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The bagels are kosher, but not the Saturday hours

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / May 30, 2008

SWAMPSCOTT - Kosher or not kosher?

For Bernard Newman, whose family has owned a seaside kosher bakery for 43 years, the debate over upholding Jewish law has reached Talmudic proportions in recent days. Even though Newman has kept kosher all of his life, and has always used kosher ingredients in his bakery, the primary Jewish organization in the state that recognizes kosher establishments says that for now, Newman's bakehouse is not kosher.

Newman's Bakery holds a special distinction in the region: It is the last Jewish-owned bakery in the state that holds a kosher approval rating by the Rabbinical Council of Massachusetts despite being open for business on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. The council had granted approval to some kosher bakeries decades ago, but they've all either closed or changed their business hours.

Last week, though, the council changed its policy and gave Newman's an ultimatum: Close on Saturdays or lose kosher approval.

"God said you should keep the Sabbath, you know, and we felt that with the store being open on Shabbos, we just didn't want to continue on," explained Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, director of the council, using the Hebrew word for Sabbath.

But Newman insists the dictum is inconsistent with a ruling that the same group made more than a half a century ago, and says he'll continue to keep his bakery open on the Sabbath with their kosher approval or not. "It's hypocrisy," Newman said. "How can we be kosher one day and not kosher the next day?"

The dispute centers on whether the bakery can honor two commandments: keeping kosher and not working on the Sabbath. Newman wants to stay open on Saturdays and still keep the kosher designation, because he needs the business.

To meet kosher law, the bakery does not serve meat and uses only kosher ingredients in its bagels, pastries, and dairy treats. Under the council's policy, trained inspectors enter Jewish eateries and review all products and ingredients to make sure they are kosher.

The order to shutter Newman's on Saturday, or lose its kosher designation, has caused a stir among Newman's customers, and angered Newman, who drives a Toyota with the license plate CHALE - a nod to the bread eaten by Jews on the Sabbath.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Swampscott's Conservative Congregation Shirat Hayam criticized the council's decision, saying it's part of a cultural shift by observant Jews. "Traditional Judaism is moving so far to the right that it's making it virtually impossible to have good quality, accessible kosher products," said HaLevi, who will continue to allow Newman's food to be served in his synagogue.

"It comes down to loopholes and politics, power, and money, and it's a shame," HaLevi said.

Newman acknowledged that he could lose up to 10 percent of his business, which comes from local Jewish organizations in this heavily Jewish town on the North Shore, if he loses kosher approval.

Halbfinger, who has run the council for 29 years, said he could not explain the group's decades-old ruling. But Rabbi Mordechai Twersky, a Boston-area kosher-supervisor, said the decision to allow bakeries to open on the Sabbath occurred after union bakers balked at working a seven-day week and chose to work on Saturdays instead of Sunday. Others have a different recollection: They say the Rabbinical Council cited a loophole that allowed bakeries that could not afford to lose their Saturday business to stay open.

"I can't answer what was done before; I can only answer what we're doing now," Halbfinger said.

Newman said he could accept the council's ruling if the area's Jewish-owned kosher food manufacturers that make muffins, cakes, and cookies were also forced to close on Saturday.

When asked the logic behind that ruling, Halbfinger declined to explain the council's decision. "The laws are a lot different there, and maybe we'll reach that point someday also, but right now we're dealing with shops like this here, and this is the last one," Halbfinger said.

More than 60 years ago, dozens of Boston-area Jewish-owned kosher bakeries remained open on the Jewish Sabbath, and included Dorchester bakeries such as Kasanoff's and Eagerman's. After World War II, Newman's father, Joseph, learned the trade in Malden and Boston, and in the 1960s opened his small bakery across from picturesque Fishermen's Beach. At that time, kosher butchers and bakers dotted the streets of Lynn and Swampscott, but by the 1980s Newman's was one of the few kosher alternatives on the North Shore.

Newman's father, who is retired, said he understands the commandment of keeping the Sabbath, but questioned why the council allowed his bakery to stay open for 43 years on Saturdays.

"It's a disservice to the community," Joseph Newman said. "We played a role in people's daily lives and served them kosher food."

Over the years, the bakery became a magnet for local politicians and gadflies. Today, the sparsely decorated bakery has the same look and feel it had 30 years ago.

Bernard Newman, who is 59, worked as a paramedic but decided to follow his father and grandfather into the baking business. Newman, who often bakes while listening to talk radio, said there is a mystical aspect to making kosher food.

"I believe that kashrus [keeping kosher] is a discipline, it enriches you and makes you more holy. It's respect for the law, for Torah, for God," said Bernard Newman, whose customers have included Joan Kennedy, Johnny Pesky, and the late governor John Volpe.

At 6 a.m. he opens the bakery's doors, and by 7 he leaves to pray at a local synagogue. When he returns, he talks to the same customers who have been schmoozing in the bakery for years.

"I feel very good coming in here. The Newman's exemplify kosher food," said Marion Garfinkel of Swampscott, who has been shopping there for 41 years. Garfinkel urged the council to reconsider its decision.

But Halbfinger defended the ruling and said the council corrected a wrong. "We're doing a right thing. We're not extreme; Shabbos is not extreme," he said. "We're trying to keep tradition."

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com.

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