While eating and grocery shopping may seem simple, our food and the way we think about it have the potential to serve as a channel for expressing our Jewish values. Here are four simple ways to transition into a food lifestyle inspired by Judaism:
1. Eat as a community
One of the most valuable outcomes of the Kashrut system in the modern world is its requirement for us to seek out and participate in a Jewish community. Simply due to the food we eat, we are locally connected to our fellow Jews, whether they live nearby or a schlep across the next town over. Because I live in a non-Jewish area in Illinois, even buying challah for Shabbat is a challenge for my family. Passover shopping is all the more difficult. With each long car ride to the nearest Jewishly populated suburb, my family and I have kindled a stronger connection to the communities surrounding us and to our identities as Jews.
Whether or not a Jewish person keeps Kosher, one may learn to apply this Jewish emphasis on community to his decisions as a consumer. We all have many communities, identities, and neighbors. The food we eat can act as a catalyst for our involvement with our local communities. We may buy our fruits and veggies from nearby farmers’ markets, supporting local farmers, saving transportation energy, and understanding where our food grows. We may donate food to shelters, sharing our goods with those who need it. We may shop at nearby grocery stores or restaurants, helping to employ workers in our hometowns. In whatever way we can, all of us, as Jews, have the opportunity to participate in our surrounding communities through our relationship with food.
2. Appreciate your food for all its worth
The traditional blessing after meals, Birkat HaMazon, carries religious significance for many, but in the scope of moral food decisions, the Birkat HaMazon also displays a Jewish value for recognizing food’s indispensable worth. Personally, I have found notable meaning in my embodiment of this Jewish value through my food decisions. Awareness of my food use and waste is a challenge—it requires time and energy. The task seems much less difficult after understanding it as a component of my Jewish lifestyle. Eliminating wastefulness, eating leftovers, composting scraps, and being thoughtful about the amount of food we buy are a handful of techniques toward appreciating food, fueled by a traditional Jewish motivation.
3. Establish an earthly connection
Jewish holidays like Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot traditionally recognize the beginning of new harvests, and so does the food we eat to celebrate them. Marking the beginning of the barley harvest, Pesach forbids the eating of grain products. Serving dairy foods on Shavuot is a result of the season’s milk abundance in farm animals. Sukkot indicates the autumn harvest of fruit and vegetables. When I celebrated these holidays in Israel while on a year program before college, the food I ate at the seder table, in the sukkah and studying all night in Jerusalem clearly represented the earth’s changes. Chewing on matzah or cheesecake or stuffed veggies, I was struck by the simplicity of my Jewish relationship with each season’s specialties.
Our lives today are mostly independent from the changing seasons. Due to products being shipped to and from distances around the world, the same produce is available in stores all year round. Through its holidays and customary foods, Judaism teaches the importance of a relationship with the earth and its natural cycles. To participate in this sentiment, learn which fruits and vegetables are naturally best in the current months and focus on each season’s uniqueness as it appears and tastes on our dinner plates. With a stronger awareness of our dependence on nature’s changes, we may also deepen our connection to Jewish tradition, history and morals.
4. Don’t stop questioning
As we learn from the rabbinical conversations in the Talmud, the traditional stories of midrash, and maybe even our own grandparents, Jews love to question, challenge and search. From the time of Abraham to our Torah school classes, we learn the importance of constant investigation—about Jewish law, or modern theology, or political debates, or any other topic that seems too big to tackle. We, too, must bring this Jewish investigative attitude to our food consumption. Due to frequent marketing trickery in labeling and distribution, many of us unknowingly fail to live up to our moral food aspirations. Ethical food decisions are complex, affecting different areas of concern—locality, environment, health and more. The right choices are often not so clear, and it is the consumer’s responsibility to dig deeper. If we challenge and investigate with our Jewish spirit, our questioning may lead us toward becoming smarter, clearer and happier eaters.
Lucille Marshall is a student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She is also a smoothie enthusiast and a lover of Yiddish stories. Check out her blog.