Kashering Arizona

As today’s kosher consumers in Greater Phoenix easily fill up shopping carts of various kosher goods at multiple local supermarkets and sample kosher cuisine from a choice of restaurants, it may be difficult to imagine a time when kosher food was nearly impossible to obtain.

The Arizona Jewish Historical Society’s current exhibit, “New Frontiers: Jewish Pioneers in the Arizona Territory,” provides an example of the challenges Jews faced before Arizona became a state:

“Like other Jews in the West, the Solomons chose family survival over religious tradition. Anna (Solomon, who moved to the West in 1876 with her husband and three young children) knew the danger of refusing to eat meat on the western frontier. Twenty years before her own journey west, her father, Louis Freudenthal, joined his brother in New Mexico Territory. He strictly followed Jewish dietary law and would not eat pork or poultry that was not ritually slaughtered and blessed by a rabbi. After three years of almost no protein in his diet, he was weak and sickly. He returned to Prussia, unable to succeed in the harsh landscape.”

It wasn’t until about a decade after Arizona statehood that there was any sign of improvement in the availability of kosher meat.

Arizona’s first kosher butcher was Rabbi Ydel Dow, who arrived in Tucson about 1925, according to the Jewish History Museum in Tucson. He and his wife, Bessie, ran a store and deli on South Stone Avenue there.

According to “Cholent & Chorizo,” a 1995 book by Abraham S. Chanin about pioneer Jews on the Arizona frontier, among the leaders who brought Dow to Tucson was Louis May, who owned what May referred to as a kosher restaurant in Tucson. May likely imported his meat from Los Angeles, according to the Tucson museum’s archives. Before Dow’s arrival, a non-Jewish Mexican butcher, Charlie Moreno, trained in kashrut by Chanin’s father, Isadore, devoted a portion in his store to kosher meat and kept it separate from the nonkosher meat.

In 1927, Dow moved to Phoenix and served as both a rabbi and a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, according to Chanin’s book.

Anita Gutkin of Scottsdale remembers that Dow “used to kill a chicken in our backyard and then burn the feathers. … Anyone who experienced this as a child remembers the special odor of the burnt feathers, not to mention the gyrations of the headless fowl.”

Gutkin, who grew up in an observant family, also remembers buying meat from “Katz the Butcher,” who always added halvah for her in the family’s order, she says.

Keeping kosher in a mining town

In the 1950s, Terri Swirnoff and her family lived in Ray – a small copper-mining town near Superior-Globe that is now the town of Kearny – where her father, Abe Morris, was the manager of the Kennecott Mining Company and her mother, Mildred Morris, entertained often.

“Nobody was Jewish, everything was kosher,” says Swirnoff, who now lives in Phoenix. “She’d have sit-down dinners for 50 people and it was all kosher.” Since her mother didn’t drive, someone drove her about once a month to Phoenix to purchase kosher food.

The drive from Ray to Phoenix took about an hour and a half each way, Swirnoff says. For “the first half-hour, we took Dramamine because it was this windy, unpaved road between Ray and Superior,” Swirnoff says. “We’d get carsick if we didn’t take the Dramamine.” In the early years, their car didn’t have air conditioning. During the monthly trip – which became more frequent once Swirnoff’s brother began bar mitzvah training at Beth El Congregation – her mom, after getting her hair done at a Phoenix salon, would shop at Kosher Star and take the food home on dry ice. “At home, she had a huge stand-up freezer and two refrigerators to keep all the food,” Swirnoff says.

Formal kosher supervision

Beginning in December 1959, an ad in the Phoenix Jewish News for David’s kosher market included a line stating, “We are under the supervision of the Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth.” An ad in the Aug. 26, 1960 issue went into further detail: “The Phoenix Vaad Hakashroth (sic) wishes to advise you that there are only three places of business entitled to carry kosher meat, poultry and delicatessen, and these are under the supervision of the Phoenix Vaad Hakashroth.” The stores listed were Ben’s Market, David’s market and Kosher Star and the rabbis were Rabbi Carol Klein of Beth El Congregation and Rabbi William Greenberg of Beth Hebrew Congregation. (The following month, the newspaper reported that David’s market was sold to Joseph and Lillian Hacker, who renamed the store El-Jay Kosher Meats.)

In November 1961, the owners of Kosher Star announced the opening of Dorman’s New York Kosher Restaurant, but no kosher supervision was mentioned.

It’s unclear how long this version of the Vaad existed, as Greenberg and Klein each left their congregations in 1962.

When Rabbi David Rebibo and his wife, Odette, first moved to Phoenix in 1965, they traveled frequently to Los Angeles to purchase meat and other kosher goods because there were no kosher-supervised meat markets or kosher baked goods, including bread, available in Phoenix. “My wife baked at least every other day,” Rebibo says. Soon after his arrival in Phoenix, he established the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth and brought in a shochet, Rabbi Leib Shifrin, who provided Phoenix’s kosher consumers with fresh kosher chickens. He also made an arrangement with Nosh-a-Rye, a nonkosher bakery, to kasher its facilities each week in order to bake kosher challah for Shabbat.

Rebibo says although he and the other rabbis in town, from the Reform and Conservative movements, may have disagreed on many things ideologically, “kashrut was a unifier” and they often worked together to address kosher issues. Laypeople who were very supportive in the Vaad’s early days were Joe Cohen and Jack Finkelstein, members of Beth El Congregation, and Mickey Sheinbein, who served as the agency’s president.

When storeowner Ben Meyer prepared to sell his Phoenix kosher market, Rebibo contacted Zalman Segal, a kosher butcher from Omaha, Neb., who purchased the store – at Fifth and Washington streets in downtown Phoenix – in 1967 and renamed it Segals.

“When I first came, there were just two meat markets,” Segal says. “None of the supermarkets carried much of any kosher food. … If anybody wanted any kosher food, they just about had to go to either Kosher Star or Segals.”

In 1970, Segals relocated to 16th Street and Thomas Road in Phoenix, which had five times the space of his previous location, according to a Dec. 11, 1970, Jewish News article.

By the early 1970s, some local supermarkets started carrying kosher food. “At first it was just the Passover foods,” Segal says. As the stores increased their kosher offerings, “our volume suffered quite a bit,” he says. “The more they started carrying it, the more it hurt us. People have a lot of choices today.”

In 1985, Segals opened up a second location, at Seventh Street south of Camelback Road, which was planned to be a restaurant only, Segal says. Although there were a few “kosher-style” restaurants at that time – Boman’s, Chompie’s Restaurant, Katz Delicatessen, Miracle Mile, Mel’s Deli and Purple Cow of San Carlos, based on ads published in the Jewish News in 1985 – Segal’s was the Valley’s first kosher-supervised sit-down restaurant.

“We had dreams that we were going to have a private room for parties and an outdoor garden eating area and that all fizzled out,” Segal says. “The potential party room became a warehouse and the garden became my freezer. … We thought the city was ready for a full-size (kosher) restaurant, but apparently it wasn’t.”

After running the two locations for nearly three years, Segals downsized the restaurant and moved the butcher shop and the kosher market to the Seventh Street location, where it is now. Segal sold his store and restaurant in 2006.

Other kosher Vaad milestones included the first kosher-supervised bakery, Karsh’s Bakery – “It was the first time it was possible to have challah, bread, cakes (and) any kind of bakery products,” Rebibo says – and the kosher supervision of Kivel Campus of Care, the Valley’s senior-living facility. Rebibo largely credits the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, with leadership by Belle Latchman and Vasha Todd, for the “kosherization of Kivel.”

Beginning in 1974, Valley resorts started showing an interest in having kosher facilities and requested Vaad kosher supervision for events, beginning with Camelback Inn, Mountain Shadows and the Arizona Biltmore, Rebibo says.

In a 2003 oral history with Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer, who was the spiritual leader at the Conservative Beth El Congregation from 1962-1972 (and later as interim rabbi from 2002-2003), Tutnauer said that “one of the battles that Rabbi Hillel Friedman (of Har Zion Congregation, the only other Conservative synagogue at the time) engaged in was to make federation affairs kosher” in the 1960s. The federation eventually adopted the policy to make communal affairs kosher later that decade because it was becoming a national policy of the federation movement, Tutnauer said in the interview.

One of the first kosher events hosted at a local resort by a Jewish organization was the Kivel Campus of Care’s Kivel Ball in the early 1970s, according to Rebibo.

The Vaad also began to receive requests to supervise companies that manufacture or process products in Arizona and in 1999, Vaad debuted a Passover program at the Biltmore. Now each Passover, nearly 3,000 people visit Valley resorts for a kosher-for-Passover experience.

Phoenix has also become a “destination for conventions,” Rebibo says. Because many large resorts offer kosher facilities, national and international organizations, such as AIPAC, Hadassah and Jewish National Fund, have held events in the Valley.

In addition to an increase in people keeping kosher, another major shift in the local kosher landscape was an influx of Bukharian families who moved to Phoenix over the past decade, Rebibo says. Because many of the families keep kosher, the demand for kosher food increased and several restaurants and markets have opened as a result.

The kosher industry has increased dramatically in the past century and that change is reflected in the Southwest. Long gone are the days when one had to leave town to purchase a kosher chicken. Consumers can now enjoy a wide range of kosher offerings in the “Wild West” – from standard deli fare and pizza to Chinese food, Mexican food and sushi.

This article appeared in the Dec. 9, 2011 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.