Moment Magazine asked 18 experts “Is There a Secret Ingredient in the Jewish Relationship with Food?” in their latest issue — and got some fascinating answers. Below are three of them and we posted three more last week here with permission from the magazine. We want to hear what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments.
Jewish dietary practice, which we call kashrut, is the original practice of mindful eating. Kashrut isn’t about what you can and cannot eat; to me, it posits the individual in a holistic network of life and death. It says we do not own the earth, nor its creatures; we cannot have what we want whenever we want. Certainly what we put in our mouths says a lot about what we value as Jews and as human beings. There has always been a special relationship between Jews and food, not just emotionally, but with laws and rituals that govern every aspect of food: from how we sow the earth, how we harvest, how we slaughter animals, how we prepare food and the blessings we say before and after meals. The interesting thing to me is that in America today, kosher food is widely seen not just as part and parcel of an Orthodox lifestyle, but among many liberal or secular Jews as a mark of membership in the tribe, a public pronouncement of their Jewish identity.
Sue Fishkoff is editor of j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, and author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.
The famous tagline of Hebrew National, a kosher meat producer, reads: “We answer to a higher authority.” It reflects a long-held perception that kosher food is holier or more ethically produced than other food. But that is not always true. The gap between perceptions and the reality of the food industry was highlighted in 2008, with the federal immigration raid and subsequent revelations about oppressive working conditions at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The child labor, wage violations and hazardous working conditions that were taking place at the plant shook the consciousness of thousands of Jewish consumers, forcing them to ask tough questions for the first time: Does the fact that my food is ritually kosher mean it’s produced in an ethical way? What is the responsibility of the Jewish community to monitor ethical food issues? Today, people around the country are seeking answers to those tough questions. For some, those questions focused on workers who produce kosher food. The treatment of food workers is a deep Jewish issue. The Torah states, “You shall not oppress a hired worker, whether he is poor or needy, whether he is of your brethren or a stranger within your land and within your gates” (Deuteronomy 24:15). The workers the Torah refers to were often migrant laborers helping on farms, similar to migrant workers today. The Talmud goes so far as to equate oppressing these hired workers with murder (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia, 112a). By fighting for the vulnerable within our food systems, we hope to consume food in ways that honor the infinite value, God’s image, in all people.
Ari Hart is an Orthodox rabbi and a founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox organization devoted to social justice which created Tav HaYosher, a kosher certification system.
As is true of the food of any ethnic group that has settled in the United States, a lot of Jewish food has been adapted to American taste. Both in New York and in Chicago, when you order a hot dog, chances are very good you’re going to get an all-beef hot dog—in Chicago you usually even get a kosher hot dog—but I venture to say most people who order one don’t consider it a Jewish hot dog; it’s just an all-beef dog made by the Vienna Beef company. That’s something you don’t find in cities that don’t have significant Jewish populations. Oklahoma City, for example, has a big hot dog culture but you don’t get all-beef hot dogs; they’re not interested. There’s also the ubiquitous bagel. Bagels have become more common than pita bread, which also used to be an ethnic thing. They’re everywhere, in all sorts of ridiculous flavors—blueberry bagels, French toast bagels. I guess I’m what you’d call a bagel snob. It’s sort of like the hot dog in that a lot of people who eat them don’t think, “I shall now have a Jewish breadstuff.” Bagels have become so common that I don’t think people think of them as particularly Jewish, except in Montreal, maybe. Montreal bagels are so famous and so different from those in American cities, and they’re still in the Jewish part of town. I think those still remain a very Jewish icon, whereas here I think most bagel connoisseurs—including Jewish bagel connoisseurs—think bagels have become so homogenized they’ve lost whatever character they had as a bread from the Ukraine, which they once were.
Michael Stern is co-creator of Roadfood and a regular contributor to NPR’s The Splendid Table.