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Q & A: Sue Fishkoff Talks About "Kosher Nation" and Jewish Food

“Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority”, the new book by Sue Fishkoff, which came out last week, is the first comprehensive study of the Jews who produce, regulate, and consume an increasingly vast selection of manufactured and home-grown kosher foods. Fishkoff traces kashrut from its biblical origins to the Agriprocessors’s scandal, to a bustling Shanghai trade show that features kosher products, and everywhere in between. Her accessible style and genuine interest in the people that she writes about make this book a compelling read for anyone interested in food and contemporary culture.

Courtesy Rudi Halbright, Sue Fishkoff at the Hazon Food Conference 2008

Fishkoff, who is a correspondent for JTA has covered food stories and emerging trends from the opening of a unique kosher culinary school in Brooklyn to the new generation of Jewish farmers. The Jew and the Carrot recently caught up with her on her book, the new Jewish food movement, and her changing relationship to food.

RJ: Why this book? Why now?

SF: It was fortuitous. I signed the contract a couple of weeks before the Agriprocessors’s raid. My JTA beat for the last 5 years has been Jewish identity. I’ve been coming across more and more examples having to do with food choices. I was especially struck by the lengths a family from California would go in Ukraine to get fresh milk for their children, “how far this Lubavitch couple would go for cholov Yisrael milk (watched from the time it leaves the cow)?” …I’m interested in how broad the spectrum of Jewish eating has become, also that so many things are coalescing in America at the same time. Americans are becoming more religious and more spiritually inclined.

RJ: Your first book, “The Rebbe’s Army”, is about Chabad-Lubavitch, which you call “a new entity…an ultra-Orthodox movement that attracts mainly non-Orthodox Jews,” and especially its legion of young sh’lichim (outreach workers). Your new book, “Kosher Nation”, addresses the encounter between fervent Orthodoxy, increasingly the controllers of kosher food production, liberal Judaism, and the young activists leading the new Jewish food movement. Are there certain questions that connect the two?

SF: Working on the first book made me much more aware of how much I have in common with a wide spectrum of Jewish practitioners. I’m more comfortable in my Jewish identity. We’re all Jews and have a base set of values and history… Of course, both books are about how deeply American Jews are searching for meaning tied to their Jewish values. We underestimate the amount that American Jews are searching for meaning. This is why Chabad makes inroads, and also the new Jewish food movement.

RJ: Is kashrut divisive, as some Jewish food activists claim?

SF: Divisions created are due to the personalities involved. We shouldn’t put the problem on kashrut itself.

RJ: You’ve written about Hazon frequently. It figures prominently in your chapter on the new Jewish food movement through interviews with current and former staff members, volunteers, and grantees.

SF: The Hazon “family” tapped into and understood early on the power and force of the new Jewish food movement. It’s become known as the center of the movement. When the Orthodox Union’s Seth Mandel said at Hazon’s food conference: “You guys really understand what kashrut is all about,” that was an extraordinary validation…That chapter is the last chapter in the book. It was intentional.

RJ: How has working on Kosher Nation affected your own food choices?

SF: I’ve been around slaughter houses now. We have a romantic notion of field slaughter but it’s hard to watch no matter what. I have tremendous respect for experienced shochtim (ritual slaughterers). It’s a dirty, hard job. Shochtim do it for the rest of us. We demand it of them. They really have a thankless job, get no respect and are badly paid… I don’t grab unthinkingly for the turkey sandwich anymore. I think there should be a special b’racha (blessing) for eating meat because of the life that’s been taken, “Blessed are You who has allowed us to take this life to sustain us.”

Editor’s Note: A review of “Kosher Nation” by Ingredients columnist Leah Koenig will appear in this week’s Forward Arts and Culture section. Check back on Thursday for the complete review.

Rebecca Joseph, “The Rabbi Chef,” is founder and owner of 12 Tribes Kosher Foods in San Francisco and creator of The Parve Baker, the original dairy-free baking blog.

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