Book Chat: Kosher Nation

— by Hannah Lee

Kashrut, the kosher dietary laws, is the original practice of mindful eating, set within a holistic framework”, said Sue Fishkoff at the symposium “How Kosher is Kosher?,” held on April 15th as part of the What Is Your Food Worth? series, hosted by Temple University and coordinated by its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.  

Fishkoff is the author of the 2010 book Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority and editor of J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. For about ten years before she began research for her book, she said that Americans had expressed an interest in where and how we get our food. What galvanized her to write the book was that Jews were beginning the same conversation from a Jewish perspective. “Every Jewish household has a kosher story, even if the family does not follow kashrut.”

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In 2007, Fishkoff read a report stating that kosher food is the largest and fastest growing segment of the domestic food industry. “While there are at most a million kosher Jews,” she cited, “there are another 12-13 million Americans who buy kosher products. Who are they and why do they choose kosher items?”

In 1972, Hebrew National launched its historic campaign featuring the character of Uncle Sam biting into a hot dog with the slogan “We answer to a higher authority.” “This was at a time where Americans had a sense of fear of governmental authorities”, said Fishkoff, “coming after the civil rights protests, the publication of Rachel Carson’s environmental wake-up call, Silent Spring, and the Vietnam War. The ad portrayed kosher food as safer and healthier.”

In the book, Fishkoff cited that recent polls showed that 62% of Americans believe kosher food is better, 51% believe kosher food is healthier and 34% believe kosher food is safer. “In this country with the world’s highest numbers of believers in God and the most trust in religious authorities,” she said, “this translates into a $200 billion a year kosher certified food industry.

Who buys kosher? People who are lactose-intolerant (75% of African-Americans are deficient in lactase, as well as 90% of Asians) have learned to look for the pareve label, signifying the food’s dairy-free status. Fundamental Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists who follow Old Testament prohibitions on “unclean animals” buy kosher meat. Many Muslims were given dispensation to buy kosher meat when their own halal meat was not readily available. Finally, non-kosher Jews buy kosher food for the holidays, so that the Jewish food companies earn 40-50% their annual revenue from their Passover inventory.

The rise of kosher certification is tied with the advancement of technology. In 1925, less than 5% of the food in a typical American Jewish kitchen was processed. As food technology expanded and the use of additives and preservatives increased, the Orthodox Union stepped in to regulate the food manufacturing process. In 1923, Heinz became the first company to put a kosher label on a food item — its vegetarian baked beans. To avoid scaring off its gentile customers, said Fishkoff, it used a symbol, the U inside a circle, that was easily recognizable by Jews. In the United States today, a kosher label is a sign of quality. That is not true in most of the world, including Great Britain, where lists of kosher products are prepared by their rabbinic authorities, and kosher-keeping visitors are advised to obtain those lists before shopping for groceries.

There are over 1,000 kosher symbols recognized in the United States today, with the “big four” — OU, OK, Star-K, and Kof-K — controlling 85% of the market. Supermarkets often stock only the big four, or even the “big one”, OU. The reach of the big four is global, with half of the food products exported from China being certified kosher.

Along with the profits comes abuse, sometimes benignly — as when Fuji placed a kosher symbol on its packages of film (without approval) because it was thought to promote sales. The biggest price differentiation is in kosher meat, so that’s where most scandals have occurred. “In 1914, Barnett Baff, who ran a wholesale poultry business in New York City, was said to be murdered by a cabal of 100 butchers who’d paid for his death,” reported Fishkoff.

In the 1920s, half of all poultry in New York City was sold as “kosher,” but it was estimated that about 60% of it was actually not kosher. In 1961, Rabbi Morris Katz published a scathing exposé of the kosher sausage houses in the Midwest, where he claimed that up to 80% of all “kosher” meat was treife (not kosher). This incurred the ire of the local rabbinical councils for making trouble and making a public scandal.

“Selective kashrus” was a term first used in the early 20th century, mostly by Reform Jews, to delineate the red line so they would eat what Gentiles ate while refraining from other forbidden foods such as pork. In Boston, this meant allowing lobster; on Long Island, it was oysters; in New Orleans, it was crayfish. In California, “kosher style” is now known as “New York,” as in New York delis.

As Jews became more assured of their status in America, they became more comfortable keeping kosher in public. Previously, it was rare for kosher food to be offered, even at large gatherings such as Jewish Federation’s General Assembly. The turning point was the Six-Day War that Israel waged in 1967, after which Jews began expressing pride of their religion. Nowadays, for many liberal Jews, eating kosher has become a symbol of “membership in the tribe” rather than an indicator of a fully observant lifestyle.  

Food Chat: Just a Pinch

— by Hannah Lee

When you might think of Jewish cooking in America, you might conjure the iconic Ashkenazic staples of gefilte fish and noodle kugel, but the earliest Jewish cooking in the Americas was Sephardic, said Emily August, Public Programs Manager, in her role as moderator for a program, “Just a Pinch: A Brief and Unofficial History of Jewish Cooking in America,” held on Wednesday at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Jews immigrating from Brazil brought their taste for almond pudding and fish fried in oil, which became a favorite food of our third president Thomas Jefferson, citing Ronit Treatman’s article in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

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Drawing upon the food-themed artifacts from its museum collections, she proceeded to delight and enlighten the audience with the assistance of the dramatic reading talents of four people: Francine Berk, currently playing the role of Bubbie in The Stoop on Orchard Street; B.D. Boudreaux, director of and playing Old Man in The Stoop on Orchard Street; Siobhan Reardon, the President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia; and restauranteur Audrey Claire Taichman, owner of Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill. Multilingual volunteers from the audience also participated in descriptive narration.

In 1889, Bloch Publishing Company, the oldest Jewish publishing firm in the United States, issued Aunt Babette’s Cook Book: Foreign and Domestic Receipts for the Household. It encouraged accommodation to American life with recipes for Easter, oysters, and treyfe (sic).

In 1901, The Settlement Cook Book: The Way to a Man’s Heart was published by the Milwaukee Settlement House and it became an important staple of the American kitchen for more than 50 years. In an interview before his death in 1985, the noted gourmet and author, James Beard, known as “The Father of American Gastronomy,” called this cookbook his personal favorite.  This cookbook was to serve as a guidebook for the new immigrants, to help them learn about middle-class American culture.

In 1914, the Hebrew Publishing Company issued the first Yiddish cookbook and it encouraged readers to adopt modern ways of cooking, moving from gefilte fish to American cuisine. It was printed with recipe instruction in both English and Yiddish, to avoid the language gap, so that the immigrant and first-generation members could cook together.

World War I brought the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act, to ensure an adequate supply of essential supplies to our soldiers and allies in Europe. The U.S. government printed and distributed pamphlets in diverse languages — such as Italian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish — to guide homemakers on healthy and delicious substitutions for wheat, meat, fats, and sugar. Among the tips were: one meatless meal a week and no second helpings. Herbert Hoover, then head of the Food Administration, set the moral tone with his slogan, “Food will win the war.  Don’t waste it.”

The Catskills grew in prominence as a vacation spot for middle class Jews, after the Grossinger family purchased its 100-acre estate in Ferndale, New York. Several postcards from these resorts and summer camp were read aloud by audience members: they all highlighted the food, whether delicious, as from the former, and terrible, as from the latter.

Another major culinary milestone was the introduction of Crisco in 1911. Proctor & Gamble made a special effort to target the Jewish homemaker, touting its product as pareve, light, sweet-tasting, and shelf-stable. In 1933, they distributed the 77-page pamphlet, Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife, printed in Yiddish and English.  The product, ranging from a 1-lb to 9-lb cans, displayed a blue-and-white label.

As an antidote to the growing secularism of American Jews, the The Jewish Home Beautiful, published in 1941, was an attempt to preserve Jewish ritual with Jewish tableaux (pictures of set tables). As an example of its attention to minute detail, the book recommends for Shavuot: serve two blintzes dusted with 10 lines of cinnamon, to represent the Ten Commandments.

In 1955, Gertrude Berg published The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook, written in the voice of her television persona. Its marketing success was a testament of the purchasing power of the Jewish viewer.

The next major culinary milestone was the formation of Hebrew National and its campaign to promote its frankfurters with the pamphlet 31 Ways to Make Hot Meals Out of Hot Dogs issued in 1955. Soon, its success lead other manufacturers to also appeal to the Jewish market. Planters issued Manna About Town in 1965 to promote its peanut oil. In it, “heirloom recipes…[are] lovingly laced with legend and lore.” Manischewitz introduced a Passover menu planner cookbook in 1963 (and its Passover Hagadah has become a fixture on the Jewish table). The editors knew their stuff and listed as the first ingredient for breakfast, prune juice.

Credit: Hannah WhitakerFinally, Bon Appetit magazine featured the resurgence of the Jewish deli in its recent September issue. Its Editor-in-Chief, Adam Rapoport, in an interview in Haaretz, gave a fitting conclusion to this program: “If you find a good recipe, hold onto it, but share it with a friend.”

Jon Stewart just doesn’t get it

— by Ilan Chaim

Why does Jon Stewart keep making inept jokes that offend Jews? Such a talented comedian, with such a good ear for irony, and such satirical skill in skewering deserving media or politicians-why must he trash Jewish symbols in the crudest of ways?

If he is too intelligent to claim ignorance, then is the only explanation that he does so out of hatred? And if we accept his protestations of Jewish identity, are we by definition talking about that cliché, Jewish self-hatred?

These questions and more were prompted by The Daily Show episode of June 26. In a piece on the Hebrew National kashrut scandal — certainly a legitimate target for satire — Stewart offered some observations on what makes things kosher. In doing so, he displayed at least a rudimentary knowledge of definitions; even pointing out that the language of the accompanying news clip “not entirely kosher” is what Jews understand to be “not kosher.”

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But then he proceeded to go off the deep end in a decidedly unkosher skit involving the circumcision of a hot dog to make it kosher. The skit, as a colleague pointed out, was worse than offensive-it wasn’t funny.

This is not-God forbid-to deny that circumcision can be funny. Jews have been telling circumcision jokes probably since Abraham, although it’s curious that in Google’s listing of many thousands of such jokes there is a separate category of “funny circumcision jokes” — implying there are also unfunny ones. There is even a separate category devoted to jokes about Tim Tebow’s mission to circumcise impoverished Third World boys, though this is not listed in a separate category of “gentile circumcision jokes.”

What was so offensive about Jon Stewart circumcising a Hebrew National hot dog? An initial test might be to ask whether this was the kind of joke he would have dared to try on a Jewish audience. In other words, was it authentic Jewish humor or was it the kind of “kosher style” ersatz Jewish joke an assimilated Jew such as Stewart has no qualms about milking for a gentile audience?

If one assumes that he is too intelligent to claim ignorance as an excuse, what explanation is left for this truly offensive lapse of taste? Perhaps an explanation may be found in previous gaffes, when he trashed Jewish holidays.

Stewart regularly plays Jewish holidays, Holy Days, and observances for laughs, which he draws from an always easily amused studio audience. He seems to think these supposedly comic references show the gentile world what a regular funny guy he is — and he is often brilliantly funny. What is not a laughing matter, however, is seeing a comedian who happens to be Jewish portray Jews by the worst kind of stereotypes.

The Daily Show

The Daily Show

In a September 2010 episode, he took Israeli diplomats to task for not attending President Barack Obama’s UN General Assembly speech and then disparaged the reason for their absence — the Jewish holiday of Succot.

In an April 2012 segment pitting Easter against Passover, while the premise was not necessarily a terrible idea, the punch lines trivialized nearly every important concept of the Jewish festival of freedom for the sake of a few cheap laughs. That the studio audience ate it up is no indication of its funniness — it’s a known fact that The Daily Show audience is warmed up before the taping and laughs at anything.

Compared to circumcising a hot dog — the Jon Stewart Hebrew National Bris — his Passover/Easter showdown was a triumph of understatement and good taste.

I have watched The Daily Show for years and am a great fan of Jon Stewart as a comedian who happens to be Jewish. Stewart displays great wit and is a constant delight skewering such easy targets as the Fox network. There is also a serious side to the show in many of his interviews, whose subjects are not allowed merely to plug their books, but also deal with serious issues that are a showcase for Stewart’s considerable intellect. It is Stewart’s own exceptional talent and obvious intellectual curiosity that make his vulgar Jewish references all the more embarrassing.

So what kind of a Jewish comedian thinks it funny to make jokes about Jewish stereotypes and who is his audience? I would put forward a very unscientific theory that someone who makes such jokes has a deficient sense of humor, if not just deficient common sense. If someone proudly delivers punch lines that are not funny, but brutally insensitive, that person just doesn’t get it.

The writer, a Jerusalem resident since 1972, is an editor, writer, and translator; a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post and information consultant to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.