How a young, inspiring entrepreneur is making old-fashioned herring hip again

Elizabeth Kratz

You never know when something heimishe, something many Jews may associate with old-fashioned, staid Jewish fare, like herring and crackers, will somehow turn high-end and hipster. One millennial, barely out of his teens, is putting herring out there for all the Internet to see. And he’s got a heck of a story to tell.

It all started in late 2014, when Queens, N.Y.-teen Naftali Engel was in Israel for post-high school gap-year study. He spent some Shabbats away from his Judean Hills yeshivah with his brother who lives in Tzfat, the “holy city” famous for its more Chassidic or Kabbalah-influenced-artists’ colonies and spiritually creative enclaves. One Shabbat, Engel tasted a particularly delicious homemade herring, and, perhaps nonchalantly, asked the maker for his recipe. The answer he got was not quite traditional.

Engel’s version of what he heard from this unusual pescaphile was something like the following: “ ‘First, you have to dance with the fish; then say Tikkun Haklali [a traditional Breslov set of psalms geared toward repentance] with the fish, after that sit down and say some Shemios Hatzadikim (names of the righteous) to the herring. If you can, go to the mikvah [ritual bath] before you prepare the fish … ,’ ” it went on like this,” Engel told The Jewish Link.

“I mean, the herring tasted really good, but this was an interesting method to say the least. The man continued, ‘When you spice the fish, make sure to have the proper kavanos [intentions]. After you finish making it, make sure to learn with the herring and say tehillim [psalms] for it,’ ” recalled Engel.

At that point, Engel gave up on getting an actual recipe out of the man, but succeeded in getting a basic herring recipe from his brother, Menachem. “Although I altered the original recipe I was given a bit, it came out great. But what this man gave me was an idea: That I could take the herring and spice it based on what inspires me.”

A business is born

Five years later, Engel, 22, is a busy entrepreneur distributing his own original herrings nationwide under the label, The Rebbe’s Choice—all inspired by that single interaction. From Vietnamese sriracha to smoked Hungarian paprika to Israeli za’atar, he has fused spices from his millennial-modern kitchen with that most modest fish, bringing new life to that old boring herring.

And millennials intrinsically see, to know a thing or two about branding. In what has seemed like a blink of an eye, a community of 800 enthusiastic followers have popped up on Instagram and are even buying products emblazoned with the company catchphrase—“Heimishe meets high end”—and “the rebbe” on the label, who happens to look quite a bit like Engel’s new father-in-law.

But back to 2014. How did this business get started?

Engel’s first culinary effort—a jalapeño matjes (matjes is a younger, fattier herring perfect for pickling) made on Engel’s dormitory porch at Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim—was met with clamors for more from his friends. Soon, students from other yeshivahs heard about it. “I would make herring for Shabbos and ask if people wanted it, and soon I was selling it out of my dorm room,” he explained.

“My herring started to become well-known in the American yeshivahs in Jerusalem. Everyone knew about it. By the next summer, I had a name: The Rebbe’s Choice.” While he was home in the States, he hired a graphic designer on Fiverr to illustrate “The Rebbe” who adorns his labels, wearing a fur streimel, smiling and holding a whole fish. He sold his labeled products in Israel to friends the next year.

Returning home to Queens in 2016 after a year-and-a-half, his began his business in earnest, manufacturing his unique herring recipes out of his shul’s basement in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. His product had been certified kosher by the O-K.

Fast-forward to today: Engel’s herrings are distributed nationwide by Quality Frozen Foods, a large kosher foods distributor. More than 1,500 units of herring are produced every week, and it’s available in kosher supermarkets in communities nationwide. Engel explained that while he has no prior background in the food industry, he comes from a family full of entrepreneurs—all of whom have found new ways to present items to the public.

His grandfather, Engel related, sold postal products and was apparently the first to sell envelopes in packages of multiples. His father and brother had launched their own pet-supply businesses. Engel’s new wife, Remi, also helps him in the business, bringing with her design ideas and her own millennial flair, even launching the hashtag #womenwhoherring.

Each flavor comes with inspiration

Marketing aside, what truly sets Engel’s herrings apart (there are currently six varieties, and a seventh one will be released soon, he said) is that the flavorful, modern fusion-cuisine-take-on-classic-flavors are made from recipes using all kinds of sweet and savory spices, sauces and herbs, and are inspired by a Chassidic “Rebbe,” the teachings of whom Engel has learned. A story about each rebbe and how he edified Engel adorns each box of herring. For example, The Rebbe’s Choice’s sweet black-pepper herring is inspired by Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, who went to tremendous lengths and had great enthusiasm towards finding the good in people, no matter how evil or criminal they were. “Rabbi Levi’s fresh perspective and ardor are the inspiration for this savory and deeply flavored herring,” Engel writes on the label.

Engel has so far singled out rebbes from Lelov, Kotzk, Rimanov, Ropshitz and Zusha, and written inspirational vignettes about their teachings and why they inspired a particular flavor.

Future plans include two types of high-quality smoked salmon, plain and with pastrami flavoring, and a line of flatbread kichel (a Jewish type of cookie), inspired by the Hungarian Kerister Rebbe, a rabbi from the Tokay region of Hungary known for his incredible hospitality towards strangers. The kichel is not dipped in sugar like the kichel many Americans know, but it is savory and cracker-like and more typical of old Europe. It’s meant to be eaten along with the herring, of course. Engel reported that he had recently returned from Budapest, where he drove multiple hours to visit the kever (grave) of Reb Shayale of Keristir to gain inspiration for the kichel.

But it’s not just about inspiration; Engel is serious about business as well. He and his production team, which includes one full-time manager and several part-timers, take pride in a set of common-sense principles for food safety and sustainability. Their fish products are made from Atlantic Herring, primarily matjes, sourced from the Atlantic Ocean from either Europe or Canada, and are bought from fisheries that practice sustainable practices so that ocean-dwellers other than herring aren’t caught in the nets and the supply isn’t depleted.

Engel said he benefited from studying for his ServSafe NYC food-safety handler licenses, finding them instructive in making safer choices regarding fresh ingredients and preparation methods. “Stored properly, our cured and pickled herrings are good for six weeks, as per the label on the package. You can tell our herring is fresh by how firm it is. Herring that is soft or mushy is usually frozen, whereas our product is fresh,” he explained.

Competitors eyeing the success of Engel’s branding have already begun making attempts at copying the products of this quick-growing company, though Engel has taken this gesture of his competition in stride and even with some cheer. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if I made big enough waves that the largest fish and appetizing companies want to copy me, I know I’m doing something right.”

Still, it’s unlikely that any impersonator can hope to match the inspiration and success of the brand, as it’s very clearly rooted in and growing from Engel’s personal interests and experiences.

The 12-ounce boxes of herring are hand-packaged out of its 1,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City, N.Y. They are made without artificial ingredients or color, and several of the herrings are made without sugar in order to be suitable for those following diabetic diets. All herrings are gluten-free; several contain sesame or egg ingredients, but are clearly marked as such.

The products are now available in select locations in Los Angeles; Minneapolis; Glendale, Colo; Evanston, Ill; Southfield, Mich; Cleveland Heights, Ohio; Dallas; Atlanta; and Boston and several cities in Florida. Since 2018, they have become widely available in kosher stores and supermarkets with kosher sections in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

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