ANTWERP - Orthodox Jews make for a striking presence on the streets of the Diamond Quarter near the Central Station. I get lost among the Jewish stores, eating places, school and synagogues that make up ‘little Jerusalem’.
“A chateaubriand in a cream sauce? No problem! You can have the chateaubriand at lunchtime and the cream sauce in the evening.’’
You can’t fail to notice them. The Antwerp Jews have made their mark on the area between Pelikaanstraat, the Plantin-Moretuslei and the communal park.
The Jewish community is approximately 15,000 to 20,000 strong, but the 4,000 Orthodox Jews command most of the attention because of their traditional garments.
Jewish history in the Scheldt city goes back a long way. Before World War II, the community comprised around 60,000 souls. The oldest synagogue (built in 1893) can be found in Bouwmeesterstraat near the Museum of Fine Arts in the south of the city.
In the early 19th century, this was the heart of the Jewish quarter. The post-war era saw an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Some of whom became successful diamond traders. The Jewish community is characterised by its great solidarity. “Jewish believers follow the same laws wherever they are in the world,” explains Mrs. Wenger, who often organizes synagogue visits.
“For example, we are obliged to give 10 % of our income to those less fortunate in society.” She also makes the point that followers of the faith in Europe, America or South Africa have more in common with one another than with the non-Jews in their own country.
Orthodox Jews are bound by their faith to observe strict nutritional laws. They keep to the kosher kitchen – freely translated as ‘pure’ or ‘natural’. In common with Muslims, the Jews do not consume pork. Dairy and meat should never be used together in the kitchen.
Game is forbidden, but anything that chews the cud and has cloven hooves as well, is allowed. You can eat poultry, fish with fins and scales, but no mollusks.
However, kosher cuisine is not just about what you eat but also about how you prepare it. For instance, you cannot prepare meat in receptacles that are also used for fish.
The combination of meat and dairy is also prohibited.In the kitchen, vegetable oil is used instead of butter or animal fats.
No artificial aromas or colourings are used. The bread you eat comes from your kosher baker. He will use only natural yeast; none of the other additions that are sometimes used to enhance the appearance of the bread, or artificial rising agents are allowed.
Wherever you find Jewish communities, in Jerusalem, London, New York, Antwerp… you will come across kosher restaurants, food stores and bakers. The religion is very strict on what is allowed, kosher, and what is not, called 'treife'.
“This gives an added dimension to what you are eating,” according to Moishe Hoffman, who runs Hoffy’s restaurant. “Eating is far more than a necessity. Taste and aroma, especially during a feast, gets you into the right mood.
This helps us to observe our religion. We have 613 laws governing food and other ways of living.
These are laid down in the Old Testament, as you call it.” And every day, there are four more laws to be observed. How so? The answer is: the wife.
The most important Thora regulation is that one should not "boil a kid goat in its mother's milk".
In other words, you are very welcome to order a Chateaubriand in a creamy sauce. “We can sort this out for you, no problem. You can have the chateaubriand at lunchtime and the cream sauce in the evening.”
During the Roman occupation a large number of Jews left Palestine and joined what became known as the diaspora – people living away from the home land. The rabbis (Jewish teachers) were intent on keeping the Jewish population together. They did not want the Jews to assimilate with other people and thus cease to exist.
The rabbis then took on some of the duties of the banned priests. They started conducting religious ceremonies and rituals and also officiated at weddings. Moreover, they began to implement – and expand – Jewish law.
These early days gave rise to regulations prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and gentiles, as well as kashroet law - rules and regulations about what can and cannot, be eaten. This made it hard for Jews to meet non-Jews in a social setting. The aim was not to exclude non-Jews, rather it was to keep Jews within the fold.
Moishe Hoffman of Hoffy’s says: “I have always lived in the area around the Central Station. I can even remember De Beukelaer’s biscuit factory, behind the Zoo, and that hasn’t been around for over 40 years.
My parents managed to escape the concentration camps. Most of my family were killed. As a child,
I didn’t know what family meant. In the 1950s my Dad opened a fishmongers in the city. I was born ‘into the food’. I can vividly remember the two of us cleaning and filleting herring!
“When my brothers and I started up this restaurant, there was some initial hesitation from the non-Jews: ‘Would we be welcome here?’.
These days, three quarters of our clientele are non-Jewish. Our guests are from all over Belgium and farther away too.”