Tales of the chasidic matjes
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Tales of the chasidic matjes

There’s something fishy going on in the kosher herring business.

Two different herring companies are branding their gourmet delicacies with the names and visages of such rabbis as Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.

Yes, you can order the Honey Mustard Sriracha Herring from the Rebbe’s Choice line of premium certified kosher herring. “This sharp and fiery herring is inspired” by the “fiery truth and sharp wit of the rebbe of Kotzk,” according to the Rebbe’s Choice website. Kotzk is only one of six herring flavors in the Rebbe’s Choice product line, which also includes such favorite chasidic masters as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Reb Zusha, available at kosher supermarkets, including Teaneck’s Cedar Market.

Most of the 4,000 words on the Kotzker-inspired herring product’s webpage are devoted to the biography and teachings of the Kotzker rebbe, though it does list the ingredients: pickled herring, onions, mayonnaise, sriracha, mustard, sugar, and spices. The Rebbe’s Choice brand of herring was inspired by a magical encounter with flavorful herring that yeshiva student Naftali Engel experienced in the holy city of Tzfat.

Does naming a herring flavor after a chasidic rebbe work in the kosher marketplace? Apparently yes, because one of the old masters of herring has started to play that game. Flaum’s has been selling kosher foods for a century, originally out of a store in Williamsburg. It has announced its own line of rabbinically inspired herring products.

“The Herring of Kotzk” is spicy matjes.

“The Herring of Volozhin” is a nod to the 19th century non-chasidic Lithuanian Talmud scholar, Rav Chaim of Volozhin. The packaging borrows the analytical terminology of Rav Chaim’s talmudic lectures in a way that makes surprisingly little sense, even by the low standard of food marketing: “A Herring that is Gavra and Cheftza — uniting subject and object — with the analytical prowess of Volozhin.”

An analytical herring?

What would the Kotzker rebbe have made of all this?

There’s a line in Dr. Joseph Fox’s 1988 biography that seems relevant. Commenting on Genesis 43:20, describing how the sons of Jacob went down to Egypt for food, the rebbe is said to have asked, in all seriousness: “Is food that important?”

And indeed, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel titled his study of the Kotzker “A Passion for Truth,” not “A Passion for Herring.”

Yet another saying attributed to the Kotzker is more ambiguous: “You don’t love fish,” he is said to have told a chasid who professed love for the delicacy. “If you loved the fish, you would not have killed it and cooked it on a fire.”

On the other hand — the Kotzker famously spent the last decades of his life in seclusion, isolated from his followers. Biographers have no clear answer to the question of why. Perhaps it was herring breath?

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