Review of Kosher Nation
An insights that is not particularly surprising is the fact that people are demanding more kosher options is not surprising for those of us familiar with Orthodox neighborhoods and kosher markets. We already know that people who keep kosher today “ travel more than their parents, and they expect to find kosher food on the planes they take, the stores they shop in, and the hotels where they stay” (18). We also know about the increasingly sophisticated options in kosher foods and wine that are attributed to “the influx of baalei teshuva, or newly observant Jews, into the ranks of the Orthodox in the last decades of the twentieth century. Used to drinking good wine insecular America but now constrained by the laws of kashrut, these new kosher consumers were no longer content with inferior hooch” (115). Wine seems to fascinate the author, as she devotes many, many pages to the developments in kosher wine, including organic varieties.
Some interesting history include the fact that The phenomenon of Jews eating “kosher style” rather than truly kosher food has its roots in “nineteenth-century Europe, where it was known as fressfroemigkeit, German for ‘eating religion’” (96). In the United States, the 20th century saw a number of eating establishments that provided the flavor of kosher food for those who were nostalgic for the dishes associated with their past, though without the halachic strictures in place. As for kosher wine in America, “Manischewitz wine was created almost as an afterthought by The Manischewitz Company, founded in 1888 in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the country’s first commercial matzo bakery” in 1901 (113). The next year, a clash on kashruth spurred violence during the 1902 boycott on kosher meat organized by women who “took to the streets, breaking into kosher butcher shops, dousing the meat with gasoline, and setting it afire” (62).
But the Jews of the present generation seem to reserve their excitement to celebrate new products becoming kosher. Many celebrated the arrival of kosher Oreos in 1997. Before that the Nabisco company had a truly treif history, as it used lard in its products. While Nabisco did not disclose exactly how much it cost them to make their famous cookies, including Chipas Ahoy! kosher, they had to replace one hundred belts at the cost of “ $150,000 each.” And of course, on top of that , "they pay yearly certification fees.” As they seem to have come out ahead in the end, they must have had to increase their sales substantially. The kosher Oreos were seen by some Americans as a major milestone, attaining, “one more popular food product that it was allowed to eat.” (23). However, this trend began long ago.
The chapter entitled “Big Brother Is Watching” details then evolution of rabbinical certification in the 20th Century as more and more foods were prepared outside the home. “In 1912, Procter & Gamble became one of the first major food manufacturers to ask” for certification for “Crisco, the company’s newly developed vegetable-based shortening. “ (50). This provided a kosher alternative to lard and a parve alternative to butter for baked goods that could be served with a meat meal. The next big event was 11 years later: “In 1923, Heinz Vegetarian Beans became the first item to carry national kosher certification. This also represented the first successful effort to convince a major food manufacturer that the country’s growing Jewish population was a lucrative market” (48). But they did not want to be marked as to “ethnically specific, which is why “the OU agreed to drop the word kosher from the original design: of the logo (49).
Kosher for Passover is one of the areas that the author does not really delve into. Of course, it only happens once a year, but for those 8 days, many Jews spend as much as they do for a month or more on their standard groceries with special products, wine for the sedar, as well as matzah that can cost upwards of $20 a pound for hand shmura. That fits right in with the point she comes to a number of times that the kosher consumer spends more than the nonkosher counterpart, the Passover products and the increasingly popular trend of going to hotels for the holiday at the cost of thousands per person, certainly deserved a chapter of its own. All it merits in this book is a fleeting reference by a mashgiach who says that it involves a great deal of work, though she does not follow one around as she does for other kosher preparation and supervision.
These bits of omission, though, are relatively minor, though, compared to the fact that in all 384 pages on schitas Beit Yosef or the standard of avoiding bishul akum for Sephardim even though she makes a point of showing her knowledge of chassidishe shechita. She also fails to get into the ramifications of stringencies of halacha, like cholov Yisrael, pas Yisroel or observance of yoshon. Those who abide by such stringencies still abstain from popular brands, like Nabisco cookies, which are dairy, not pas Yisroel, and would only be yoshon at certain times of year. Instead of including the entire spectrum of Orthodox kashruth laws, she goes off beyond kashruth altogether with many pages on the standards of Muslim dietary laws (the prohibition on alcohol, for example, can make vanilla extract forbidden), especially in college campuses that strive to accommodate both. Consequently, she gets somewhat diverted from her stated purpose .
In the prologue, the author explains her inspiration for writing the book: “Seeing, on one hand, the lengths to which a hassidic family will go to keep kosher in Ukraine, and on the other hand, the determination of young Jewish social-justice activists to honor Jewish tradition while excluding no one, I was struck by how broad the spectrum of Jewish sacred eating had become” (xi). Clearly, some within the Orthodox camp have been excluded from what presents itself as an exhaustive study of the subject of kashruth in all its American manifestations. The bottom line is: the book is interesting, but the author is not well-informed enough to present the ultimate compendium of kashruth observance.
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