Rabbi Gedaliah Anamer, solemn-looking in black hat, black suit and long, gray beard, was avoiding eye contact, pacing around, palpably ill at ease. Then his rabbinical colleagues, Hillel Klavan and Joel Tessler, joined him and they took seats at a back table in Washington's only Chinese kosher restaurant.
The rabbis were there to tell a reporter from The Washington Post their side in a never-ending controversy over their role as the Supreme Court of kosher for the metropolitan area's 30,000 Orthodox Jews. But the meeting had barely begun when in walked Jon Greene, a young reporter for the 25,000-circulation Washington Jewish Week.
"Shalom, shalom," he said, using the Hebrew greeting meaning "peace," his tape recorder out and running. But peace was not in the air.
"You're despicable," said Anamer. "He thinks he's a miniature Woodward and Lothrop," he added, referring to the Watergate team of Woodward and Bernstein. In Hebrew, the parties then accused each other of "evil speak."
After Greene departed, the rabbis sat in stunned silence. It took them a full five minutes to regain their clerical composure, to retake the higher moral ground. They were, after all, the leaders of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, self-empowered to rule on matters affecting the lives and livelihoods of those engaged in the solemn business of keeping kosher.
For decades, the eight-member council has operated here in happy obscurity, certifying kosher restaurants, suppliers and supervisors -- in ways the rabbis defend as quality assurance and critics suggest smacks of antitrust. Decisions have been made in private without avenues of appeal. Now, however, issues are being publicly aired and the leadership of Washington Orthodoxy finds itself under fire.
It all began last summer with the discovery of alleged non-kosher ducks, and receipts from a non-kosher supplier, in the improbably named Moshe Dragon Chinese kosher restaurant in an aging Rockville shopping center.
The motive seemed simple: Non-kosher ducks are cheaper.
Informed of the alleged infraction, the rabbinical council swung into action -- and reaction. It investigated the complaint, and fired the complainant. No degree of damage control since has quieted the ensuing uproar that lingers on months later.
First the Jewish Week, then Regardie's magazine, pursued the story. Critics who say they've suffered from past council actions have been emboldened to break their silence. Hardly a week goes by without letters in the newspaper attacking the council.
"It has a life of its own, doesn't it?" said Michael Epstein, who helped bankroll the restaurateur brought here from Philadelphia by Rabbi Tessler to open Moshe Dragon, the Washington area's only full-service kosher restaurant. This was itself no small event in the lives of kosher-keeping Jews, whose eating-out options were almost nil.
Keeping kosher means not mixing meat and dairy -- requiring two sets of dishes -- and eating meat only from cloven-hoofed animals who chew their cud, according to dietary laws originating in the book of Leviticus.
The allegation that restaurant owner Lenny Ung may have violated the ancient laws of kashrut was shattering news. The bad news messenger was Michael Mayer, the restaurant's mashgiah (kosher supervisor), paid by the restaurant but hired and fired by the rabbis. This time, the rabbis fired the messenger.
To many, the action lacked logic. All available evidence at the time weighed against Ung, who first said the receipts belonged to a cousin, then recanted. Eventually, Ung charged that Mayer had framed him in a scheme to seize control of the restaurant.
Whether or not the ducks were kosher could have been easily determined by checking them for a higher salt content, but the rabbis, in re-koshering the restaurant, had disposed of the evidence. The corpus delicious was gone.
The commercial coupling of Ung and Mayer had been an unlikely marriage from the start. Ung, 29, is an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam by way of Cambodia. A boat person, he spent 22 months in a Malaysian refugee camp before coming to America 14 years ago. Ung would rather be a doctor, but that's a distant goal. Right now, food pays the bills. After launching a similar venture in Philadelphia, Ung came to Washington. Moshe Dragon seemed like an immigrant's dream come true.
But the dream has become a nightmare, the success a scandal.
Under rabbinical questioning, Ung became overwrought and wound up at Holy Cross Hospital. The rabbis said he was having a flashback to the horrors of being questioned in Vietnam. Mayer contends it was all an act.
Mayer, an intense barrel-chested man of 42, serious about his work and his religion, managed to keep kosher in the jungles of Southeast Asia. At Moshe Dragon, he was more than the mashgiah. He was, as Epstein described him, a sort of "Toots Shor," doubling as the gregarious maitre d'.
The uneasy relationship between the two men came to a head over the ducks. Ung refused to work with Mayer. The rabbis offered Mayer a paid vacation while they sorted things out. Mayer refused. The rabbis told him he was through.
"The first couple of months, I'm very devastated, depressed, upset," he recalled in his brick home in the Woodside section of Silver Spring. Prominent in the house are an American flag and a sign that says, "NAM Vet. Be Advised. I Brake for Flashbacks." In the months since he turned in Ung, he said, the rabbis have put out the word that he is a crazy, potentially violent Vietnam veteran who hates all Asians. "I feel betrayed by my religious leaders," he said. "I have these rabbis on a pedestal. My ethical structure is crumbling."
There is so much at stake here: lives, livelihoods, images, institutions. Ung gets easily worked up over it. In one telephone interview, he cried and shouted.
To help sort things out, the rabbis enlisted Judah Lifschitz, a Washington lawyer, who in turn brought in private investigator Susan Giller. Their investigation complete, the rabbis say they were ready to come down on Ung. Then Anamer called a Philadelphia kosher poultry supplier who said he supplied ducks to a Silver Spring retailer, who, in turn, said he supplied them to Ung.
The numbers, if not all the facts, seemed to add up. The local supplier had no proof of having sold the ducks to Ung, and the restaurateur had no proof of purchase. But a faxed invoice from Philadelphia was enough for the rabbis.
In December, they cleared Ung of any wrongdoing. (The Jewish Week scoffed at what it termed the "Ung Jury.") In January, Herzel Kranz, the renegade rabbi of the Silver Spring Jewish Congregation who is engaged in a long-running feud with the council, demanded that Ung sell the restaurant.
When Regardie's published new allegations in April about non-kosher pancakes and condiments, charges the rabbis dispute, Kranz placed photocopies of the article on the free literature table in his synagogue library. He also preached from his pulpit that anyone who reheated food from Moshe Dragon may have trayfed (un-koshered) the dishes and should throw them out.
It's created a lot of tsoris.
The whole megillah's "caused everybody a lot of aggravation, physically, emotionally, hours of wasting time beyond imagination," said Anamer, rabbi of Young Israel of Shomrei Emunah congregation in the Kemp Mill area of Silver Spring.
For a power group, the rabbinical council has modest digs: two small rooms in the basement of an older office building on the edge of Shepherd Park, once a thriving center of Washington Jewry in Northwest Washington and now its slightly tattered fringe. Most of the council's funds come from the kosher suppliers it certifies, an arrangement its critics say creates a conflict of interest.
In 1989, it had $43,000 in revenues and $35,700 in expenses, with the surplus being applied to what Klavan calls a "rabbinical welfare fund." It's not much for what is really volunteer work, says Klavan, the council president and rabbi of Ohev Sholom congregation in Shepherd Park.
But it's enough to fuel the suspicions, the innuendos, the allegations that these pious religious leaders, of all people, are on the take.
In limiting their stamp of approval in general to local suppliers they can observe firsthand, they are controlling the market, forcing kosher consumers to pay higher prices and generally running the tightest kosher ship around.
"These guys are living 50 years behind the times," said Rabbi Sam Fishman, executive director of the area's Jewish Campus Activities Board. For example, he said, Empire brand kosher chicken is sealed in the factory, but the Washington rabbis have allowed its purchase only from local retailers.
This practice, he said, has driven up the costs to Jewish campus groups that wish to keep kosher. Also in this area, food establishments must have a full-time mashgiah. Other areas allow "drop-in" supervision, he said.
"I'm not angry," he said. "I'm just describing the way in which we have to function. It's tough because they make it tough."
The list of complainants is long and growing. There's Max Atkin, who lost approval for his East Side Deli in Silver Spring for removing meat from the freezer without a mashgiah present. There's also mashgiah Eric Aiken, fired by the council after he ordered cheaper kosher chickens wholesale from a supplier not then approved by the rabbis. He's since been on unemployment.
"There was a feeling you were taking initiatives on your own," Rabbi Klavan told Aiken in a meeting Aiken secretly taped. "The only thing I can tell you is there is a lack of confidence, a feeling... . The group didn't feel comfortable."
As the meeting began, Klavan asked, "How do I know what we're going to talk about is not going to end up in the Jewish Week?" No wonder. Public image, after all, counts for so much in matters of reverence, respect and power.
The rabbis are loath to give it up, but under public pressure there is a movement to include a rank-and-file voice in their governance, to help the council regain the confidence of Washington's sometimes fractious but deeply committed and mostly close-knit Orthodox community.
"There is kind of a sense that we would welcome lay participation, under rabbinical guidance, to handle investigative work and relations with the press," said Rabbi Irving Breitowitz, who is also a University of Maryland law professor and a council member.
Breitowitz also says he believes in the integrity of mashgiah Mayer, who is working once again but this time in Baltimore and only part time. "I'm barely making ends meet," Mayer said.
As for Moshe Dragon, Lenny Ung says business is still not what it was before the duck flap although Reform and Conservative rabbis this month issued a statement declaring the restaurant kosher "at present time." But even as these rabbis were issuing their statement, another mashgiah left the restaurant complaining of kosher violations. Ung and Rabbi Klavan said it was all a misunderstanding.
Still proclaiming his innocence, Ung said, "A lot ask me why you stay here. My answer is I have to stay here to serve the community." But if a good offer came along, he added, he would sell the restaurant.
In the meantime, duck is out. "We don't serve duck no more," he said.