Photo Credit: Naftali Engel
Naftali Engel

Herring inspired by Chassidus? That’s what The Rebbe’s Choice – a food company based in Long Island City, NY – promises. The following dvar Torah appears on the website of “The Rebbe’s Choice”:

The B’nei Yissaschar, Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, taught that when Hashem created the world, He only blessed three creations: fish, man, and Shabbos. So – says the B’nei Yissaschar – when a man eats fish on Shabbos, he merit all three blessings of creation being fulfilled through him.

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Although principally a line of novelty herring, The Rebbe’s Choice also offers kichel, smoked salmon, marinated pickles, stuffed olives, spice blends, and organic coffee. The Jewish Press recently interviewed 24-year-old Naftali Engel, who started The Rebbe’s Choice in 2016.

The Jewish Press: What made you decide to enter the food business?

Engel: I was always interested in cooking. Even from a young age, I remember getting in the kitchen and trying out different recipes that I either read or came up with on my own. I would also definitely say there’s some influence from my mother, who comes from Argentina where there’s a big focus on fresh food and eating.

What made you decide to focus on herring?

I remember being with my father in the basement of the shul I grew up in and helping him prepare the Kiddush. So, I’ve always had exposure to herring.

When I was really young, I didn’t like it, but later I started to enjoy it, and when I went to yeshiva in Israel I was looking for American-style herring, and it just wasn’t available. So I decided to make my own. Eventually I came up with a few recipes and, with some help from my brother, I started selling it in my yeshiva.

When I came back to the States, we started the company.

Your herring selections are all named after chassidic Rebbes – ranging from Berdichev to Lelov to Ropshitz. How does herring intersect with Chassidus?

Around the time that I was trying to figure out recipes for making my herring, I visited my brother in Tzfas and tasted this great homemade herring made by a guest. I asked the guy for the recipe, and he started telling me:

“First, you have to dance with the fish, then say a little Tehillim, then go to the mikveh, and then learn Likutei Moharan with the fish.”

It was, shall we say, a very colorful recipe – not exactly what I was looking for – but it put this idea in my head that there’s more to eating than just consuming.

The labels of each one of your herrings reads “Inspired by…” In what manner is your honey mustard sriracha herring “inspired by Kotzk” or your sweet onion herring “inspired by Ropshitz”?

The mustard sriracha herring is sharp and fiery, and the Kotzker Rebbe was known to be very outspoken and truthful.

As for the sweet onion herring: Rav Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz had a sweet demeanor and a complex wit.

What made you pick the name The Rebbe’s Choice?

There’s depth and spirituality in the way people connect to food, and that was something I never thought of – something that is also apparent in chassidic thought. So I wanted to bring spirituality into the consumption of food, which can be far removed from spirituality at times.

My sister-in-law was actually the one who came up with the name.

Have you received positive feedback on it?

Definitely. There are people who have told me they knew nothing about a specific Rebbe, but now when they purchase a herring recipe inspired by a particular Rebbe, they learn something from a sefer written by or about that Rebbe.

Do some people misunderstand what you’re doing and perhaps find it a little irreverent?

I get e-mails all the time from people who are upset about the brand. Most of them let off a little steam, maybe post a comment on the Internet, and then move on.

I have had more than one rav hamachshir reprimand me, though. I understand where they’re coming from. I’m not living in some fantasy land. People could erroneously perceive I might be making fun of something. I recognize that it could be taken in a negative light.

How do you respond?

I try to have a conversation to at least get them to understand where I’m coming from.

Do non-chassidim eat your fish?

I’d like to think so. I hope we’re not excluding anybody. But for balance, we also came up with a line of herring called Litfish.

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And it’s different how?

It’s a lot more of the classic, traditional flavors. For example, we have “Garlic Schmaltz,” which is very unassuming, but it’s prepared in a very high-end way using organic, high quality ingredients. That’s what makes it different from what is generally available to the public.

The Rebbe’s Choice line has many novel flavors such as “Honey Mustard Sriracha,” “Smoked Zatar,” “Maple Bourbon,” “Jalapeno Matjes,” and “Everything Bagel” to name a few.

Where do you see The Rebbe’s Choice moving? Do you have any new items on the horizon?

We’ve expanded greatly over the past year. Since the pandemic started, we’ve been able to focus on creating lines of pickles, olives, different spice blends, and even coffee.

My goal is to give people a very high-quality product at a good price while making it interesting. We have increased our distribution channels to include many kosher groceries and supermarkets all over the country, and even internationally.

We post a weekly dvar Torah on our website, which is also distributed via e-mail to our customers who opt in. I feel that this reinforces the spiritual connection I spoke about earlier.

I hope I’m not going to get anyone into any trouble but I have to ask this: Any plans to launch a line called The Rebbetzin’s Choice?

Funny you should ask. It’s an idea that I’ve been floating around for quite some time. We already have an Instagram page for The Rebbetzin’s Choice.

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