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Welcome to the intricate and baffling web of kosher food rules that left a bad taste in my mouth

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Toronto chef Zane Caplansky with a station featuring his homemade mustard at an event for Ve’ahavta at the Warehouse in Toronto | Photo: Courtesy Zane Caplansky

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I was born Schnaer Zalman Caplan. The English version of my first name is Zane, and I was named for my great-grandfather, Schnaer Zalman Duchman, who was, by all accounts except one, a great man. So much so that one male child in each of his descendants’ families has the honour of bearing his name.

On or around my fortieth birthday, I legally changed my name to Caplansky to reflect my true heritage, because my father’s other great grandfather, Benjamin, changed the family name after his arrival in Canada from Poland in 1896. He left to avoid the Russo-Japanese War.

The sole voice to speak against my beloved great grandfather Duchman was the Council of Rabbis of Toronto. These men saw fit to press a charge against him that was so serious that his hechsher, his certification as a kosher butcher, was revoked.

“It was a very public humiliation,” remembers my father, Wilf Caplan, who explained that around 1910 my great-grandfather made his living as a shochet, a kosher butcher. He was by all accounts a learned and pious man, having studied in yeshiva as a classmate of the Alte-Rebbe in New York City, the Senior Rabbi Schneerson. He was also a socialist.

During the High Holy Days, he and other certified kosher shochetim in the city were hired by the local meat packers to shecht (ritually slaughter) chickens for customers. His socialist sensibilities were offended when he realized the unionized non-kosher workers were earning much more than their kosher counterparts.

His attempt to unionize the kosher guys was not met with wild applause by his employer, Canada Packers, and the next thing he knew, charges were brought against him by the Council of Rabbis in Toronto. The substance of those charges is unknown. The Council held a hearing and his kosher certification was revoked. Essentially, his livelihood and reputation were in ruins.

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As a result of this, all of Schnaer Zalman’s children became secular Jews. Betrayed by the faith their father had devoted his life to, Sam, Morris, Tilly, Nachama and my grandmother Lillian could not forget the pain their father endured. None of them followed in the Lubavitch tradition, or were even Orthodox. None kept kosher. I grew up happily eating every part of the pig. I never met a shellfish I didn’t love.

From an early age, and without any knowledge at that time of what my grandfather had suffered, I grew suspicious of the entire concept of kosher, which was always an abstract philosophical argument until I opened my restaurant.

The first Caplansky’s Deli was housed in the Monarch Tavern on Clinton Street in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood in 2008, and in 2009, I had opened my own deli on College Street.

A picture of the Duchman/Caplan family with Zane Caplansky’s great-grandfather Schnaer Zalman Duchman on the far right | Photo: Courtesy Zane Caplansky

In 2012, I got a call from Chef Rob Bartley at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre asking if I’d be interested in opening a kosher stand in their facility. My love for the Toronto Maple Leafs overrode my distaste for the notion of kosher. “Find out what’s involved with kosher certification, and then we’ll meet,” he said.

A close relative with first-hand knowledge gave me advice: Don’t get involved with the Council of Orthodox Rabbis (COR). He suggested an alternative route, through Badatz Toronto, an organization that ostensibly calls itself “Canada’s Alternate Kosher Supervision.”

I called Badatz, and we arranged a meeting in the parkette across the street from my deli on College Street. The fact that their representative wouldn’t even step foot in the restaurant was a red flag. The gentleman wanted to know which shul I belonged to. I didn’t belong to one. Deep sigh.

“Ok, you’ll have to take on a silent partner,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“It’s a standard thing, three per cent, maybe seven per cent,” he said

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“We need to have someone on board who is Orthodox,” he said.

“I’m not Jewish enough?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes, it’s like that,” he said, adding “and you’re going to have to change the name.”

“What?” I said. I may have raised my voice.

“It would be confusing for people to have one Caplansky’s that is kosher, and another that isn’t,” he explained. “Why not call it Caplan’s Deli?” he said.

I can’t remember what I actually said to him after that, but our conversation was over. I wanted none of this.

A good old fashioned deli sandwich with a pickle (and a side serving of fries, coleslaw, and mustard) available at Capalansky’s Deli in Toronto. | Photo: Caplansky’s Deli

Then I called and made an appointment with a rabbi to discuss making an application to the Council of Orthodox Rabbis (COR).

The rabbi took the same position as the Badatz representative, claiming a name change was required because kosher people may be confused into believing that my deli on College Street was also kosher.

“I understand, rabbi,” I said, “that in the Second Cup coffee chain, there is one location that is kosher, while all the others are not kosher. Same name. No confusion.” I was sure I had him. “The difference,” he said, “is that they aren’t dealing with meat.” Huh?

I told him that when people come in with kipot looking for the certificate on my wall that says the deli is kosher, I’ve trained my staff to look for these people and proactively let them know we are not kosher. He was unmoved.

At the deli on College Street, which closed in early 2018 following a series of disputes with our landlord, we did sell a line of Caplansky’s mustards, which were kosher, because our supplier had kosher certification.

A serving of chicken alongside Zane Caplansky’s homemade mustard - before it lost its hechsher (see bottom of the right bottle) | Photo: Courtesy Zane Caplansky

Our new line of mustards is not kosher, and from the looks of things, that’s how it will remain based on a conversation I had with COR recently.

After months of dialogue, and after every “i” was dotted and “t” was crossed, I got an email from a representative at the Montreal kosher authority (MK), where our mustards are jarred.

The email said in part: “… because you have the restaurant, and we want to avoid confusion for your clients, there will need to be a mention that this is not affiliated or part of the Caplansky’s restaurant on the label. The words can be worked out. If you have a wording in mind, please suggest it, and I will bring it up with the rabbis.”

I did not hesitate to reply: “Sorry. No dice. This product certainly is associated with my restaurant, and I will not disavow that connection. If this is a deal breaker, then so be it. Zane.”

When they called me to discuss the matter further, I told them I would never disavow my restaurant. It took every effort I had not to say things I would regret, to lash out in anger for the way they treated Schnaer Zalman years ago, and now, his great-grandson.

In a loud, clear voice I said just one word: “goodbye.”

Zane Caplansky began selling smoked meat sandwiches in 2008, and his (now former) College Street deli was a Toronto landmark for locals and tourists alike, for many years. Pre-pandemic, his franchise at Pearson Airport (Toronto) continued the tradition of serving fine traditional deli. Zane has appeared on CBC TV’s Dragons’ Den three times and is a much sought after foodie expert in the media.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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