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The Meaning of "Proper" Jewish Food Today

Sep. 14, 2015

By Merissa Nathan Gerson

Merissa Nathan GersonIt was a macrobiotic diet in Boston in the 1970’s that drove Miriam Ferris, a once-secular now ultra-Orthodox Chabad Rebbetzin (wife of the rabbi, queen of the orthodox Jewish castle) towards Judaism and eventually a strict life of solely Kosher food. “Brown rice, miso soup, sushi. We made it all. People thought we were crazy,” explained Ferris. “People,” in specific, were the ultra-orthodox community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn into which she was beginning to fold.

“Maybe by eating macrobiotic they were inadvertently eating kosher, cleaning out the spiritual channels and more open to learning about Judaism,” Ferris posits in her mini-van en route to drop a cake made from the Tassajara Bread Book to a family in mourning. “Macrobiotics gave me a foundation for food. I like the philosophy – grain, seaweed, vegetables – mostly cooked food. It is really about cooking with love and purpose.”

Ferris doesn’t fit the typical Orthodox Jewish bill — she cooks slow food kosher dinners, shops organically and rarely buys the processed kosher food that can be found in many an orthodox Jewish kitchen today. And kosher, her version, has to do with spiritual purity, local food ethics, something she links backwards to the macrobiotic movement that introduced her, through a series of twists of fate, to Judaism. Kosher is, for Ferris, essentially a set of laws defining an ancient slow food movement.

The laws of Kashrut, the kosher dietary restrictions, are a set of verbatim rules extracted directly from the text of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. These Jewish laws are followed in varying degrees across the spectrum of modern American Jewry, ranging in observance from 0% to 100% depending on the group of Jews. Orthodox Jews, those 100%ers, they follow all of the ancient biblical laws that dictate what to eat, how and when. For example, bottom feeders, animals with cleft hooves like pigs, or predatory birds are not to be eaten. Vegetables need to be checked for bugs, silverware and plates need to be ritually washed, and eggs need to be checked for blood spots. How to slaughter, how to salt and drain the kill, how and when to eat the meat are all rules spelled out with minute specificity. The original rationale had as much to do with eating, especially when eating meat, with heightened consciousness and awareness as it had to do with preventing disease and staying alive. Kosher in Biblical times and Kosher today, however, had different driving forces.

Since the 1970’s when Miriam Ferris arrived in Brooklyn, “kosher America” has evolved into a massive industrialized enterprise. Kosher, from the Hebrew word Kkasher, meaning “proper” is at its core a set of biblical laws regarding food preparation, dietary restrictions, animal slaughter and more. Kosher, on the one hand, is a code for sustainability, humane scale of agriculture, and of course, excellent post-harvest handling.

On the other hand, the modern Kosher industry has come to mean a barebones and very strict adherence to Biblical law in the ancient form, without attention to modern food politics, ecological ethics, or even health and nutrition. Kosher, in terms of the hoops companies go through for their approved products in supermarkets – has nothing to do with “clearing out the spiritual channels” or sustaining health or eating local and everything to do with following laws as they appeared, verbatim, in the original text of the Old Testament or Five Books of Moses.

“According to Halachah – Jewish law,” explains Ferris, “the health food criteria does not apply to kosher. Bottom line, we follow the laws of kashrut because it says so in the Torah. I know I sound all Bible thumping when I say that, but that’s what it comes down to.” Yet Ferris somehow weds modern food ethics and kosher standards, a rare ability."

The Gefilteria“Kosher in America used to mean an extra eye on foods we knew little about,” says Jeffrey Yoskowiotz – food writer and co-founder and co-owner of The Gefilteria, a rare small-batch artisan and kosher food source in Brooklyn. “With rabbis investigating ‘what is sodium benzenoid?’ There was another set of eyes – a service that wasn’t provided elsewhere,” he goes on. “With all the gluten free, organic certification, kosher was the first. It was another way of monitoring our food. People still think kosher means healthy when kosher has nothing to do with health.”

“Today, just because something is labeled as ‘kosher’, doesn't mean that it is good for you or produced in a way that is healthy for the environment and your community,” adds New Orleans chef Alon Shaeya of Domenica. “Focusing on how your eating habits brings people together and the impact it has on your body, your life, your connection to God and the people you love is what ‘slow food kosher’ should encompass.”

According to Sue Fishkoff’s book Kosher Nation, one-third to one-half of food in typical American grocery stores today are certified kosher by biblical standards. In other words, a large chunk of the hundreds of billions of industrial American food sales belongs to the kosher food industry. This, according to Fishkoff, is baffling insofar as “less than 2 percent of the population is Jewish, and only a minority of them keep kosher.” And despite Miriam Ferris’ romantic connection between macrobiotics and kosher food in her personal life, the connection unfortunately doesn’t translate to the national standards for kosher food. As Sue Fishkoff writes, “Multinational corporations don’t make kosher food to help Jews turn their bodies into holy vessels.”

What is compromised in this sweeping kosherization – an ethos that links food and land, product and freshness, a slow food mentality that according to Shaya was the driving force behind the origins of slow food cooking as we know it. “Keeping kosher makes you slow down before eating or drinking to think first about the consequences of how that food or drink will affect your body and soul,” explains Shaya. “I think that thousands of years ago, people had to step back before they ate to decide what was sustainable, what was unhealthy or potentially dangerous to eat and how to make the most out of your livestock and land to provide long term sustenance to your family. It could be that the laws of Kashrut were based off of some of these principles.”

Kosher laws, once meant to bind people to their land and community, to their consciousness, and to their spiritual and physical well being have been warped by industry and an increasingly right-winged Orthodox order that is steadily growing in strictness. “Kosher food being the first slow food, there is something to that,” says Yoskowitz. “There is a lot of time and care that goes into preparing traditional Jewish food – soaking the meat, draining the blood – the whole process of koshering meat, it takes time.” Yoskowitz posits that perhaps there is something akin to assimilation taking place – “It’s become easier to keep kosher in America – in some ways it has taken American convenience and society and imposed it on to kosher food.”

“It is so embarrassing how bad kosher food looks in the supermarket, I don’t know any other word besides gross to describe it,” laments Yoskowitz. “You can’t support local agriculture when all your vegetables come pre-washed in bags.” Adam Beirman, founder of Urban Adamah, a Jewish organic urban farm with kosher meal offerings in Berkeley has been attempting to bridge slow food, locavore ideologies with kosher standards for years. “Sustainable and local and kosher – doing all to the extreme hasn’t been possible for us,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time — maybe generations, maybe less — until kashrut evolves to include the ethics of food as we understand them today. But today there are many different ways that Jews think of themselves as eating ethically and traditional kashrut is only one of those ways.”

“There is a lack of understanding,” admits Ferris, “although healthy and local food ethos are permeating the orthodox community, little by little.” Still, she adds, “You go into a store in a religious neighborhood and all there is is junk food.”

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