Pies for Jesus?

GAN YAVNEH, Israel — I always thought that by following kosher laws religious Jews only missed out on certain flavors and debatable delicacies. Turns out that by turning their back on “treyf” they also steer clear of Jesus.

At least that’s the verdict of rabbinates in two Israeli towns who’ve been denying a kosher certificate to a local cafe owner for three years — not because she doesn’t conform to the laws of “kashrut,” but because she’s a “Messianic Jew.”

Pnina Konforti, owner of the two branches of Pnina Pie in Gan Yavneh and Ashdod, this month won a decision in Israel’s Supreme Court forcing the rabbinates of the towns to give her a kosher certificate. Just because she believes in Jesus, the judges said, doesn’t mean she can’t keep kosher. Without the kosher certificate, many religious and traditional Jews refused to frequent the cafes and Konforti’s business was failing.

The case looks set to provoke a battle between the more secular organs of the government and the state rabbinate. It’s also a new point of conflict in the long battle between Israel — particularly its ultra-Orthodox community — and the Christian faith.

The rabbis insist they’re the ones who ought to decide about matters of kashrut and they refuse to allow a Messianic Jew (or a “Jew for Jesus” as they tend to be known in the U.S.) to receive a certificate. Though that sounds extreme, the rabbis aren’t entirely wrong (at least in the archaic terms of kosher law). After all, in Israeli wineries, non-Jews are forbidden from touching certain apparatus for fear of making the wine non-kosher — a prohibition going back to the days when a non-Jew might have used wine for idol worship.

Konforti’s point — which the Supreme Court accepted — is that she isn’t a non-Jew. She just happens to have decided during a stay in Ohio that the world’s most famous Jew, Jesus — or as she, an Israeli, calls him, “Yeshu” — is her savior.

The fear of Christian proselytizers or, even worse, Jews for Jesus is a common one among Israelis in general, and it has a long history that reaches back to a Europe where Jews were often persecuted or forced to convert to Christianity.

In that sense the court decision marks a rare gesture of conciliation by the organs of the Israeli state toward those who profess to be Christians.

It hasn’t always been that way.

In 1962, the Israeli Supreme Court denied citizenship to a Polish priest who had been born a Jew and converted to Christianity while hiding in a monastery to escape the Holocaust. Oswald Rufeisen, known as Brother Daniel, qualified for immigration under Israel’s “Law of Return” because he was born a Jew, but the court refused to accept a man who no longer called himself a Jew. (Eventually Rufeisen gained residence and died in a Haifa monastery a decade ago.)

Neither is pettiness a bar to paranoia. In my largely secular neighborhood of Jerusalem a few years ago, a tiny kiosk serving coffee in a small park was driven out of business because locals whispered that the owner was a Messianic Jew.

The lesson of such cases is that two thousand years of persecution at the hands of the church isn’t quickly forgotten, even by those who’ve never faced so much as a single anti-Semitic slur.

It’s a lesson only some in the Roman Catholic Church seem to have learned. Pope John Paul II won over many Israelis during his papacy with his visit to an Italian synagogue and talk of reconciliation during a 2000 visit to the Holy Land.

But the current pope, Benedict XVI, appeared cold and, to most Israelis, pro-Palestinian when he visited this spring. Many newspaper commentators complained that a former member of the Hitler Youth representing a faith with a history of persecuting Jews ought to have been less academic in his public addresses and more contrite toward Israel.

To understand the depth of fear among the ultra-Orthodox, consider the leaflets posted in Gan Yavneh warning residents against Konforti’s cafe: “Beware! Missionaries! What is hiding behind the Cafe-Bakery?” (In a community where television and radio are often not allowed, having been deemed negative modern influences, leaflets posted on walls are the favored way to pass information around among ultra-Orthodox Israelis.)

The answer, according to the leaflets: “Jews who sold their soul, betrayed their nation, and converted to Christianity.”

The leaflets advised citizens not to enter the cafe or “she will try to ensnare you in her Christian religion.”

Must be pretty good pie, you’re thinking.

I came across Pnina Pie in January when I visited Gan Yavneh during the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Missiles from Gaza landed several times on this small town, which is home to an air force base and several thousand Tel Aviv commuters.

I concluded an interview with the town’s mayor by asking him where I could get a decent lunch. He directed me to Pnina Pie, where a young Russian immigrant served me excellent bourekas, flaky pastry triangles filled with potato and cheese.

Unaware of the lack of a kosher certificate at the establishment, I bought a strawberry pie and served it to some guests that night. It happens all four of these friends were observant Jews.

At least they were observant Jews. Maybe by now they believe in Jesus.

After all, it really was very good pie. 

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