, hugs his parents and ventures forth from his fishing village to the world stage.  A bonfire blazes on the beach, men walking on stilts wave the Grenadan flag, women dance in festive clothing and the people of Gouyave chant Kirani’s name.  

People watch the Olympics in various ways.  I like to focus on the countries that have won no or few medals in the hope of enjoying moments like Kirani James’ win for Grenada. 2016 was a good Olympic for that: Fiji, Gabon, Jordan, Togo and a few other countries won medals for the first time.

Map of Countries with no Olympic medals

Of the 206 National Olympic Comittees competing, 71 have not won medals.  Some have come really close. Honduras was a goal away from a bronze medal. Mali’s athlete got injured and couldn’t compete in the bronze medal match. San Marino was knocked down to fourth by a three-way tie for second place.

Many more have at least made the finals and some surprisingly small delegations at least had an athlete qualify for the next round of an event. 

Only about fifteen nations have never really had an athlete advance in any Olympic competition.

It is worth noting that most nations with few medals have won them in a handful of sports like athletics, weightlifting, and boxing, not in sports like fencing or horseback riding. 

So while most people look at the top of the medal count, I think the more interesting stories are the bottom.

My pick for which country will win a medal for the first time? Burkina Faso.

Hugues Fabrice Zango, an athlete from this West African nation holds the indoor world record for the triple jump and has won several competitions.

Will Zango put Burkina Faso into the world’s consciousness for a moment? I’ll be rooting for him and suggest you do as well.

Fourth Place Finishers

Republic of Congo: Franck Elemba was 0.17 metres away from winning a bronze medal in the Men’s Shot Put in 2016.

Honduras: Also in 2016, Nigeria’s men’s soccer team beat Honduras by a goal in the bronze medal match to win its second Olympic medal in the sport.

Mali: In 2012, Daba Modibo Keita had to withdraw from the bronze medal match in men’s 80kg + taekwondo competition due to injury.

Myanmar: Kay Thi Win narrowly lost third place in women’s 48g weightlifting, to Indonesia’s Sri Indiyani.

Nicaragua: The United States thumped the Central American nation in bronze medal match of 1996, beating them 23-2.

San Marino: Alessandra Perilli was knocked down to 4th in Women’s Trap Shooting in 2012 after a three-way tie for second place.

Finalists:

Albania: Two male weightlifters, Briken Calja and Ilirjan Suli finished fifth in 2016 and 2000 Olympics, respectively.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Nedzad Fazlija placed sixth in the men’s 50m rifle prone competition in 2000.

Cayman Islands: Cydonie Mothersille made the women’s 200m finals in 2008 and finished eighth.

Madagascar: Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa was a finalist for the 100-meter race in 1968 and finished eighth.

Oman: Mohammed Al-Malky was a finalist in the men’s 400-meter race in 1988 and finished eighth.

Papua New Guinea: Ryan Pini was a finalist for the men’s 100-meter butterfly swimming, finishing eighth.

Rwanda: Mathias Ntawulikura finished eighth in the men’s 10000-meter race in 1996.

Sierra Leone: Eunice Barber finished fifth in the 2000 women’s heptathlon.  

Somalia: Abdi Bile finished the men’s 1500-meter race in sixth place in 1992.

St. Kitts & Nevis: Kim Collins came in sixth in the men’s 100-meter dash in 2004 and the 200-meter dash in 2008.

Turkmenistan: Umurbek Bazarbayev was a 6th finisher in the men’s 62kg weightlifting competition in 2004 and 2012.

Nations that have had an athlete qualify for the semi-finals of an Olympic competition: Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, Benin, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominica, Gambia, Guam, Lesotho, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Nations where an athlete has finished between ninth and fifteenth place in a competition: Andorra, American Samoa, Angola, Chad, Kiribati, Malta, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Nepal, Seychelles.