- Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority
The title, with its reference to the tried-and-true (but perhaps trite) advertising campaign of Hebrew National. The cover, with all sorts of edibles accompanying, and on occasion replacing, the letters that make up the title. The author, an accomplished journalist, with scant, if any, academic training in Jewish Studies. Is this a book to take seriously? You can bet it is, even as you laugh, at times ruefully, from beginning to end.
As it turns out, Fishkoff is an ideal guide to everything from who buys kosher (more non-Jews than Jews), what is involved in determining the “kosher” status of food (there’s far more here than can be summarized parenthetically), where kosher products are produced (everywhere throughout the world), where kosher products are sold (almost everywhere), who is involved in the production of kosher foods (the number and variety of such folks are startling), what happened to just plain old “kosher” meat (gobbled up, for the most part, by glatt kosher certifiers), isn’t almost any milk or vegetable or fruit product “automatically” kosher (are you kidding?), are kosher carnivores and responsible Jewish environmentalists mutually exclusive categories (not on your life), and so on and so on.
What makes Fishkoff such a good guide is a canny combination of three traits: she is indefatigable in tracking down every piece (down to the tiniest morsel) of relevant data, she knows how to conduct an interview so as to solicit just the sort of information you as a reader are likely to want to know, and she knows how to tell a story that consistently manages to put front and center the widest array of individuals possible.
So it is that, for this reader at least, it is the inhabitants, rather than the parameters, of Kosher Nation that are so memorable. Take for example, Sholtiel Lebovic, a Lubavitcher rabbi who founded Go Kosher. Traveling throughout much of the Northeast in a white van, easily recognizable through its “888-Go-Kosher” logos, he has helped kashar over 10,000 kitchens. We follow [End Page 211] him (literally) into the kitchen of a young Jewish couple who have decided to establish their first kosher kitchen in the newly renovated home into which they have just moved. Such details, rather than being extraneous, are in fact integral to the story Fishkoff tells, as the rabbi balances some of the strictures of meticulous observance with the realities of how far and how fast this couple is ready to go. As Fishkoff notes, it’s as much psychology as it is theology.
And then there’s Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg, who spends well over half his time as a kosher supervisor for the Orthodox Union in, of all places, China. Not so much (actually, not at all) because of a rising demand for kosher products among the populace, but because so many items, including ingredients for kosher food, are now manufactured there—far more cheaply than in the West, but with the same insistence on maintenance of standards. He is not alone, for, he tells us, there are “a lot of rabbis running around China” these days. We travel with him from one far-flung location to another, meeting many local producers and manufacturers who believe that only kosher food will sell well in the United States. Who am I, or Rabbi Grunberg for that matter, to disabuse these individuals of such a belief?
Of course, everything and everyone in Kosher World is not happy. The small butcher shops, the mom-and-pop operations, are becoming obsolete in an age of kosher food chains and large kosher sections in major grocery stores. Kosher-style delis are largely establishments of the past. The in-fighting among certifying agencies is at times, well, simply gut-wrenching. Nobody comes out well, human or animal, in the Agriprocessors scandal in Postville, Iowa, that continued to unfold as Fishkoff completed her book.