Nissan Berg stands in his kosher delicatessen at the back of Martin's Supermarket on Maple Road. An especially busy week lies ahead and he knows it.
Monday evening marks the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, so Berg is anticipating the delivery of close to 1,000 challah breads from Toronto on Sunday morning.
The traditional braided loaves assume a special round shape for the holiday, symbolizing continuity. Some even contain raisins and honey to signify a sweet new year, and they are hard to find in this neck of the woods. The shop will be busy.
But then Nissan's Kosher Deli is always busy, its proprietor says, as he breaks for a cup of strong instant made-in-Israel coffee and a rugalach pastry at a table right across from Martin's sushi bar.
Berg, who rents his space from Martin's, runs one of the few certified kosher outlets in Western New York. Another is Bert's Deli on the UB Amherst Campus in Talbert Hall, which operates only when the university is in session.
Some Krispy Kreme and Carvel locations are also certified kosher.
Berg stocks a full line of salads, frozen meat, frozen turkeys and chickens, even kosher caviar.
Not to mention Nova Scotia salmon, belly lox, pastrami and corned beef and the filled pastries called knishes (choice of potato or spinach).
Frozen kosher pizza is available, too, and frozen falafel. Customers can even get a corned beef or pastrami sandwich.
Other places in the area sell this kind of food, to be sure. Brown's Market on Eggert Road, though currently not certified, sells a full line of fresh meat. Owner Ben Kagne says he also sells deli meets, salads and homemade soups. He prepares takeout platters and dinners, as well. There are a few kosher caterers in the area, also.
Packaged kosher food is also available in most supermarkets.
> What 'kosher' means
The word "kosher" refers to food prepared under certain biblical and traditional rules. Prohibiting the combination of meat and milk products is only one of them. Certain meats, such as pork and shellfish, are prohibited; slaughter must proceed in a regulated manner and there are many other stipulations.
According to Rabbi Moshe Taub, who heads the Buffalo Va'ad Ha Kashrut, the organization that supervises certification, a large part of all packaged food in grocery stores are marked kosher.
Customers can inspect packages in the supermarket for the kosher label, insuring those rules are carried out. Kosher food is prepared under the supervision of a rabbi.
There are also a few local restaurants that serve food that some people call "kosher style." With the closing last week of Mastman's Deli on Hertel Avenue, it's good to know there are still "kosher style" places locally to grab a corned beef or pastrami sandwich, or a bowl of matzo ball soup. They may not follow all the rules, but they sport a zesty traditional taste.
Restaurateur Risa Paonessa, however, does not like the word "kosher."
"Food is either kosher or it is not," she says. "I call my food 'New York Style' and everyone loves it."
The daughter of the late Anthony Gengo, who ran the beloved Stumpy's delicatessen for many years, Risa runs her two-year-old eponymous restaurant at 1298 Hertel Ave.
Paonessa boils her corned beef according to Stumpy's recipes and slices it by hand; she makes her own sweet and sour cabbage and matzo ball soup. Everything is served on fresh rye bread. Paonessa currently keeps her place open for breakfast and lunch.
> Wholesome and clean
Unlike the Hertel Avenue crowd, most of Berg's customers are Jewish, he says. He does also have people who come because they have allergies or because they feel that kosher food is more wholesome and clean. There is a growing number.
Isn't it hard to run a strictly kosher place where the Jewish population is relatively small? (Rabbi Taub estimates there are between 18,000 and 23,000 Jews in Western new York.) "Absolutely not," says Berg. "I like Buffalo. New York City is too much for me.
"New York City is not America."
Berg came to the United States from Riga, Latvia, where he was in the construction business. After stints of janitorial work here, he trained to become a kosher inspector, working for the Va'ad, eventually ending up at what was then Tops. He took over the deli about five years ago.
He is a religious man.
"I have a nice partner," he says. "God. It was God who told me to come to Buffalo 10 years ago."