Absolutely Kosher?

By Elisha Sauers

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.

“Absolutely marvelous news in the world of vodka!” read a press release issued by the Orthodox Union late last month.

In what the group called an “absolutely significant” move, the O.U. announced that six products in the Absolut Vodka line had received kosher certification and that the O.U. symbol soon will be gracing the vodka’s iconic bottles.

The announcement comes less than two years after police raided a beer-soaked house party in New Jersey, hosted by an 18-year-old yeshiva student. The O.U. — which is a kosher certifying agency and an umbrella organization for some 1,000 American Orthodox synagogues — launched a major push to crack down on underage drinking in its member congregations. Absolut, a brand of vodka known for its hip, playful magazine ads, has long been accused of targeting underage drinkers.

As part of its anti-alcohol abuse program, the O.U. took special aim at kiddush clubs, the informal groups of young to middle-aged men who will slip out of Saturday morning services for a belt of Scotch and some conversation.

“The Kiddush Club stands for far more than a callous disregard of the sanctity of the Shabbat service,” wrote Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U.’s executive vice president, in an essay on the issue. Weinreb, who is also a clinical psychologist, added, “This practice glorifies and idealizes alcohol at precisely a time when alcohol and other addictions are clearly on the rise in our community.”

Like Weinreb, spirits industry watchdogs have long been concerned with images that glamorize alcohol consumption, particularly those that are seen as targeting the underage drinker.

According to a study released in May by Georgetown University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, Absolut Vodka is second only to Jack Daniel’s among hard liquor producers who advertise in magazines that cater to readers between 12 and 20 years old.

Absolut, which is distilled and bottled in Sweden, has been one of the leading brands of vodka in America since early 1980s, in no small part because of an ad campaign commonly recognized as one of the most clever — and successful — in history.

According to Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, vice president of communications and marketing for the O.U.’s kosher division, certifying Absolut as kosher is not at odds with the O.U.’s efforts toward curbing underage drinking.

“I don’t know that Absolut’s marketing is toward the younger crowd,” Safran told the Forward. “I do know, though, that it’s one of the largest alcohol companies in the world, and our mission here at O.U. Kosher is to bring as many products to the community as possible.” Safran stressed that while the O.U. is concerned about alcoholism, it is by no means a prohibitionist organization.

“Everything we do is within the context of Judaism, and Judaism is all about moderation,” Safran said. “The fact is that Judaism’s most important occasions revolve around the b’racha [blessing] over wine. They are consecrated through an alcoholic beverage.”



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