A Kosher Dilemma

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published June 25, 2008, issue of July 04, 2008.
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I’m having a crisis of conscience about kashrut. (For some reason I want to write “krisis of konscience about kashrut,” because it sounds vaguely like a hardcore band that would play headbanging songs about kale. But I suppose fans would want to call them by their initials, and that would really not be kool.)

Here’s the backstory. I’ve kept semi-hemi-demi kosher for a long time. For years I was a vegetarian (with exceptions made for my mother’s brisket), in large part because that meant I didn’t have to make a decision about whether to keep kosher. When Jonathan and I got together, I joked that it was a mixed marriage: I was a vegetarian and he was from Wisconsin. Bratwurst is an entire food group there. During every Milwaukee Brewers baseball game, there’s a Sausage Race, in which a Polish sausage, an Italian sausage, a hot dog, a chorizo and a bratwurst in lederhosen sprint along the field. (Note: They are not actually made of meat. They are people in 7-foot wiener suits.) My beloved’s favorite T-shirt says “Meat is Murder” on it in big letters, with smaller letters underneath it: “Tasty, tasty murder.”

There was no question of him going veg. And when Josie was born, he pressured me to make a decision: Would we or wouldn’t we? Kosher home, or let the bratwurst roam free?

In my wishy-washy way, I chose kosher. Ish. We bought only kosher meat, but we had only one set of dishes. Jonathan’s ancestral brats received an exemption, but he had to grill them outside, and I wouldn’t eat them. Many nights, I still eat vegetarian while he eats a steak the size of a Buick. The kids understand that Mommy and Daddy have different rules. Josie understands the fundamentals of kashrut, invariably adding, “And Bubbe has even more rules than Mommy.” Indeed.

Jonathan and I have been similarly inconsistent about eating organic and local food. As I wrote in a column a couple of years ago, respecting seasonality and time seems an integral part of Judaism. It feels right, Jewishly, to buy stuff grown locally and responsibly, stuff that isn’t drenched in chemicals and shipped, gas-guzzlingly, across the country.

A few years ago, we began subscribing to an organic fruit-and-veggie delivery service. But the day I stuck my hand in the box and pulled out a pineapple, like Little Jack Horner with a giant carbon footprint, I decided I really wanted to work harder to eat closer to home. We just joined a Jewish CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture program) called Tuv Ha’Aretz (literally “the good of the land”), run by Hazon, the environmental organization that looks at Judaism’s relationship to food and the earth. Our CSA gets its food from a small farm upstate; we pre-pay for a season of veggies; we meet the farmers; we pick up our veggies at the 14th Street Y, packing them in our own bags rather than having them delivered to our door. We work a couple of shifts sorting piles of radishes and garlic scapes. This summer, we’ll visit the farm.

To me, this kind of mindful consumption feels kosher. Kosher, after all, means fit. And I would like to feel good that my kosher meat is truly fit, too. The laws of shechita, ritual slaughter, are designed to make sure the animal dies quickly. The notion of tza’ar ba’alei hayim, not causing pain to living things, seems intricately tied to kashrut. Fitness should be easy.

Except, of course, that the nation’s biggest kosher-meat provider does not seem to have gotten the memo. As detailed in a series of articles in the Forward in the last few years, Agriprocessors, the slaughterhouse that supplies more than half of the kosher meat produced in America, is repeatedly running into trouble. First there were the secret videos taken by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals showing cows suffering horribly, both before and during their protracted deaths. Then there were the labor issues leading to multiple federal health and safety citations at the slaughterhouse, detailing vile working conditions. There were the repeat accusations of worker mistreatment and below-minimum-wage pay. On May 12, the feds stormed the plant, detaining nearly 400 undocumented workers, including children. On May 22, Uri L’Tzedek, a social justice organization founded by three Modern Orthodox yeshiva bokhurs, began circulating a petition, now signed by more than 1,500 people, asking the founder of Rubashkin’s, the company that owns Agriprocessors, to shape up. When satisfactory answers weren’t forthcoming, Uri L’Tzedek began a boycott of Rubashkin’s products. It started on June 15.

I called our butcher, a man I adore. He swore he doesn’t buy from the company, and, unprompted, began sputtering about the horrid way its workers are treated. Certainly there are purveyors of kosher meat who still have untainted reputations, like Empire, whose chickens are easily purchased in New York City. But what if I want hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-range beef from cows who sing happy Disney-like mooing songs? What then? The Park Slope Food Coop, which has carried Wise organic kosher chickens for years, recently began carrying its beef products. But I am not a coop member, in part because I do not know all the lyrics to “KumBaya.” Do I buy online, gasping at the cost? Do I pressure my local Whole Foods? Do I wait for the Conservative movement to start stamping beef with its proposed hechsher tzedek, a certificate of kashrut that incorporates ethical and environmental standards?

I don’t know. Some friends of mine are starting a share in a cow. Someone knows a farmer. The farmer’s cow leads a pure life, injected with far fewer chemicals than most of our major-league ballplayers. The cow will be killed painlessly, but not by a shochet. Do I want in? I think the last unkosher beef I ate was a Ball Park Frank at a Pawtucket Red Sox game when I was 6. But sometimes I think: If kosher is unkosher, why not go ethical? If I make the effort with fruits and vegetables, why not with meat? And if not now, when?

On the other other hand, I do understand what most Orthodox authorities are saying: Kashrut is entirely separate from oshek, the oppression of workers that Judaism forbids. And a cow staggering around with a slashed throat may have been killed within the letter of the law. The reason for kashrut, they say, is because God said to do it. Period. Ours is not to reason why. And yet I do.

Intriguingly, an article in Meatpaper, the best-named journal ever, last year looked at battles over shechita in 18th-century Poland. According to the author, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, a Ph.D candidate at Berkeley, the trouble began when Hasidim began using sharper slaughtering knives than non-Hasidim. The non-Hasidic (but still religious!) Jews claimed that those hyper-sharp knives could chip, thus rendering meat non-kosher. They accused the Hasidim of trying to be kosherer-than-thou.

If we retold this as a parable today, who would play whom? It’s food for thought. Meanwhile, I dither.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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