“Eating Kosher” for Beginners

Image: Entrance to Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli, a pink and white building. Photo by Salim Virji, some rights reserved.

A question came in via a Google search string: “How to begin eating kosher?”

First of all, here’s an article from the Orthodox Union about what “kosher” means.

There are a couple of concepts here: there’s eating kosher, and there’s keeping a kosher kitchen. Those are really two different things.

  1. You can eat kosher by eating kosher foods that have been prepared for you, in a place like Jay & Lloyd’s in the photo above, or in foods marked with a kosher symbol called a hecksher. A hecksher is a mark certifying that the food was prepared and packaged under the supervision of a specially trained rabbi. Hebrew National Hot Dogs has a hecksher, for instance. If you eat other foods with the kosher food, all bets are off, though. And of course, pork and shellfish are both off the menu!
  2. Keeping kosher is more involved. To keep kosher, you will need to find someone to help you learn how to set up your kitchen, and how to maintain it once set up. Keeping kosher is really an art. Meat foods and dairy foods cannot ever come into contact. The dishes and dishpans that they touch cannot come into contact. Even counter tops and utensils have to be kept separate. If you are interested in learning how to keep kosher, I recommend that you contact your local Conservative or Orthodox synagogue and ask them to help you find a teacher. You can’t learn to do this properly from a book or website.

Why would anyone want to keep kosher? Lots of reasons!

  • A kosher kitchen is one expression of the holiness of the Jewish home. Since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, the home has been the center for Jewish holiness. Synagogues are important as places to meet, to worship, and to study, but the Jewish holy place is the home.
  • Some Jews keep kosher because their parents kept kosher. (Cue the song “Tradition!” here.)
  • Some Jews keep kosher because it is a way of making life holy, not only in the home but everywhere.
  • Some Jews keep kosher because it is commanded in the Torah.
  • Other Jews keep kosher as a matter of solidarity with Jews all over the world.

If you are interested in keeping kosher, follow these steps:

  1. First, cultivate an awareness of what you eat. Just notice your choices for a while. Become aware.
  2. Notice what products that you buy carry a hecksher. Good news: fruits and vegetables are naturally kosher! You need to wash them very well (bugs and bug fragments are not kosher.)
  3. Talk with other members of your household. How do they feel about this? Are they willing to try this with you? Are there ways to do this without making extra work for them?
  4. Then, drop the obvious no-nos from your diet: pork products like bacon and shellfish.
  5. Look for the less obvious sources of forbidden animal products and weed them from your diet. Read labels. Become aware.
  6. When you are ready to think about separating meat and milk, then it is time to find a teacher to help you with the planning and the kitchen.

 

 

The Cooking Gene – Book Review

The Cooking Gene is about food and about so much more than food. It is about history, and identity, and memory. It is about the complexity of the American present, about the hidden away memories in plain sight. Michael Twitty’s poetic prose is mesmerizing; my copy arrived one day and I sat down with it, intending to skim. The cream of the text slowed me down and forced me to read one delicious paragraph after another. Hours later I had devoured the whole thing.

In chapter 4, Mr. Twitty addresses the simplicities and complexities of Jewish identity and food. I have never seen such a wonderful description of the links among ethnicity, identity, and gastronomy. He also describes the phenomenon of the longing which brings many of us to Judaism via conversion. I look forward to recommending the book to my students.

As a Southerner, I felt this book returning a part of my soul to me. I grew up with certain erasures and with many things that must never be said. I did not realize what a weight they put on the heart until I began learning from Mr. Twitty and learning to appreciate the unsaid, the uncredited, and the secret aspects of Southern identity.

This book is about holy healing work; it is about the memory in the kitchen. I recommend it without reservation.

What Food Do You Choose?

What’s your food practice, and why?

Traditionally, Jews are The People Who Don’t Eat Pork. The Philistines, who were of Greek origin, commented upon it. Antiochus, a Greek king, thought it bizarre. The Romans thought it just one more bit of evidence that we were crazy. And after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, a refusal to eat pork became the hallmark of “Judaizing” and became grounds for torture and execution.

Not Eating Pork became the hallmark Jewish food practice, even for Jews who did not embrace the full practice of kashrut. Kashrut is a complex topic but the short version is that only certain animals may be eaten, those animals must be slaughtered and cooked in an approved fashion, and meat and milk must be kept strictly separated. Observing kashrut is often referred to as “keeping kosher.”

Many 21st century Jews keep kosher. Some observe those commandments more stringently, some less. Some choose not to observe the traditional laws at all. Some choose to eat pork. Some do not. Some Jews only practice traditional dietary laws to some extent during Passover or holidays.

For many 21st century Jews, another pressing issue is food ethics:

  • Will I consume animal products?
  • If so, what are the minimum standards for how those animals are treated?
  • How do my food choices affect the human beings who produce food?
  • How do my food choices affect the ecosystems in which they grow and are processed?
  • What about food scarcity for others in my area?
  • What about food waste?
  • How do my choices about consumption affect my health and that of my family?

Any time we address a question of food ethics, we must recognize that much of our decision making is about trade-offs. For instance, food that is ethically sourced and ethically produced (and fresh, nutritious, etc.) is more expensive. So then we add to the questions:

  • What can I afford?
  • What am I willing to do for those who cannot afford this food?

A person might decide to forego the free-range eggs in order to donate those funds to the food bank. That’s their choice, and their way of addressing the trade-off. Someone with a lot of discretionary income may choose to do both. And someone who is trying to feed their family on very low income may get eggs from caged hens and that’s how it is. No one with more income has any right to pass judgment on the person for whom worry about ethical food choices is an unaffordable luxury.

There are a number of Jewish organizations exploring these issues and looking at ways to move towards a more ethical practice of Jewish eating. My Jewish Learning has provided a great article on the subject by Shmuly Yanklowitz.

Finally, what else am I willing to do to address ethical issues and food? Learn about the issues? Lobby elected officials for better regulations? Volunteer at the food bank? Join a Jewish group (maybe a congregation’s social action committee) to study up on these issues?

So, what are your food practices, and how to they stem from your reading of Torah? Do you keep some level of kashrut? Do you fast on Yom Kippur? What do you choose to eat, or not eat, out of ethical or ecological concerns? And most importantly: why???

 

Kashrut: A Spiritual Journey

Image: Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of eggs and tomatoes. Photo by calliopejen1, click for copyright notice.

This is an update of a post from a couple of years ago. Life changes, and the journey continues.

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to learn from someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans (one red, one white,) and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: a classmate who grew up keeping kosher lived right around the corner.  My method of study was to have David over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I backed off on the kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

This past September a series of changes in my health moved me back toward kosher observance. I no longer eat meat, so my kitchen has only dairy to worry about. My kitchen is still not kosher by traditional standards, but it has been a comfort to me to be able to reframe a medical necessity with a spiritual nechemta (consolation.)

What’s next? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll bring in assistance to really kasher the kitchen. Or perhaps I’ll continue becoming more concerned about the sources of eggs and dairy products. For me, Jewish food practice is a spiritual journey.

Happy Earth Day: The Culture of Collards on Vimeo

It’s an honor to pass on this Earth Day post and video from Michael Twitty, food historian and peacemaker.

Afroculinaria

Enjoy this short film by my friend Aditi Desai featuring me, 3 Part Harmony Farm and City Blossoms DC in an exploration of the heritage of collards and culinary and food justice. I was privileged to see it screened at the DC Environmental Film Festival at American University, and in honor of Earth Day, you can see it tonight at my Alma mater Howard University!

Enjoy and happy Earth Day!

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What is Gefilte Fish?

Image: A platter of gefilte fish, topped with carrot slices. Photo by ovedc. Copyright via CC-BYSA 3.0.

If you live in a community with mostly Ashkenazi Jews, at holiday time you are likely to see a lot of traditional Ashkenazi foods. Gefilte fish is perhaps the most mysterious to those who didn’t grow up eating it.

“Gefilte” (geh-FILL-teh) is not a species of fish. The word is Yiddish for “filled.” Gefilte fish is a fish loaf: boned, minced white fish mixed with matzo crumbs, chopped onions and root vegetables, eggs and seasonings. (Think “meat loaf” only with fish.) Then it is formed into balls and the balls are poached either in water or more usually in fish stock.

Gefilte fish is served cold, often with horseradish and a carrot or egg garnish.

As with many Ashkenazi foods, gefilte fish developed in response to regional food availability and ritual requirements. Fish is an especially flexible menu item in a kosher diet, because it is parve, that is, it can be eaten with either flesh or dairy. Moreover, mixing the fish with crumbs of matzo or bread crumbs stretches the expensive protein.

However, fish is tricky on Shabbat, since boning it is viewed by many traditional sources to be a violation of the Sabbath. (Sorting or picking one thing out from another is called borer and is one of the 39 forbidden classes of activity.) Therefore the bones must be removed before Shabbat! Gefilte fish work nicely for this, since the boning happens before Shabbat, and the dish is eaten cold – one less thing to keep hot for the Sabbath meal.

Advice for Beginners: Horseradish helps!

Vegan Vegetable Soup

I’ve been learning about vegan cooking. Many of my guests are vegetarian or vegan, so I find that it is helpful to have a few simple recipes for main dishes at the ready. However, a dish had better be tasty dishes, or my carnivorous family will turn up their noses!

This soup is on my stove right now, as I write. It’s very easy to make and quite delicious:

4 cups vegetable broth (I use ready-made)
26 0z canned tomato (pureed, sauce, doesn’t really matter)
2 medium onions
1 bunch celery, including the tops!
olive oil
2 russet potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
4-6 carrots, cut into quarter-inch rounds
1 cup chopped collards or other greens
Any leftover vegetables on hand
Pepper sauce (optional)
Ground pepper (optional)
Salt (on table, optional)

  1. Put  vegetable broth and tomato in soup pot over low heat.
  2. Chop onions and celery, soften in a skillet over low heat in olive oil.
  3. Add onions and celery plus any oil remaining to the pot.
  4. Add other vegetables to the pot.
  5. Cook over low heat for 1 hour after assembled.
  6. Serve with pepper sauce on the table, also salt and pepper. Let folks add what they want.
  7. Serve with good bread.

This can serve as many as 10, depending on how hungry everyone is and what else is on the table. Folks who want spicy soup can add lots of pepper sauce, folks who prefer mild can eat as is.

This is a good soup for freezing for later or for giving to friends who need some soup.

For a graceful way to gift food to someone who has a hard time accepting “charity” or a gift, check out More Hospitality: “I cooked too much food!”

 

Black Eyed Peas: Not Just a Band!

Over on Afroculinaria, Michael Twitty has some wonderful teaching about a traditional Sephardic food for Rosh HaShanah: black eyed peas! (Please go read that post – you won’t regret the time – a fabulous description of Sephardic food customs among other things!)

I ate black eyed peas on January 1 when I was growing up in the South. The custom was that if you ate the BEP’s you would have good luck and prosperity in the New Year. Michael Twitty does a great job of explaining why the Sephardim eat them – go read his article!

If you are unsure of what to do with BEP’s, get a can of them at the grocery store. If you are used to making dried legumes, you can go that route. Either way, once you have firm edible beans, you can mix them or serve them with rice for a delicious dish. Personally, I don’t do much at all to them, just serve with rice and a selection of hot pepper sauces. Let your guests choose the level of heat they want.

Some recipes call for meat in the peas. I make mine from dried peas in the crock pot, no meat, just water and beans and some chopped onions until the beans are soft. Then I season to taste with salt and pepper, spoon them over rice and serve. The tray of assorted hot sauces makes for some pleasant conversation at the table.

Happy whatever kind of New Year that you celebrate!

The image with this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner is Toby Hudson.

Kosher Food

One of my favorite blogs is Rachel Mankowitz’s The Cricket Pages. She just published a post about her memories around kosher food, which I share with my readers. Enjoy.

rachelmankowitz

When I was nine or ten years old, not long after my family started to keep kosher, we went to a hotel up in the Catskills for Presidents’ weekend. It was a skiing resort, basically, and it was kosher. I’ve worked hard to block out the skiing portion of the trip because it was truly harrowing, but there was also an outdoor ice skating rink, and an indoor pool, and a theatre where the last gasp of the Borscht Belt came to perform. But most of all, there was the food. They made fake scallops from halibut, cut into rounds, and whenever they were on the menu, that’s what I ate. The waiters were convinced I was lying about my age, because I could have had a hamburger and French fries, or spaghetti and meatballs and I chose this?

But I’d grown up on seafood, at my best friend’s house…

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Food Traditions for Rosh HaShanah

Many Jewish holidays have special food traditions associated with them, and Rosh HaShanah is no exception.

The main theme for Jewish New Year foods is “Sweet,” in hopes of a sweet year to come. That will take many forms, depending on context: in an Ashkenazi family, it will mean a carrot tzimmes with dinner, or roasted apple brisket. In a Sephardic home, it will mean roast chicken with fruit and honey cakes made with ground nuts instead of flour.

Apples and honey are also a major item at Rosh HaShanah. Some say that has to do with the associations with Creation, and the infamous fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. However, apples didn’t grow in the ancient Near East; it’s more likely that the Biblical writer was thinking of a fig tree, so perhaps fig recipes are in order as well!

There is also the tradition of round challah for the holidays. You can add raisins or apple bits to the dough, but braid it into a round loaf instead of the usual oblong. For directions on how to braid a round challah, this YouTube video may help:

Askenazi menus & recipes

Menus for Rosh HaShanah from Kosherfood

Menus for Rosh HaShanah from Epicurious.com

Sephardic menus & recipes

Turkish Rosh HaShanah Delights

Menu from the Global Jewish Kitchen

American Twists on Rosh HaShanah Favorites

For interfaith families and converts to Judaism, Rosh HaShanah’s theme of sweetness offers a chance to import favorite treats from regional holiday menus. For instance, I grew up eating Chess Pie on December 25, but now that Southern favorite has become a Rosh HaShanah tradition for me. It’s super-sweet and rich, perfect for a Jewish New Year dessert.

One last thought – and link! – about Rosh HaShanah cooking: Kenden Alfond has written a wonderful piece for Kveller.com about the Jewish “tradition” of over-cooking for the holidays. The joy of the season is not enhanced by straining one’s credit or guilt-tripping others over food. It’s much better to fill everyone up with good feelings than to push a third serving of kugel at someone who doesn’t want it. (By the same token, can we all agree not to torture our relatives with diet talk and health trolling for just a couple of days?)

I wish all my readers fun planning your holiday menus, and joy around your holiday table!