Friday, December 2, 2011

Buying Chicken in Bais Yisroel

Yesterday, a work-related presentation took me to Jerusalem, so I called my nephew currently learning in the Mir and asked him if I could stop by. My nephews have been learning there for over a year and I'd never visited to see the famous yeshiva, so I wondered if he'd give me a short tour. He (graciously) agreed - although he absolutely would not show me his apartment. I wonder what that means. (Actually I don't.)
As we walked around the confusing, labyrinthine alleyways of the Bais Yisroel neighborhood where the Mir yeshiva, I found myself thoroughly lost, although we were probably less than a five minute walk from Meah Shearim. He showed me three of the fourteen buildings that make up the Mir yeshiva, and I even walked into an enormous lunchroom where the second lunch shift was ending (at 3pm) That's where he listens to shiur, along with 700 other fellow shiur-mates. (His shiur is larger by far than most yeshivot in the world).
We wandered a bit, and then it was time to go. But before I could leave, I needed to daven minchah and pick up chicken. Another nephew is visiting for Shabbat, and he prefers chickens with a different hechsher than our normal one, so I needed to find a butcher that could accommodate his kashrut needs.
In Israel, you don't really buy chicken based on a brand. There's no discernible difference between brands, like buying Empire or Rubashkin (does that still exist?). You buy based on hechsher. At my grocery store, it's all rabbanut "mehadrin", but some people prefer "Verner" chickens, which they claim is a level up from that. Above that is Machpud (named after the rabbi who gives the hechsher), and above that is Rubin (you can guess why it's named that). I was told that my nephew prefers "Rubin", so that's what I set out to buy. I figured that near the Mir you'd have to be able to buy Rubin chickens. I was wrong.
First of all, my nephew could not identify a butcher in Bais Yisroel, which tells me that he's never bought a chicken there. I guess that's not that surprising. Yeshiva boys cook - eggs, pasta - but not real food. We stopped at a shtiebel and I asked a guy where to buy chicken, and he pointed to a small store right across the street. In I went and approached the man behind the counter for Rubin chickens.
Picture the scene: It's not the butcher store that you're accustomed to. Probably ten feet by ten feet, sparingly lit, on the left stood freezers, behind whose smeared glass sat various cuts of chicken and prepared products. At the "far" end of the store stood an industrial refrigerator, in front of which was a counter upon which a man was cutting up raw chickens. No display cases, probably because there's not much to display. They sell chickens. Prices were written in a neat chart on a piece of cardboard at the entrance to the store.
The shopkeeper, a stocky man with a large, bushy beard wearing a plastic apron, gave me the kind of look that said, "What?" That was my cue.
"Rubin chickens. Do you have Rubin?"
He sort of snarled at me, in a pitiful kind of way. With a sort of reserved sigh, he looked at me at said, "We don't sell Rubin here."
"Well then," I wondered, "what do you have?"
"We have Badatz, Eidah Chareidis."
The chicken neophyte that I am, I looked at my nephew and asked, "Will Yehuda (the other nephew) eat that?" He gave me a reassuring nod. Yes, he will. "Badatz is better than Rubin."
That's good to know. Information for life. So the hierarchy of chicken (of which I am aware - undoubtedly there are many more) is as follows (along with the population that eats it):
1. Rabbanut (Regular Israelis)
2. Rabbanut Mehadrin (Somewhat more stringent Religious Zionists. That's what I normally buy.)
3. Rabbanut Mehadrin Verner (RZ Chardal)
4. Machpud (Sephardim)
4b. Badatz Beit Yosef (for Chareidi Sephardim)
5. Rubin (Chareidi Ashkenazi)
6. Badatz (Machmir Chareidi Ashkenaz - although I think that the Rubin people think that they're machmir enough - if that's even possible) You can bookmark this post for when your relatives come for Shabbat! It's just a public service that I offer to you, my loyal readers.
Then came the time to pay. How much? My friend the shopkeeper says, "35 shekel a kilo." I knew it would be expensive, but that seemed really expensive. To explain, a little context.
The chicken that I buy (Rabbanut Mehadrin) is normally 18 shekel a kilo (bought whole, and cut up at the store. You have enough for dinner Friday night, shnitzel in the morning, and the bones for soup). But at Rami Levi, the store I shop in, if you buy them whole and cut them up yourself, you can almost always get them for about 10 shekel a kilo, which is really, really cheap. Being that I am cheap (er, thrifty), I cut up my own chickens. (Do the math: We eat at least 4 kilo of chicken a week, saving me at least 32 shekel weekly. Multiply that by 52 weeks a year adds up to a savings of at least 1,500 shekel a year, just for cutting my own chickens! Not cheap. Smart!) In any case, this Badatz chicken was at least double the price of what I pay. (This is not a rant specifically about the Badatz chickens. People tell me that Rubin is equally expensive.)
Mind you, I'm not complaining for myself, far from it. I don't buy it often, and thank God, I can afford it.
But, in my description of the Mir neighborhood, I neglected to describe the other defining attribute of Bais Yisroel that simply jumps out at you. There are people collecting money for tzedakah literally everywhere you turn. In the Mir buildings, a guy was standing at the entrance collecting money, and had a credit card reader! (I was impressed!) At the shtiebel where everyone davens minchah (minyan every two minutes), no less than 5 people asked for a donation, one walking up to me (I was the "mark" - clearly out of place with my light blue shirt) shaking his hand in front of me for a good ten seconds. (I got the message. He wanted money.)
The neighborhood, by definition, (not including the "rich" foreign yeshiva boys) is marked by abject poverty.  This makes sense, as many of its inhabitants learn all day in the Mir, earning very, very little money. Even people who "have" money are poor by comparison. And, while I thank God that I've got a good job - as does my wife - and we support our family, it's not easy for us, by any stretch of the imagination. We watch what we spend, and try to save where we can (like cutting up my own chickens). I can't imagine what people in Bais Yisroel go through to try and skimp where they can. And still they don't blink an eye at paying between double and triple what I pay for chicken.
On one hand, I admire their dedication to kashrut and chumrah, and their willingness to sacrifice to uphold the highest standards of kashrut. But at the same time, the situation seems absurd. The very people who struggle most to simply put food on their table, adhere to such extreme strictness that astronomically increase the costs of their food. (I'm assuming here that  because of the heightened hashgachah it really does cost that much more.)
But, if you're familiar with halachah, you'd know that much of the leniency built into the laws of kashrut strongly accounts for cases of "need", and especially material need. If you can't afford it, halachah very much understands and allows for that. It does not make strict demands of the needy, giving them leeway in kashrut because of the economic hardships that stringency would impose.
Except today, that's not the case. Kulah has become "treif". Even "Rubin" gets a snarl, as it doesn't rise to the level of Badatz. So people collecting money to feed their families must collect that much more to feed their families with the most machmir, most expensive chicken that money can buy.