Sep 27, 2010

It's a Kosher, Kosher Nation

Thanks to a marathon session of Eat, Pray, Sleep (hat tip to Adina on that one, talking about the three-day chagim), I had a lot of time to read. My usual intent is to avoid school reading on the chagim and Shabbat, because, for me, school is my version of "work." I sometimes make exceptions for Judaica because, well, Judaica is my school, my blog, my work, my life. It's a delicate balance, but I work it out well. Thus, most of the time, I read what I'll call "pleasure reading" books over the chagim and Shabbat -- usually historical fiction (in the vein of "The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer and the like). Every now and again, I'll sit down with something more serious (or not) in the realm of nonfiction. This past three-day Sukkot/Shabbat fest had me glued to my chair with Sue Fishkoff's upcoming book, "Kosher Nation: Why More an More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority."

I got the book as a pre-release read, one of the many perks of being a blogger. I was notified of this book's impending publishing many months ago, and I even blogged about it over the summer in my "I'm An Oscar Meyer Weiner ..." blog post. I was seriously excited. So let's talk.

I haven't had a chance to read Fishkoff's "The Rebbe's Army," yet, but after reading "Kosher Nation," I can only imagine how good it must be. Fishkoff has this elegance about her writing, reporting without being forceful, and maintaining a neutral point of view. Fishkoff is a reporter with JTA, so I have high standards for these writer types -- can they write? or are they just good reporters? are they biased? is there an underlying current of sentiment? do they let the sources speak for themselves? is the BIG QUESTION answered or are we at least left questioning?

Synagogue membership went up during Prohibition because
sacramental wine was exempt from the law!
The great thing about Fishkoff is that she's not only an amazing reporter, but she's also a talented writer (a rarity -- in my experience, you can either report well and write worth you know what, or you are an amazing writer but fail to report properly). The individuals that pepper this book -- from the masghichim to the "eco-kosher" movement specialists to the big wigs at some of the nation's largest kashrut authorities -- tell the story for us, Fishkoff just sews the stories together, creating a fluid discussion of the boom in kosher in the United States. We learn about why people buy kosher (and most of those people aren't even Jewish) and why companies seek out kashrut status -- even when they don't have a large Jewish customer base. The story of a baker who seeks out certification because he wants his patrons to trust him when he says that he only uses vegetable shortening is a perfect example of what Fishkoff is trying to explain: Kosher isn't just Jewish.

I applaud her for not dwelling solely on the politics of kashrut, and she blocks off the issue to a few chapters, which is appreciated. The politics are explained with a delicate pen, and reading about the kosher wars of the early 1900s blew my mind. There could be a movie ... based on the book. I have a title: "Kosher: A Bloody, Bloody History." It's multi-faceted, of course, because we have the blood draining of animals, but also people being killed over it. Yes, killed. You want to read the mafioso-like stories? Buy the book. But really, it will shock you. You think the Rubashkin and Monsey chicken fiascos were bad. People have been killed for less. Over KASHRUT.

All the drama aside, the book left me with a lot of things to think about. Because the book is filled with stories -- the plight of the mashgiach, the struggles of the eco-kosher movement, the battle to keep kosher when you live in the middle of nowhere -- we hear a lot from people. Most of these people talk about the way food helps them connect to HaShem, which I think is something I didn't expect. For me, kosher means being 110 percent cognizant of every item of food you put in your body, because every step of the process requires you to think, think, think about what you're doing (what you buy, how you prepare it, how you cook it, how you eat it, what blessing you say, etc.). Thus, it was incredibly meaningful to read about the very religious experience people have with food and why keeping kosher is more than just laws and customs. Hearing the mashgiach of a Northwestern juice factory talk about davening Yom Kippur and fasting in a factory -- alone -- and how it was the most powerful Yom Kippur for him because he did the work in prayer and didn't rely on a chazzan? That's brilliant. That's a narrative worth reading. 

Kosher meat market on the Lower East Side
But then there were the ... less than stellar moments in the book. Hat's off to Fishkoff for including everyone -- including the naysayers. But some of these people ... yikes. There's the 40-year-old California chef who thinks that kashrut is an insult. It disallows you from having meals with other people (which, I sort of get the logic of). What I don't get the logic of is her asinine reason for eating pork. You see, this woman's mom was a "hidden child" during the Holocaust, and as a result, her mother regularly ate pork and bacon growing up. Thus, this woman, this 40-year-old woman, feels obligated to eat the stuff ... "I feel like I would be betraying my mom if I didn't," she said. Are you kidding me? That's like saying, my mom stole stuff, so to honor her memory, I do the same. I mean, really? The book goes on and on about secular Jews who don't keep kosher but can't bring themselves to eat pork and shellfish -- the two biggies for most Jews on the "don't eat this" list. And this woman honors her mother, who survived the Shoah, by eating pork. Barf. This is the crazy of kashrut. It's unfortunate, I think, that this woman feels this way. (She's quoted later in the book talking about how ridiculous she thinks kashrut is, and she's really the only person in the book who appears to have a negative view of kashrut.)

And then there's the shocking. I already alluded to the kosher wars of the early 1900s, but the statistics that appear in the first several chapters of the books are plentiful and sometimes shocking. Here's the one that struck me the most: "According to a 2006 Conservative movement survey ... 87 percent of Conservative rabbis and cantors eat in non-kosher restaurants, although just 9 percent will order meat" (98). Eighty-seven percent? That's an incredibly, incredibly high number I think. Especially considering that the Conservative movement is -- according to its precepts -- just as committed to kashrut as Orthodoxy. Yet, yikes. There's a story of a woman in the book whose father used to take them out to eat dairy/fish at non-kosher restaurants, while they kept kosher in the house. One day, this woman's sister was eating her tuna salad sandwich when she realized it tasted funny. Turns out the tuna was chicken. The woman's father vowed that they'd never eat out again, and the woman -- to this day -- keeps kosher. In my mind, there is enough room for error in non-kosher restaurants that I wouldn't even want to approach the idea of eating out vegetarian/dairy. When Tuvia and I decided to go kosher both in and outside of the home, it was largely because we just couldn't deal -- the idea that we had no idea what the fish we were eating out was being cooked with (on the same grill as pork? as a cheeseburger?) disturbed us to the point that we couldn't negotiate that anymore. Even eating out cold -- you don't know that the salad knife didn't also cut some catfish for that yummy fish salad they also serve. The Conservative rabbis stat just bothers me. It seems, well, questionable.

Lastly, I just want to mention one more interesting storyline: the 2008 creation of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. Yes this is a group devoted to the old-school way of Reform Judaism: no Hebrew, no kippot, no tallit, no b'nai mitzvah, etc. These individuals see other Reform Jews on the slippery slope of observance and "recognizing Orthodox authority." The concept of this is fascinating and frustrating. I'm curious if any of my readers are keen on this movement or know anyone in the Reform movement who is jonesing for the days of yore.

Overall: Sue Fishkoff is amazing, and this book was a beautiful exploration of kashrut -- from here to the plants in China that excitedly seek kashrut status. Fishkoff really takes us into the world of the mashgiach, restaurants, factory life, and why so many people trust items that are kosher, despite so few buyers in the market are actually purchasing the items for religious reasons. The balance of the book is excellent, and Fishkoff lets the stories and individuals speak for themselves without pushing an agenda. Definitely pick up this book. You'll be surprised and shocked at the detail that goes into ritual slaughter and the ease of which some mashgiachs simply push buttons to get the process done. Either way, this book has something for everyone -- even the non-kosher consumer.

If you read this, let me know what you think. I'd love to start a dialogue!

PS: Did you know that treyf doesn't mean "not kosher" or "unfit," but rather refers to tearing -- the prohibition of tearing the flesh from an animal (לטרוף). Fascinating!


Leah Sarah said...

The conservative rabbi bit about eating at treif restaurants is a little shocking. It goes back to how can you expect your congregation to be observant when you are not? Conservative halacha about kashrus is as strict as Orthodoxy but has some leniencies Orthodoxy doesn't have, like the tshuva that all cheese in the US is kosher as long as it is made with non-animal rennet, and all (white?) wine is kosher from the US because of the US government's own rules governing these items. However, treif is still treif, and kli makes things treif, too.

I do know quite a few "Modern Orthodox" folk who also eat dairy/vegetarian out at non kosher restaurants. That kind of also drives me nuts.

I work in a kosher restaurant and have worked closely with the mashgichim of our vaad, and it's all really interesting. It seems largely political. It also seems much easier because the owners of our restaurant are observant Jews who are well known in their respective communities, so a certain level of trust is placed in us not to screw things up. I love working in a kosher restaurant and combining my love of all things Jewish and mitzvos and all that with food. Yay food! I have learned so much about kashrus working here, it's amazing!

Dani said...

This book was mailed to my office over the chag, and I received it today. I figured I wasn't the only blogger to get it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Re: Classical Reform Judaism - yep, that is kind of alive and well in places in the UK, but just replace the word 'Reform' with 'Liberal' and you'll get the picture.

Having had my brush with a Shabbat service where it felt distinctly church-y, it makes my skin itch a little, but I can't put myself in a place of judgment on this (not that I'm saying that you are). I expect the road that I'm following (Bat Mitzvah-ing, tallit and kippah-wearing, service-leading) is making you a tad uncomfortable, so each to their own.

But still.... hmmm....


Daniel Saunders said...

The stuff about the Conservative movement is interesting, sociologically. It would be interesting to follow it up in other areas.

I thought treif (in the biblical sense) referred to the animal being torn i.e. killed by another animal, rather than the prohibition of tearing the flesh from a live animal.

Be glad you live in a country where kashrut is so secure. Shechita has been banned in several countries, and the campaign against it in the UK has just restarted, with animals rights groups demanding that shechted meat be labelled along the lines of 'this meat comes from an animal that was not stunned before slaughter'.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@ShavuaTov Uncomfortable? Never! Why would you even *think* that? I used to joke about having a bat mitzvah party 12 years after I converted Reform :) My friends were stoked about the idea. I'll never understand the pull to wear a tallit or kippah for a woman, but I'm comfortable with anyone who chooses to do that for their own fulfilling of how they understand the law. I'm a firm believer in "to each their own." What's right for me isn't right for everyone or anyone, for that matter. The joy of Judaism is rocking it at your own pace in your own way. I have no right to say what is right for anyone else, I just know and do what's right for me.

@Daniel I should reread that passage and see what it says ... but I'm pretty sure she connected it to tearing flesh from an animal.

@Dani Yup :) I got it a few weeks back but couldn't bring myself to read it over Yom Kippur, hah.

@Leah The cheese and wine thing shocks me. I mean, I get the bishul akum thing and how frustrating it can be, but ... I dunno. It's the whole idea that you have ZERO clue what's going into stuff if you're not supervising.

N Kabak said...

While I have heard that the Conservative movement allows California wines to be called Kosher, why only the white wines? My understanding is that because the entire process is mechanized and not touched by human hands, it is deemed Kosher.

BTW, there is a new film by PETA about Kosher slaughter in S. America pointing fingers at Rabbonim who promised to not give a hashgacha to "Hoist and Shackel" methods but have not actually done anything about it. It seems it has to do more with the owners not willing to convert and invest in better technology. Shame on them!

Amanda said...

From The Jewish Dietary Laws, a publication of The Rabbinical Assembly...

"All wines are kosher and thus do not require rabbinic certification [par a responsum from Rabbi Israel Silverman in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law]. (Brandy, cognac, sherry, vermouth, and campagne are wines.) During Passover, however only wine that is certified kosher should be used.

Especially when wine is required for the fulfillment of a mitzvah, such as the ceremonies of circumcision, weddings, kiddush, and havdalah, it is proper that the wine be certified kosher... It is of interest to know why, historically, only wine made under rabbinical supervision was permitted. The objection, in essence, was using wine made by non-Jews..."

There isn't anything in this guide about white v. red wine in the Conservative Movement, but I haven't read all the t'shuvot on the subject. The movement is pretty clear on eating food: (1) Kosher restaurants are 1st choice and (2) Meat should not be eaten, and cold foods/requesting paper plates is preferable.

Still, it isn't concrete... I just wanted to share some information I have. For the record, my husband (who is a Conservative clergy) doesn't eat out in any non-Kosher restaurants.

Can't wait to read the book, Chaviva! Thanks for the review!

Unknown said...

Thanks for calling me asinine. Much appreciated. I knew my comments would be offensive to some readers of this book. But your analogy about how I would steal if my mom did, was just plain wrong. Many parents of children who become more religious feel like their children are rejecting them. Because of her background, my mom always felt religiously conflicted. My mom raised me eating pork, and even though I later became more religious, I still felt that was one area in which I could not/did not want to change, especially since it didn't make sense to me in other ways. You are entitled to your views, of course, but it would be nice if you could express them without attacking others.

Rabbi V the ex-Intern said...

re Classical Reform -- I had a professor in college who was also the local Reform rabbi, and I was told (by one of the Judaic Studies professors who was close with him) that he had voted against the return to traditional practice not because he thought traditional practice in itself was bad, but because he felt that the people pushing for it just wanted to do it because they felt like it, and didn't have a philosophical/ideological basis that was guiding their decision-making.

Trading Education said...

Fishkoff introduces us to someone who regularly checks lettuce being prepared for bagging at a Dole plant.I hope that one day “Kosher Nation” will stand for a food system that embodies Jewish values of sustainability, environmental protection,workers rights,and humane treatment of animals.

Anonymous said...

Classical Reform Judaism is a viable option and a thriving movement of Reform Jews who are seeking to advocate for the universal prophetic ideals that made our movement great, and working to ensure that worship services are accessible to those who do not know "the secret code" by having a primarily English based service and a warm welcome for interfaith families. You may not like the option for your self, but in terms of Clal Yisrael and Keruv, they are helping to create meaningful Jewish options for people who would otherwise not feel like there was a place for them in Judaism. You have to think long-term, not just short-term. On a longer term basis, reaching out to the disenfranchised and alienated is important keruv. Chabad knows this, but sadly so much of the alleged "middle road" of Judaism has forgotten the importance of compassion, patience and faith, and are to quick to judge and pronounce something or someone as "not Jewish enough". Kashrut is just one example where the line of what is sufficiently Jewish just keeps getting more and more strict until there will be only a few left standing. Jewish continuity DEPENDS upon groups of individuals such as Classical Reform Jews ( who are brave enough to break from the crowd.

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