Is My Food Jewish Enough For You?

Brown Shoes already linked to the great editorial by an Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in the NYT. Herzfeld condemns the (lack of) response from the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America to the abuses at the Agriprocessor plan in Iowa. I agree with and admire Rabbi Herzfeld, who clearly states that kosher food must be produced in a manner consonant with Jewish ethics, which means the workers must be treated fairly and humanely and the companies must follow all relevant secular laws as well as the laws of kashrut. But I’m not surprised that his is a minority opinion. My own experiences with kashrut have nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with power.

My admittedly uneducated reading of the Torah tells me that the dietary laws originated as a way of separating the ancient Israelites from their neighbors. We know who we are in part by knowing who we are not, and a nation struggling to form and survive had to find ways to hold itself together. I don’t believe that kosher food was somehow healthier; sure, pork carries disease, but so does chicken. I grew up in a decidedly non-Kosher home, as I’ve mentioned before, and never found the idea of kashrut appealing. It’s so complicated, and it uses so many dishes, and I like lobster and cheeseburgers and bacon and parmigiano cheese on my bolognese sauce.

Sam and I continue to struggle with our observance of kashrut, which at the moment is no observance at all. We are drawn to eco-kashrut but haven’t really integrated it into our lives.  I suspect this would be easier for us if we hadn’t spent the last eight years feeling bludgeoned by our local JCC and their kashrut policy.

Our JCC is not a kosher space. My friends in the local Orthodox community are quite clear on that. Unlike the day school, the JCC allows people to bring in food. There is a supervised kitchen in the building, and food that is prepared in that kitchen is kosher, but the space itself is not. My daughter has been in daycare and afterschool care there for eight years,  and once we moved past formula we had to supply her with a “kosher-style” lunch. No pork products, no shellfish, no combining milk and meat. No yogurt with her turkey sandwich. It’s not clear to me what purpose this serves. I do understand why I can’t bring in homemade cupcakes on her birthday and I don’t mind paying the JCC to provide a kosher alternative so all the kids can enjoy it. But treyf is treyf. To those who actually do keep kosher, my daughter’s turkey sandwich is as unkosher on its own as it would be with cheese on it. If I were concerned about my child eating treyf food, I wouldn’t want her sharing someone else’s nonkosher meat.

We put up with all this without complaint for a few years; our daughter was happy and safe and we liked her teachers. But then when she was five she came home bereft one day. The promised cookie-baking had been cancelled. Why? Because a parent had walked in while they were getting ready and questioned the kashrut of the cookies; the mix withstood scrutiny but the oven had been turned on by the non-Jewish director of the program. “That’s not kosher!” she decreed, and the teachers promptly turned the oven off and canceled the program. The JCC director agreed with the parent. The Orthodox rabbis in the community could not agree, but faced with a controversy the JCC daycare simply stopped baking. My daughter said “You would have  let me eat the cookies. Does that mean we’re not Jewish”? According to some people, honey, I suppose we’re not.

Sam and I struggle even more with the JCC policy that requires all organizational events to be kosher, not kosher-style, which means if our small building-less congregation wants to hold a service or a study session there we can’t bring in food for an Oneg Shabbat.

Jewish life and observance revolves around food. We no longer make animal sacrifices, but the ritual around food and meals can still draw us together and sustain us in our families and communities. Feeding ourselves and the ones we love should foster joy and renewal, not division and resentment. I am not criticizing individuals and families who do keep kosher. When my Orthodox friends come to my house, I serve them whole pieces of fruit on paper plates and nice glasses of seltzer. When I go the their houses, I bring kosher wine or food from the supervised bakery. And at least organizations like the day school are consistent: kosher food only. But forcing me to bring in my own food and then forcing me to make it look kosher makes no sense and serves only to make me eventually resentful of the whole idea of kashrut.


12 Responses

  1. dan (my fiance) and i ended up keeping mostly kosher by accident. were ovo-lacto vegetarians and it turns out most vegetarian food sports the little k of kosher certification. plus we dont eat meat, so that takes away any chance of mixing our milk and meat.

    but dan grew up in a jewish home where bacon, pork bacon even, was well loved. his jewish mother was known to on occassion cook pork chops.

    i grew up in a overall non-religious home, although my family’s background is catholic. we ate meat on fridays just like non-catholics.

    religious laws dictating what can and cannot be eaten just seem strange. i am almost certain that all the christians and jews that i kno wear clothing made of blended fabrics, which from what i understand was also forbade.

    this reminds me of the question of circumcision. afterall, all jewish boys must be circumcised, but dan and i arent 100% comfortable with the idea of cutting off a part of our still hypothetical son when theres no clear medical reason to do so. can our hypothetical uncircumcised son be jewish?

  2. I think ultimately only the Reform would recognize your son as Jewish if he wasn’t circumcised, but then, if you didn’t undergo an Orthodox conversion, it’s highly likely that only the Reform would recognize your son as Jewish even if he did get circumcised.

  3. as far as i know jewish status is defined by parentage (matrilineal for orthodox and conservative), or either parent plus active identity for reform and reconstructionist. i don’t think circumcision plays into it at all. its somethign jewish tradition says to do but there are a lot of those, and a lot of jews who choose not to do them 🙂

    i think there is an active subgroup of recostructionist jews who do naming ceremonies for their sons similar to those for daughters rather than circumcision.

  4. regarding kosher food, I’ve seen similar policies at my local JCC’s. I think they are trying to balance a lot of different needs, and working with both multiple definitions of kosher (certified by a rabbi vs. by ingredient vs. at home only vs. everything by unkosher meat and shellfish ok) as well as jews who consider keeping kosher central to their jewish identity and jews who don’t consider it part of their judaism.
    it sounds like they’ve chosen the sort of compromises that leave everyone a little frustrated.

    as for you guys not being able to bring in food, i think that’s an unfortunate decision. i can understand if they want to keep the oven a certain status but that should only apply to the kitchen, not the whole building.

  5. i think there is an active subgroup of recostructionist jews who do naming ceremonies for their sons similar to those for daughters rather than circumcision.

    That’s good to know. My husband and I have wrestled with the question of circumcision, and while I don’t like the idea of altering someone’s body without their permission, I also don’t like the idea of my teenage or adult son having to choose between a very unpleasant procedure and a perpetual identity crisis.

    As for kashrut… I just don’t know. The problem is, since there’s an infinite number of ways to interpret Biblical texts, there’s no end to how strict kosher laws can become (Jenny Traig and Nathan Englander have written great satire on this). At a JCC, where not everyone adheres to the same level of observance, whose level do you make the standard? The strictest level? The most common level? The level of the loudest person?

  6. GD, seems to me it’s usually the level of the loudest person, who, sadly, seems to usually be the strictest too. This is why secular Israelis can’t muster up the level of protest of the Haredim when it comes to their reservoirs being shut down on Pesach.

  7. very good to kno re: circumcision. as i mentioned before, dan and i identify as followers of humanistic judaism, which is so incredibly liberal im certain circumcision wouldnt be an issue, but dan’s family is non-practicing reform and i would feel terrible upsetting them.

    while i understand there are religious reasons behind keeping a jcc kosher, i cant help but associate it with my own vegetarianism within a family of midwestern meat eaters, my cousin owns a barbeque and wing restaurant! while i have ethical issues with meat, i dont demand that people in my presence not eat it. i have a hard time understanding how what i eat has any bearing on you, or vice versa. and the cookie story is so sad! g-d hirself would have let those kids make cookies. only meanies take cookies from kids. but, my sweettooth could be showing.

  8. only meanies take cookies from kids.

    That’s our new tagline.

  9. It certainly ought to be!

  10. i don’t blog here, but i certainly support using “only meanies take cookies from kids” in all capacities. it needs to be common knowledge.

  11. I do blog here and I’m all for the new tagline!

  12. […] About Converting Posted on August 10, 2008 by Jay (in response to jessielikewhoa’s comment on my previous post and yes, it really […]

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