Kosher beef with city of Baltimore has hot dog seller steaming

November 21, 1990|By Michael Ollove

In Israel, Jewish-Palestinian hostilities have raged over a sliver of land called the West Bank. Here in Baltimore recently, the conflict has erupted over a cylinder of meat known as the hot dog.

For 20 months, George Barghout, a Palestinian who owns five Baltimore food stores, advertised the sale of kosher hot dogs from Yogurt Plus, his tiny eatery in Reisterstown Plaza. And for 15 months, Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, the lone inspector of the city of Baltimore's Bureau of Kosher Meat and Food Control, complained that the hot dogs were not kosher and that Mr. Barghout (pronounced Bar-HOOT) must stop claiming they were.

Finally, last week, Mr. Barghout found himself before a District Court judge who declared him in violation of the city's kosher meats ordinance and ordered him to pay $500 in fines and court costs.

Yesterday, Mr. Barghout, 52, who came to this country 31 years ago, was unrepentant.

"I'm a criminal now," he said, his voice dripping with disgust. "Pretty cute, huh?"

The battle is between two otherwise mild and amiable men, both of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens from the Middle East. On the one side is Mr. Barghout, a slight, nattily dressed man devoted to the cause of a Palestinian homeland and who believes he is being harassed by Zionists. His adversary is Israeli-born Rabbi Kurcfeld, a man in dark, Orthodox Jewish attire who is so vigilant in his work that he refuses to reveal the days he travels to Philadelphia and his second job as a kosher slaughterer.

"If people knew when I was out of town," he said, "who knows what they might do?"

After skirmishing with the rabbi for well over a year, Mr. Barghout now threatens to turn their tussle into a legal appeal of surpassing importance, one that would not only challenge thousands of years of Jewish dietary laws but also raise the constitutional issue of the separation of church and state.

Never before has the role of a hot dog loomed so large.

The dispute began in September 1989, after Rabbi Kurcfeld, 34, heard complaints about Yogurt Plus from Jewish residents in Northwest Baltimore. Upon inspection of the store, he saw two signs advertising kosher hot dogs. As he watched, however, an employee put kosher hot dogs on the single rotisserie alongside non-kosher hot dogs.

Jewish dietary laws forbid the commingling of kosher and non-kosher foods. Rabbi Kurcfeld informed Mr. Barghout that Yogurt Plus was in violation of the kosher meat ordinance and had to stop advertising kosher hot dogs.

Mr. Barghout was outraged and refused to sign the rabbi's inspection report. He refused to sign the subsequent seven reports that cited him for violations as well.

He also made no changes other than to place the letters "M.D." in front of the words "KOSHER HOT DOGS" on the sign in front of his store. "M.D." stood for "Mogen David," the manufacturer of kosher hot dogs. Later he revised the sign again to read, "MOGEN DAVID KOSHER HOT DOGS."

Rabbi Kurcfeld remained unmoved. Mr. Barghout remained equally unmoved, even after receiving stern warnings first from the city solicitor's office and then the Baltimore state's attorney.

Finally, Rabbi Kurcfeld arranged for Mr. Barghout's prosecution, only the second time he has done so in four years. The issue at stake, he insisted, went beyond religious observation. "If the consumer believes he is getting kosher food, that is what he should get," the rabbi said.

Mr. Barghout says he is abiding by the law. The cooking of the hot dogs, he says, does not deprive them of their kosher qualities. "The flame doesn't contaminate the meat; it purifies it," he said.

"It doesn't make any difference what he thinks," Rabbi Kurcfeld replied.

Mr. Barghout retorted that he is being targeted by Zionists. "Am I in a Zionist state or am I in America?" Mr. Barghout blurted this week. "This is a Zionist place, I tell you, a goddamn Zionist place."

Despite his criminal conviction and the possibility of more citations, Mr. Barghout's sign was unchanged yesterday. "I am Christian, and I know Jesus said to turn the other cheek," he said. "But if I am slapped, I will not turn the other cheek. I will slap back."

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