How far to go for Kosher Pastrami? Finally a Palatable Answer in Prague

A beefy tourist approaches the counter and, with a distinctive outer-borough New York accent, brusquely interrogates a modest rabbi’s wife. “Hey, I heard this is the only place in Prague where you can get pastrami. True or false?” he asked, clearly intending to act on an ancient urge known to many as “deli desire.” Dini Barash briefly hesitates, then replies with her big and disarming white-toothed smile, “Pastrami we have. And you can even get corned beef.” Awed at his discovery, the traveler shouts with glee to his companions loitering outside, “Guys, this is the place!”

And in march two more men. “Maybe you got a knish?” queries one of her new patrons, an African American. This enthusiasm is becoming commonplace at Prague’s first kosher deli, opened a month ago by the city’s Chabad rabbi, Manis Barash, and his wife, Dini. Shelanu Cafe & Deli, in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, is one of a tiny number of kosher restaurants in the country.

A casual cafe, it has broader appeal than King Solomon’s, a kosher place where the food is excellent but higher prices and a more formal setting limit its range of clientele. So far, Barash says, Shelanu – ‘Ours’ in Hebrew – has been frequented by transplanted and visiting Israelis and Americans, Japanese groups and French Jews desperate for kosher food. There is almost no place in the country to eat kosher, even though it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Jewish tourists come to Prague each year to see some of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe.

Pork has a habit of making its way into many Czech meals, further complicating things for even the moderately observant. “We were so happy to find this place,” said Eyan Katsav, 32, a tourist from Ashdod, Israel. Biting into a Rochester, Shelanu’s pastrami sandwich, he added, “For three days I didn’t really eat anything. It’s very weird that nobody thought of having a cheap kosher cafe before,” he said.

On Shelanu’s business cards, the name of the restaurant is prefaced with “Chabad’s,” pointing out the cafe’s links to the Orthodox movement famous for welcoming strangers. The 35-year-old rabbi hopes Shelanu will serve as a hub for Jewish activity. He and his wife are considering offering cultural events there. “Not everyone can meet and socialize in shul. Maybe some tourists can come here, meet other Jews, meet the rabbi, and yes, they might then come to Chabad for a service. Why not?” Barash says. He noted that his fellow Chabad rabbis had opened up eateries in Venice and Athens. “It’s like having an unofficial JCC,” said Barash, well aware that no such gathering place exists in Prague.

An earlier attempt by the rabbi to reach out to tourists by leading services at Prague’s Old-New Synagogue put him at odds with a large segment of Prague’s Jewish community. The community’s then-chairman fired the country’s chief rabbi, a Czech native, and installed the New York-born Barash, outraging some Czech Jews who feared a Chabad takeover of their community. The present community leadership, which took over last November, helped to oust Barash from that post.

The rabbi has insisted that his opponents were needlessly fear-mongering, besides which, a rabbinical court in Israel said his appointment was legitimate. But as he tries to put these disputes in the past, Barash is cheerful, teasing a secular customer that she has made a big mistake eating meat with her milkshake, until she realizes that her beverage is made from soy.

Barash said the cafe is the realization of a dream he has had since coming to Prague in the summer of 1996. “He always wanted a place where he could have a pastrami sandwich. Manis joked that it was either open a deli or move back to Brooklyn,” said the 31-year old Dini Barash. Shelanu’s chef is a Moroccan Jew who worked for many years at a kosher restaurant in Casablanca.The cafe menus, sitting next to prayer books, are in English and Hebrew, but have not yet been translated into Czech.

There are about 1,500 to 3,000 Czech Jews in the capital. Very few keep kosher. “We don’t really get Czech customers,” said one of the wait staff, an Israeli. Prices range from approximately $7 to $9; the huge deli meals cost about twice what Czechs expect to pay for a sandwich. The meats and various condiments are by necessity imported from Vienna, a challenge to Shelanu’s bottom line.

Barash says he eventually wants to attract locals, perhaps with lunch specials. “But right now as we are in the early stages and still getting things to run smoothly, I am not sure they would enjoy coming here when there is a group of Israeli tourists,” he said, making a subtle reference to Israelis’ reputation for unruly behavior when impatient.

At least one semi-local Jew frequents Shelanu. Jakov Feldman, a native of what was then Czechoslovakia who survived the Shoah, returns to Prague each year for his brother’s Yarzheit. He offers free history lessons in the cafe by telling his life story upon request.

Another regular, an American student with New York University’s summer semester in Prague, gave his Coney Island smoked beef sandwich “two thumbs up.” The student, Andrew Scheer of Woodmere, N.Y., says he doesn’t keep kosher in the United States. “But I try in Prague to show economic support for a place like this, which needs every Jews to help it thrive.”

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