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Dining or Dying – A Jew’s Conundrum in Zimbabwe

Food, food, everywhere, but not a morsel to eat. My play on words exaggerate, but as a traveler in a strange land, my eyes often feasted upon a surfeit of food my commitment to kosher forbade I consume.

In late 2015 my father died in Harare, Zimbabwe and I inherited his property which included land. With a great deal of help I subsequently transformed this property into a working farm which has provided significant employment opportunities to the local agrarian community which suffers from extremely high levels of unemployment. In addition, the crops grown on the farm are staples of the traditional Zimbabwean’s diet – corn, sugar beans, and rapeseed. We sell all harvests locally, at substantially reduced cost, and reinvest the proceeds into expanding the farm.

One might ask, “If she visits her farm where she grows food, why not cook and eat that?”

Primarily because it is a working farm with rudimentary housing for a farm manager, caretaker, and their families. Therefore, I do not stay at the property when I visit, and as a hotel guest it is not possible to cook in my room. Zimbabwe, like many African nations, has a very unstable power infrastructure. The government conducts daily rolling power outages, sometimes lasting for hours on end, and because of this and other issues, using power is very tricky business. Most hotels prohibit cooking on hot plates and to disregard this can result in electrical surges that plunge everyone into darkness.

I do not consider myself a “kosher” warrior, though I know many who are, and unlike those who choose to live on barely heated freeze dried camping food, protein and cereal bars, etc., my nutritional and medical requirements are not compatible with this approach. During my initial visit, I lost a lot of weight because my kosher food options were so limited. The grocery stores carried a variety of products marked with the proper Orthodox Union hechsher, which is a rabbinical product certification that the items conform to the requirements of halakha (Jewish law). These included potato chips, soda, cookies, candy bars, condiments, sugary juices, teas, etc. — in other words, a child’s dream diet. As someone who possesses a healthy respect for the admonitions of the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Controls advisories, finding something to eat which would not kill me or violate the rules of kashrut became something of an onerous endeavor. I could have taken a chance eating fruits that were definitely treated with pesticides banned in most Western nations and may or may not have been irrigated with clean water — can you say Salmonella?

Eating cooked vegetables were no better, because I was unable to inspect them prior to cooking to confirm that they were insect free — this too is a strict halachic requirement for eating kosher. Eating uncooked vegetables carried an even greater risk of catching Hepatitis A at worst or Cholera at best, ensuring that each meal was a spin of the barrel in game of Russian roulette with a potential outcome of death. My sister, with whom I travelled to bury our father, was able to eat everything the hotel served, which in large part was based upon the typical English diet. Breakfast included pork sausage or bacon, eggs, fried or grilled tomatoes, and scones with butter. Nothing a Jew could eat there.

“I’ll have a bottled water please and coffee well done.”

After a few days, my hunger pushed me to reconsider my predicament and I entertained the idea of eating from the hotel menu. Surely, I thought, the dinner selection would include an expanded menu and I could find something to eat using my plastic utensils and paper plates. But alas, I was disappointed, as the selection du jour was shrimp, fried fish, pork, and meat known in parts of East and Southern Africa as nyama. I could not even eat the fried fish since it was certainly fried using the same utensils which earlier prepared the pork. “I’ll have a bottled water please and coffee well done.”

That night when I returned to my room I absently munched on Pringles, made in Israel, and found myself reminiscing about my conversion and the question asked of me by the three Orthodox Rabbis who sat before me.

“Should you be allowed to convert, what foods will you miss most?”

Many before me mentioned the typical prohibited foods like pork, cheeseburgers, or lobster, but since I spent my formative years in Africa as an American expat, my palate ran to the more exotic. Then as now, I reminisced about my mother’s cooking, first as a master of southern American cuisine, and later in Africa as a quick study in the preparation of local dishes. There is nothing like the fragrance of African cooking suffused with the pungent, heady afterglow of cardamom, cumin, curry, cloves and other spices. I recall my mother’s long, elegant hands kneading the dough for bread she prepared for each meal, and the succulent aromas which escaped the oven as it cooked and which still inhabit the olfactory space of my memory.

Some of my other favorite dishes were beans cooked in red palm oil and seasoned with dried prawn, smoked fish, coconut curry chicken and rice, and roasted meat purchased roadside and best consumed without thought of its origin. I particularly craved roasted termites, but that is another story. Suffice it to say, I like to eat.

There are no resident rabbis in Zimbabwe, and only approximately 120 Jews live in the country, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, chiefly in Harare and Bulawayo. Consequently, there are no kosher restaurants, grocery stores, butcheries, or other services that American Jews take for granted. This left me with very few eating and dining options except for a fanatic diet based upon water, coffee well done, junk foods and snacks. As I tried figure out what to do, I thought about what my friend and former rabbi, Jack Moline, wrote in Growing Up Jewish: “Everyone who keeps kosher will tell you that his version is the only correct version. Everyone else is either a fanatic or a heretic.”

I do not judge others for their level of kashrut or “Jewishness,” and seek to align myself with those who share this philosophy. I am the product of an interfaith family — my father was Muslim and my mother is an ordained Baptist Minister, and this intersection of Abrahamic faiths and my subsequent conversion provides me with a unique perspective that inspires me to engage in pursuits that highlight our commonalities and not differences. It motivates me to practice of Tikkun Olam, which is the Jewish concept of acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. Making sure that the Zimbabwe Farm Project continues to succeed is the cornerstone of this passion, and in order to fulfill my mission, I had to eat.

My dining quandary was resolved in an unusual and controversial manner when I chose to eat Halal. There is a sizeable Muslim community in Harare, and as such, there are several Halal-certified establishments. Food served in these establishments are prepared and served under similar strict requirements as kosher, but are also distinctly different. Orthodox Muslims can in extremis eat kosher food, though the converse is not true for observant Jews. For me, it was a relief to be able to eat in a restaurant in which no pork, carnivorous animals, or birds of prey were cooked, which only served meat which had been ritually slaughtered and fully drained of blood, and did not serve items permissible in Islam but forbidden in Judaism, such as shellfish and squid.

Being able to eat a hot, delicious meal was like dying and going to……. or some such place. But, my happiness was slightly dampened by the reality that eating Halal may have resolved my hunger, but raised many additional kashrut issues. The two most obvious were the issue of Bishul akum, the prohibition of consuming food prepared by a non-Jew, and Kelim, only eating food prepared with kosher utensils, pots and pans. Thus, I consulted my Orthodox rabbi who is wise and learned, and in his delightful but droll style, he redirected my attention to the specific laws which had been broken, informed me of the reasons why these elements of kashrut are important, and then continued by commenting, “After all, isn’t it written somewhere, ‘Man does not live by Pringles, alone’…. or something like that!”

For Jews who seek to eat kosher and travel to remote locations, kashrut will always be a struggle. I believe that in the pursuit of kashrut perfection we can sometimes miss the greater opportunity gained from falling short. I found comfort in an article my mother sent to me written by Aaron Moss titled, “I ate Non-Kosher Food. Now What?” I am not an expert, nor a sage — just a hungry traveler who found a solution to the choice of dining or dying in the proverbial Jewish wilderness.

Harare skyline. Image by wikimedia

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