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.”

More after the jump.
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.  

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Food Justice

— by Hannah Lee

“The first incidence of food justice occurred in the Garden of Eden,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, “when Adam and Eve chose to defy divine prohibition and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This moral consciousness formed the basis of Jewish ethical system and it was a matter of food choice.”

Yanklowitz spoke on April 15 at a symposium titled “How Kosher is Kosher?,” as part of the “What Is Your Food Worth” series, hosted at Temple University and coordinated by its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.

Rav Shmuly, as he’s known, burst onto the Jewish communal arena five years ago, after the scandal of Postville, Iowa, where federal agents conducted the largest immigration raid in United States’ history at the Agri-Processors kosher slaughterhouse. The agents rounded up illegal migrant workers who had been abused, threatened, and paid below-minimum wages. At the time, Agri-Processors slaughtered 60 percent of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher chicken. Rabbinical students at the time, Shmuly and Ari Hart, had founded Uri L’Tzedek the year before, which then launched an international boycott, signed up 2,000 rabbis and community leaders, and demanded transparency in worker standards.

More after the jump.
Uri L’Tzedek’s major contribution to Jewish social justice has been Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal certifying fair and just labor condition. Relying solely on volunteers in order to assure compliance, 100 food establishments now display the certification, and thereby declare that they provide their workers with a minimum wage at least, overtime payment and time off. Rav Shmuly said that one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world is Shabbat, incorporating the concepts of worker justice and animal welfare (giving both human workers and animals a day of rest), but a gap remains.
 
While the British philosopher David Hume famously declared that we care more about the stubbing of our toe than someone dying around the world, Rabbi Shmuly claims that today we are more aware than ever of the suffering in the world and it is time to expand our understanding of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, to include social justice and animal welfare.

Kashrut, said Rabbi Shmuly, is a powerful vehicle for social change, because we control the kosher industry with our purchasing power. Unlike the Conservative Hechser Tzedek (renamed Magen Tzedek), Tav HaYosher does not work directly with the kosher supervising agencies, for several reasons: the mashgichim, kosher supervisors, might be biased, they are not trained to look for ethical practices, and they might not be sensitive to the issues.

However, Shmuly cites an incident involving Rav Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement of ethical conduct: when Rav Salanter was invited to inspect a matzah factory, he noticed that the female workers did not get a single break in the entire time of the inspection. He concluded that they were over-worked and he resolved to not sign the kosher certification. Tav HaYosher focuses on highlighting the employers who abide by ethical worker standards, bestowing its seal of approval without demanding payment from their establishments.

Creating a new social movement is an uphill struggle to convince people to think beyond their wallet and how much their food costs. Rav Shmuly spoke about Primo Levi, who wrote about the worst day of Auschwitz being after the Nazis had left and before the Allies rescuers arrived. There were no rules and no one knew what would happen. Then, the inmates found some potatoes and they shared with one another. In this way, they regained their humanity, by not simply following a foreign sense of order.

Rav Shmuly declares, “We can build a community that cares about the environment, the workers, and the animals.” His newer Shamayim V’Aretz Institute promotes animal welfare and Jewish veganism.

In 2008, The Jewish Week recognized Rav Shmuly as one of the 36 most influential Jewish leaders under the age of 36. In 2009, the United Jewish Communities named Rav Shmuly one of five “Jewish Community Heroes.” Having earned two master’s and a doctorate degree (in Moral Development and Epistemology from Columbia), Rav Shmuly is now Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel in Kansas and he is the author of the 2012 book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice.

Readers who wish to become Tav HaYosher compliance officers, contact Uri L’Tzedek.

Food Chat: How Jewish Food Became Jewish


Ariella Werden-Greenfield

— by Hannah Lee

What makes food Jewish? “The iconic comfort foods of American Jews connect us with our heritage, but most of the items are not innately Jewish”, says Ariella Werden-Greenfield, a PhD. candidate in religion at Temple University. She spoke last week at the Gershman Y as part of the series on What Is Your Food Worth? coordinated by Temple’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. Some exceptions are bulkie rolls and matzo balls, which derive from challah and matzah, both prominent in Jewish rituals.

Jews have adapted recipes to the kosher ingredients available to them in whatever land they’ve landed. Pastrami, from the Turkish word, pastirma, we know as spiced, dried beef, but it originated in Romania where pork or mutton were instead used. The Romanian recipe arrived with the Jewish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. In Israel, it’s made with chicken or turkey. Corned beef, a salt-cured beef, is actually Irish, but the Jewish butchers sold cuts of brisket to the Irish, so they also offered it to their brethren.

More after the jump.
Fish was not sold together with meat products and it was not easily accessible to Jews in the Old Country. The advent of the canning industry expanded the dietary options for all Americans. Jews gravitated to herring, which was familiar and cheap; whitefish, a colonial novelty from the Great Lakes; and lox and nova, from the salmon which was previously unaffordable to Jews.

Most Jewish immigrants started life in America as peddlers. Historian Hasia Diner has written (in Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration) about how these Jews kept kosher during their rounds. Known as “orange eaters” or “egg eaters,” they ate these items, which were kosher because they had peels, while staying at the homes of their mostly non-Jewish clients. Other Jews, as they became successful, could afford new foods and they nurtured an interest in other people’s culinary worlds.

The Settlement Cookbook, first published in 1901, introduced American recipes to new immigrants. The major food companies took notice of the spending prowess of the Jews. In 1919, Crisco introduced its vegetable shortening and single-handedly revolutionized Jewish cooking, freeing it from a reliance on chicken fat, schmaltz. Maxwell House introduced its Passover Haggadah in 1934 and Heinz offered a kosher version of its baked beans in 1923. An audience member noted that the Heinz factories are cleaned and kashered on the weekends, so the kosher line is processed on Mondays, transitioning to the rest of the company’s products later in the week. In 1965, when Hebrew National launched its slogan, “We answer to a higher authority,” in reference to Jewish dietary laws, it was both a marketing strategy and a testament that the Jews have become established members of American society.

The infamous Trefa Banquet of July 1883 that served clams, shrimp, and frog’s legs to the first graduating class of rabbis from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was a clarion call by the Reform movement that they were not beholden to traditional Jewish dietary laws. An audience member suggested that Reform Jews would not be so audacious these days.

The process of assimilation also led to the delicatessen, the “temple of Jewish culture,” according to Werden-Greenfield. In “The Deli Man,” a documentary project by Erik Greenberg Anjou, the filmmaker claims that whereas 1500 Jewish delis used to be in existence, there are now only about 150 of them. This is also the message of David Sax’s 2009 book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Werden-Greenfield disagrees with their dire predictions and their low estimates.

The assimilated generations of Jews have become “bagel-and-lox” Jews or gastronomic Jews who eat the foods of their ancestors as their sole connection to their heritage. The nostalgia for the Old Country have shifted to a nostalgia for the old neighborhoods of immigrants, said Werden-Greenfield, citing the ubiquitous display of photographs and memorabilia from the early 20th century in delicatessens and restaurants. As further illustration of their place in our Jewish consciousness, she recited this poem:

“By the rivers of Brooklyn, There we sat down, yea we ate hot pastrami, as we remembered Zion” by J. W. Savinar, in a play on Psalm 137:1.

Kosher became “kosher-style” where kashrut is negotiable. “How do we make sense of a young Jewish man opening restaurants [in Brooklyn] named Treife [non-kosher] and Shiksa [non-Jewish woman]?”, asked Werden-Greenfield.  “He’s still engaging with kosher laws. He’s being naughty while confirming his discomfort with his heritage.” Werden-Greenfield also asked: Which is more Jewish? Matzah that is not processed according to Jewish dietary laws, or kosher-for-Passover bread? “Jewish food,” she concluded, “is always changing, always evolving.”

Are Shabbat and Kashrut Bad For Business?

As a founding member of the National Museum of American Jewish History I was troubled to learn of the museum’s decision regarding the discarding of time honored Shabbat observances. The museum’s administration has decided to sell tickets on Shabbat, keep the café open and rent space for Friday night events. Also the café will no longer be kosher and non-kosher catering will be allowed. As if all those changes were not enough, it was decided to change the annual marketing label “Being Jewish on Christmas” to “Being __ on Christmas”. They deleted the word ‘Jewish’ from their slogan but kept ‘Christmas’.
[Read more…]

Kosher Meat From Humanely Treated Animals

— by Hannah Lee

The novelist and biologist Barbara Kingsolver wrote about her family’s decision to eat only meat from humanely raised animals in her 2007 memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.  Merion resident Rachel Loonin was inspired by reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, also published in 2007, and she wanted healthy meat for her family that’s free of hormones, from animals allowed to eat what they’re meant to eat — grass, in contrast to conventionally raised cattle which eat genetically modified corn — and free of antibiotics.  She found it through Grow and Behold Foods which has been delivering kosher, pasture-raised beef to the Philadelphia area since last summer.
Its founder, Naftali Hanau, is a shochet (ritual slaughterer), m’naker (ritual butcher), farmer, and horticulturist.  While spending a summer at Adamah, a Jewish environmental leadership training center in northwest Connecticut, and learning about the ethical and environmental issues surrounding modern meat production, Hanau realized that for kosher Jews, there was no source for meat that abided by such values.  So, he set out to study shechitah, the practice of kosher slaughter, in Crown Heights, New York, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he has studied at butcher shops and slaughterhouses across the country.  His company provides OU-certified Glatt Kosher meat from  animals raised on small family farms.  It works with farmers who adhere to high standards of animal welfare, worker treatment, and sustainable agriculture.

The difference from conventional meat production is varied and nuanced: Grow and Behold sources its animals from farms near its processing facilities to minimize the time that the animals spend on a truck, being transported from the farm for processing.  At its slaughterhouses, the pace is slow enough to ensure that workers treat animals with respect, using the animal-handling guidelines developed by Dr. Temple Grandin to ensure that the animals are calm and stress-free from the moment they arrive at its facility throughout the shechitah process.  Its workers neither use electric cattle prods nor the shackle-and-hoist slaughter method, a cruel practice standard in South America where nearly all the other grass-fed kosher meat is produced for the U.S. market.  It regularly inspects the farms and reserves the right to inspect without notice at any time of the year.

As for business ethics, Grow and Behold pays its farmers prices that are generally above the national averages; it operates in small-scale slaughterhouses where employee safety is a top concern; it works with processors that pay their workers fair wages; and it respects Jewish halachic guidelines in all aspects of business, including strict standards of kashrut and ethical labor practices.

Now providing beef, chicken, and turkey, Hanau has not yet found a source for lamb that abides by their principles.  All of the unprocessed meat is always kosher for Passover, even if there is no specific “Kosher for Passover” marking on the package.

Loonin likes their Sara’s Spring Chicken (named for Hanau’s grandmother because it reminded her of the fresh fowl from her youth in Poland), which she cooks for Shabbat, using the chicken bones for soup.  She orders beef bones for stock and, following the teachings of Dr. Weston Price, she boils the bones for a minimum of 4 hours to draw out the nutrients.  Loonin also buys their flanken (aka as short ribs) for her Shabbat cholent. She orders enough to fill her freezer until the next monthly delivery date.  She says its meat is more gamey than conventional meat but it’s very tasty.

The cooking times for pastured meat is not much different than for conventional meat, but lean turkey does cook faster.  The chicken is best cooked at a lower, slower temperature.  Hanau prefers his beef rare.  The chicken is schecht (slaughtered) once a month and is delivered frozen.  If you’re pressed for time, Hanau says it’s safe to defrost in cold water, in its original packaging.  A small chicken will defrost in an hour.

Beef has been available since June, and its sale has been growing faster than the sale of chicken.  Whereas pastured chicken is about twice the cost of conventional kosher meat, beef is not as expensive, it’s comparable to high-end conventional kosher meat.  Hanau says people seem more willing to spend more on beef, maybe because “they didn’t understand the difference in how chicken is raised.”   The demand for turkey is not as high as for chicken, but for large holiday gatherings, Hanau says cooking one turkey is easier than cooking three or four chickens.

Grow and Behold Foods meats are not certified as organic because “the cost of certification is often too high” for the small farmers to bear and because Hanau feels the organic standards are not truly in line with what he feels are the best practices for raising animals.  For example, “USDA organic standards allow a chicken to be raised in near total confinement and fed nothing but organic corn and still be called ‘free-range organic.’  Those practices are unacceptable to us: we want the animals to be outside and enjoy life in their natural setting.   All of our poultry is raised on pasture when weather permits.  Our cows spend the majority of their lives on pasture as well.  We strive to always use the best possible practices, including encouraging our producers to use GMO- and chemical-free feeds whenever possible.”  These animals never receive growth hormones or routine doses of prophylactic antibiotics, which are necessary in the large feedlots where cattle are overcrowded and prone to stress-induced illnesses.   They’re fed a vegetarian diet– no animal by-products– consisting of a balance of hay, grass, and grain.

When Loonin first started buying organic chicken, her husband was in medical school, and she economized by serving it only when they were alone on Shabbat.  Now, she’s learned to serve smaller portions to everyone, even when they have guests.  She has chosen quality meat over quantity.  Loonin serves her family vegetarian meals during the week but they try to eat ethically all week long.  

In addition to individual customers, Grow and Behold also sells meat wholesale to local restaurants such as Zahav (although it is not a kosher establishment).  

The company ships nationwide by FedEx, going as far as Missouri, Texas, and Florida.  Packed in dry ice and insulated coolers, meat that is shipped from their East New York warehouse (close to the JFK airport) at 4 or 5 pm can be delivered the next day by 9 or 10 am.  FedEx by air is more expensive, so Hanau recommends a buying club for customers in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Louis.  In Philadelphia, the delivery charge is $5 per order.  Local pick-up stops are: Adath Israel in Merion, Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Germantown Jewish Center in Mount Airy, Mechor Habracha in Center City, and Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, New Jersey.  The next local delivery date is Thursday, February 23; orders due by 10pm on Tuesday, February 21.  Questions can be addressed to the company at: [email protected].

Where Less Can Be More

–by Rabbi Avi Shafran

“Can she have a cookie with a Pentagon-K on the box?” the voice on the phone asked and, after receiving my polite but negative response (a Pentagon-K?-now the Defense Department’s in the kashrus business? Who knew?), responded, “Fine, I’ll leave those in the cupboard.”

More after the jump.

It was the sort of conversation (emphasis on “sort”) that my wife and I had more than occasionally during the 1980s and early 1990s, when we lived in a city with only a small Jewishly observant community, and our children’s friends included not only other frum (observant) kids but children from less-observant families. The parents of those children knew that our kosher standards-whether regarding food, activities or entertainment-were different from theirs. And when our kids visited their homes, our less-observant neighbors-no less than we did for their visiting children with food sensitivities or allergies-took pains to make sure all special needs were fully accommodated.

Some might consider that situation clumsy, uncomfortable, even dangerous. But to us it was invaluable. We are grateful to G-d that we were able to live “out of town” for so long and only moved to New York (compelled by circumstances) after most of our children’s formative years.

Admitting that fact tends to raise eyebrows-at least those of people who never actually lived in a small frum community. “Come on,” the eyebrows’ owners respond, “you don’t mean to say that an environment with fewer frum Jews and Jewish educational opportunities, with more challenges to observance and more “foreign” influences, is superior, do you?”

Well, put that way, I’m hesitant to respond. But still and all, there are advantages to precisely such an environment.

Yes, in a large observant community, there are like-minded people pretty much everywhere you look, synagogues of all manner of custom; Maariv, or evening-prayer services at any hour of the night, meat restaurants and pizza places and kosher bakeries galore. Men’s and women’s yeshivos and seminaries of varied stripes, ritual holiday objects available seasonally on street corners, choices of study partners and observant neighbors, study halls and Torah classes. There are wedding halls and, may their services not be needed, Jewish burial societies.

And yet, the other side of the scales holds treasures of its own, some of them even born of the lack of religious amenities.

Variety may be the spice of life, and religious customs are certainly important. But when the numbers of “shul Jews” in a community are only sufficient to populate one or two places of prayer, Jews of different stripes have no choice but to worship among others whom, were they all living in a big city, they might never have met, much less bonded with as friends. Dearths of eateries are offset by increases in invitations for celebrations and Sabbath meals.

Torah classes and study partners? Well, out-of-town does mean fewer opportunities. But more impetus, too, to take advantage of what is available (and less ability to lay low and think no one will notice).  Being an integral part of a necessarily cohesive, small community, moreover, rather than a nameless member of a large one demands of a Jew that he or she not only write a check to the burial society or Eruv Committee but become an actual, active participant in such endeavors.

It is true that large observant communities can provide a measure of healthy insularity from the surrounding culture. But hard as the residents of religious neighborhoods may try to keep “the city” at bay, it will always have ways of infiltrating our enclaves. And metropolises tend to cook up the worst stews of challenges to Torah mores and proper behavior.

Smaller cities are hardly oases of healthy mores and manners. But the challenges they present are of a different order than those of New York or Los Angeles. Traditional values and civility are less rare, and more readily inform public discourse and behavior.

Out of town living isn’t for everyone. But Jews in the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods of frumdom could do worse than consider-if their work and family circumstances allow, and their spouses agree-the thought that leaving the plethora or shuls and bakeries behind and becoming important members of less endowed environments might just turn out to be the best decision they ever made.

European Rabbis Slam Dutch Ban on Jewish Slaughter

–by the Conference of European Rabbis

The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) has slammed a decision by the Dutch parliament to ban Jewish religious slaughter.

CER President Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt called the ban an outrage in that it would prevent Jews from living a Jewish life in The Netherlands.

“We have passed the stage of arguing the nuances of intention of anti-Semiitsm. The practical effects of this bill mean that Jews are no longer welcome in The Netherlands. This has not happened for 70 years,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said.

On Tuesday, the Dutch lower house passed a bill banning all meat which is not stunned before slaughter.

The effect of this legislation will see the banning of kosher and halal slaughter.
Rabbi Goldschmidt said that “on the basis of flawed and agenda-based science and merely to appease an ill-informed Animal Welfare Lobby, the Netherlands has thrown away centuries of liberalism, human rights, welcome and tolerance for Jews.”

“We will not rest until this discriminatory, intolerant and hateful bill is thrown out. We call upon the members of the Dutch Senate to use their constitutional powers to restore the dignity of their country,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said.    

The Conference of European Rabbis federates Jewish religious leaders in over 40 European states and includes all the continent’s chief rabbis and senior rabbinical judges. The CER holds consultancy status as an NGO at the Council of Europe and within the institutions of the European Union.