Red Knife, Green Knife

Nearly every morning but for Shabbos (Saturday, the Sabbath) and religious holidays, Rabbi Avrum Kaufmann walks from his home in St. Louis Park to the Byerly’s store half a mile away, where he serves as mashgiach: supervisor of the kosher deli’s adherence to kashrut laws.

The deli cannot open until Kaufmann or one of his delegates arrives, and it must close for business if he leaves for even a moment. According to Jewish law, no deliveries, food preparation, or sales may be conducted without a mashgiach on hand to ensure that everything is handled correctly. Kaufmann also oversees Byerly’s kosher bakery, and what is likely the only certified kosher sushi bar in the Upper Midwest.

“Many people are under the misconception that kosher means a food was blessed by a rabbi,” Kaufmann says. “But that’s not true. We do say a blessing when we slaughter an animal because it’s part of Jewish law, but that isn’t what makes the meat kosher. Kosher is a matter of fact; something either is kosher or it isn’t.”

Fact, yes. But as with many of the laws that appear in the Torah—the first five books of the Bible, which Orthodox Jews hold to be the unmediated word of God—determining these facts is a complicated matter. Kosher law includes the following tenets:

• Meat must come from animals that ruminate (chew a cud) and have cloven hooves.

• Fish must have fins and scales; all shellfish is considered trafe, or unfit.

• Meat and dairy may never be eaten at the same time, as the Talmud prohibits “boiling a calf in his mother’s milk.”

• Utensils and dishes that come into contact with meat must never come into contact with dairy, and vice versa.

• Insects, birds of prey, and the hindquarters of animals may not be eaten.

Rabbi Kaufmann, who has worked as an elementary school teacher, an electronics retailer, and a pulpit rabbi, interprets these laws for Byerly’s. He also checks the heckscher (or kosher seal) of prepared foods coming into the store; answers customers’ questions; and makes decisions when situations call for a mashgiach’s judgment.

For example, how to treat pareve (“neutral”) utensils—that is, utensils that have touched neither milk nor meat: “What would happen if, by accident, we were making a spaghetti dish and instead of stirring it with the pareve spoon, we stir with a meat spoon? Would that invalidate the dish? Would it invalidate the spoon?” he asks. “This varies by factors: Was there meat present and how long did the spoon sit in the dish? We might rinse and sanitize the spoon, boil it, or blowtorch it. These are the sorts of decisions I have to make.”

Like all mashgiach, Kaufmann obeys the laws of kashrut and does mitzvoth, meaning he keeps all 613 commandments that appear in the Torah. But he works alongside Steve Deutsch, the deli and kosher meat manager at Byerly’s who is a goy (non-Jew) from Ellsworth.

Deutsch grew up in the business, starting as a laborer at his hometown meat locker at the age of fourteen. After attending Mankato State, he moved to the Twin Cities and began working for Byerly’s in Edina. Nearly three years ago, the company asked Deutsch if he would head up an unprecedented project: developing an all-kosher deli in St. Louis Park.

“I thought this would be an exciting opportunity to test my mettle,” he says. “The first thing I did was go out and for a week, I kept kosher. I wanted to see what I was up against.” He laughs, looking like a grown-up Opie Taylor. “What I found out is that I eat a lot of cheeseburgers.”

Deutsch read up on kosher law and spent ten months designing a kitchen that would meet its standards. Ultimately he decided to offer no dairy whatsoever; the deli offers meat, fish, and pareve items. And he came up with a color-coding system for all kitchen utensils and surfaces: red for meat, white for pareve, and green for fish.

“Color coding bridges language barriers, and it becomes automatic,” he explains. “So much so that I’ll be at home, going to cut one of my kid’s sandwiches and I’ll look in the drawer for a red-handled knife.”

Though he does not observe kashrut himself, Deutsch is firm about the deli’s obligation to its clientele, whom he calls the most gracious he’s ever known: “We never compromise when it comes to the standards. We always err on the highest side.”

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the kosher deli at Byerly’s, which serves approximately three thousand customers a week from places as far away as Kansas City, Detroit, and Fargo. Locally, the majority are Orthodox Jews, but the deli also serves Muslim customers who follow halal guidelines (“permissible foods,” according to the Koran, which overlap with many kosher foods) and a growing number of shoppers more concerned with avoiding dairy than with following religious laws.

“This place is important to a lot of people,” Deutsch says. “I had a mother come in with her six-month-old baby who was severely lactose intolerant and just moving from soy formula to solid food. When I showed her the sign that means pareve and told her that’s all she had to look for, she cried, she was so relieved.”

It is, perhaps, this mix of customers and needs that helps bring together the two men—butcher and rabbi—and encourages them to pool their knowledge.

“When we opened, Steve and I made a deal,” Kaufmann says. “In nine months I would be a butcher and he would know how to speak Yiddish.” He butts Deutsch’s arm and grins, looking, despite his wiry hair-netted beard, like a naughty little boy. “OK, so that didn’t happen. Eventually, we’ll get there.”