Ringing Up the Kosher Hotline

By Anthony Weiss

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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Rabbi David Polsky mans the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Hotline from a small, plain white office at the O.U.’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan. In the corner he has a large bookshelf containing volumes of the Shulchan Aruch and the Talmud’s Tractate Chulin, and a number of other books on kashrut, or Jewish dietary law. His desk drawer contains a copy of “The 2006 Kosher Supervision Guide,” published by Kashrus Magazine.

For many concerned customers, Polsky is the O.U.’s voice on matters of kashrut, a role that puts him at the center of many of the contemporary controversies over what can and cannot be considered kosher as the ancient code is ushered into the modern world: Do nonchewable vitamins have to be kosher? (Depends on whom you ask.) What about nonchewable prescription medicines? (No.) Do blueberries have to be certified as kosher? (No.) Raspberries? (Yes. They are prone to infestation by bugs.)

Polsky, who was recently ordained by Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, is 27, boyish looking and clean shaven. He wears black plastic-rimmed glasses and a yarmulke, and was recently married.

Could I please speak to Rabbi Goldberg?

Polsky’s job is part telephone operator, part database, part spiritual adviser. The O.U.’s kosher division has no receptionist, so Polsky often must redirect calls to various O.U. staff. (In an office that has three Rabbi Goldbergs, this is sometimes a challenge.)

Which Nestlé products does the O.U. certify?

Many of the answers to callers’ questions are on a database on Polsky’s computer. If that is insufficient, Polsky calls the rabbinical coordinator in charge of that company’s account.

Can I buy a fish I know to be kosher from a nonkosher fishmonger?

Other questions are less clear-cut, and with these Polsky lays out the issues carefully. If rabbinical authorities disagree, he explains the reason for this: Some say the fishmonger must be kosher; others say you can buy the fish as long as you scrub or remove areas exposed to a potentially unclean knife and cutting surface. Polsky doesn’t render binding decisions; in dicey situations, he suggests that callers consult their own rabbis.

I just bought some prunes marked with a K in a triangle. Are they reliable?

One question that Polsky will not answer is what he thinks of another organization’s certification. As he explains to callers, it is against O.U. policy to comment on the reliability of other certifications. (Libel is a major concern.) No amount of cajoling will elicit a response more revealing than, “I suggest you consult your local rabbi.”

Polsky thinks that eventually he may return to graduate school, or perhaps lead a congregation someday. But he said that, for the time being, he is learning a great deal. His on-the-job training has made him a minor expert in food science and practical kashrut, and his friends from the seminary now call regularly to ask his opinion.

Is this yogurt made with gelatin from a pig?

The job also has provided him with a touch of the unexpected. Though Jews make up the vast majority of callers, on occasion Polsky finds himself chatting with a Muslim about kashrut. The laws of kashrut and the Muslim dietary laws of halal overlap in certain areas — particularly when it comes to unclean animals — and periodically Muslims call in with questions. Polsky has learned to recognize Muslim callers, as their questions tend to revolve specifically around pigs.

He is particularly fond of the therapeutic role he plays for some people. Sometimes Polsky speaks with callers who are worried that their prescription medications are not kosher. Polsky is forceful in his response to them: Nonchewable prescription medications do not have to be kosher, and so the callers should not stop taking them. He reflects that his advice has “saved [people] a lot of pain and agony.”

Polsky’s year peaks in the month leading up to Passover, when his phone rarely stops ringing. At least one prominent rabbi has suggested that houses should be cleared of all nonkosher products, including laundry detergent or packing peanuts, and callers often reach Polsky in a near frenzy. He attempts to counsel moderation, explaining that while some rabbis recommend such activity, it is not required — even under the strictest interpretations of Jewish law. “When I’m able to correct these misperceptions, I think that makes life a little bit easier,” he said. After all, “stringency can lead to its own problems.”

Anthony Weiss is a writer living in New York.






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