Usually we dine on good food as a matter of routine. But this week, as we head into the last third of the Nine Days, we are thinking about what it is exactly that we will be eating, some of us nonstop.
Today there are more choices to maintain the tradition of abstaining from meat or poultry consumption or, for that matter, how to halachically circumvent that carefully abided-by minhag and enjoy some of the most succulent baby-back ribs to your heart’s content.
Most of our steakhouses and meat restaurants are closed during these nine mostly meatless days. That is, unless the proprietor of these establishments decides to go full throttle with a fish menu.
But while most subsist on fish or cheese dishes during this period of national historical mourning, it has always been somewhat of a confusing if not challenging period on our calendar. For example, going back a few decades, as a young child in summer camp, somehow, even though it was the time of year that meant no meat or chicken on the menu, in camp during that week we always had either meat or chicken for our nightly dinners.
There we were, a few hundred yeshiva kids singing “Al Naharos Bavel,” “By the Rivers of Babylon,” about mourning the destruction and longing for the redemption and the rebuilding of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And then, after we finished the beautiful and sometimes heart-wrenching harmony in that traditional tune, we went right ahead and feasted on brisket and mashed potatoes or fried chicken with French fries.
The weekday evening meal of meat or chicken was always preceded by a siyum on a tractate of Gemara, rendering the occasion a seudas mitzvah. The accomplishment and celebration of that occasion outweighed or perhaps neutralized the mourning and allowed the consumption of meat or chicken.
Not that we were great scholars in those days, but the feeling was that we were all growing boys and we needed our meals to have the proper nutritional content so we could develop into strong and healthy adults. At least that is what I thought the reason was at the time; it might have actually been that, but who knows?
For decades after that we were fine abstaining from a carnivorous indulgence of any kind. The tradition is not to partake of fleishig, and the practice gave the steakhouses a week off and was an annual boon if not a bonanza for the fish places. That is, of course, if you are Ashkenazic and maintain those seasonal customs. This year, the Sephardim, who abstain from partaking in meat or poultry only during the actual week in which Tishah B’Av occurs, are getting a free pass.
Actually, now that we are on the subject of eating out or at least focusing on food, it occurs that there is at least one other week in the course of our calendar year in which there is a dining-out and what-are-we-going-to-eat-today frenzy. And that is the week before Pesach. During that week we can eat whatever we wish as a prelude to a holiday that was, once upon a time, a yom tov that in part revolved around what we were prohibited to consume.
That is contrasted with this week prior to Tishah B’Av, as we take our time to hunt down restaurants that have tables available at the conventional dinner hour, sometime between 6 and 8 p.m.
The other evening I was in Queens at a wonderful fish restaurant on Union Turnpike. Turquoise has been around for quite a number of years because both the food and the service are excellent. But I made the mistake of showing up without a reservation on Sunday night, the first weekday of these Nine Days, even though it was not yet 5 p.m.
My calculation was that it was early and the dinner rush would probably not have begun, but the way things were looking, I might have erred. I walk in with my wife and apologize up front for not having a reservation. But while the person doing the seating hears me out and even looks understanding and sympathetic to my cause (dinner), he just shakes his head side to side, indicating that getting a table to have dinner now (that is 5 p.m.), would unfortunately not be possible.
Let me say right here that I do not know the lay of the land in Queens. It’s kind of like a foreign country to me, having been born and raised in Brooklyn and then moving out here to this planet of the Five Towns. Our plan was to go to the Chazaq event and hear presentations from Charlie Harary, Rabbi Eli Mansour, and Rabbi YY Jacobson. It was a great and inspiring event, but that was going to be later on; right now it’s two hours earlier and we are getting hungry.
So where were we going to go? Grill Point was probably closed because of the Nine Days. I tried one more time to beseech the management, presenting my case more passionately and the way I had to do it once upon a time in Jerusalem about a decade ago. I’m sure that I have retold that story in this space, but I cannot recall when.
It is in the winter, Chanukah, a busy time in Israel. Some of my family is with me, so altogether we are seven people. We walk into a popular restaurant on the edge of Rechavia. It’s cold outside and we are glad we are inside, that it’s warm, and that most of the tables are empty even though it is already about 6:30 p.m. The seating person walks over to me and I gleefully say that we are a party of seven and we need a table. The person looks at me and says that he is sorry — he is full and there are no tables to be had.
I stand there momentarily dumbfounded, pointing out that most of the tables are empty. We are tired and hungry; we want to eat and spend some money. But they say, “No, that will not be possible as the tables are full.”
“But they are obviously not,” I say incredulously. Had it been just my wife and me, I might have gone out and found a falafel stand and had an excellent dinner. Instead I just stood there asking for an explanation. The person looks at the reservation book, then up at me, and then at the book again. And then he says that we can be seated but that he needs us done and out by 7:30 p.m. “If you can serve fast, we can eat fast,” I said.
And that is exactly what I said to the restaurateur in Queens on Sunday. I looked at the time on my cellphone after he said he needs the table for guests with reservations by 6 p.m. “If you can serve fast, we can eat fast,” I said.
They served the food shortly after we ordered. During the meal, a friend walked over from across the restaurant to say good night and added: “Try the tiramisu; it’s excellent.” I was not in the market for that kind of rich dessert, but still I checked the clock to see if we had time were we so disposed to try it. We were 15 minutes ahead of our deadline and I really wanted to finish early to demonstrate appreciation and good faith.
Next time, I will definitely make a reservation so as to avoid this kind of situation — if, of course, I remember.