The Price of Kosher

By Amichai Lau-Lavie | Issue Date: June 2000

“In 1883, a banquet held in honor of the first rabbinical class to graduate from the Hebrew Union College, included, some historians say deliberately, Little Neck clams, soft-shelled crabs, and shrimp salad. Reaction to this menu ultimately led to the creation of Conservative Judaism.”1

I stumbled upon this quote on the Internet, as I was preparing this article. Whether true or not (and I’m sure there are conflicting views), it got me thinking about the shadow side of this sacred cow we call kashrut: the inevitable reality of separation and division.

Few sacred cows are as ancient and elaborate as this fat one, grazing for over 3,000 years at the edges of our consciousness, conventionally labeled: “kosher.” Fewer yet roam as freely as this one does, seldom checked for contemporary relevance or for updated contribution to physical well-being and spiritual growth. We live in a world that recognizes the deep links between body and soul, nutrition and mental health. How does this ancient kosher cow relate to these new theories and concepts? I would like to briefly examine this delicate matter and to present one question in the form of an appetizer – food for future thought – what is the price we pay for keeping kosher?

We are what we eat and although our distinctive and unique selves are expressed in a rich variety of ways, our plates and what is or isn’t on them, are very significant indications of who and why we are what we are. There are as many ways of being Jewish as there are ways of preparing Jewish food and yet somehow this amazing diversity does not add up to one sumptuous and colorful feast. Different codes for what is kosher often divide families and sometimes alienate friends and neighbors, Jews and non-Jews alike. How do we retain our unique flavor, our individual spices and still eat together? Or, in other words, can we be part of a collective melting pot and still keep our cherished family recipes?

Ever since my childhood in Israel, and over the past few years in New York, I have witnessed many instances in which human discord and tension grew out of such “Gastronomically Religious Crises.” There was, for instance, the Passover in which we went to my father’s cousins for the Seder. My mother brought a huge pot of her special tzimmes. I don’t remember what the ingredient was that marked the dish non-kosher for Passover in my relative’s eyes. What can possibly make carrots and sugar non-kosher? But I do remember the look on my mother’s face when the contents of the pot found its way into the garbage within five minutes of our arrival. (My mother, I must add, before she sues me for libel, adheres to strictly orthodox laws and was faced here with simply a stricter-than-strict variation.)

No bad intentions were to be found around that not-too-happy Seder table. My mother, who is an expert at rising to difficult occasions, maintained composure throughout the night. But over the years, as she prepares her Passover tzimmes, I have heard her reflect on that event, adding residue of bitterness and anger to the peeled carrots: “So what’s more important? Some ancient minor interpretation of a law – or a shared celebration?”

We constantly juggle our values and often pay a high price for choosing one value over another. Sometimes this process is obvious, conscious and responsibly, if sadly, taken. But at other times the price we pay for a preference of thought or action is not consciously manifest. Kosher food is more expensive than its non-kosher equivalent, that much NYC has taught me. But what is the spiritual / mental price we pay for maintaining our respective laws of kosher observance?

The contemporary Jewish experience presents us with invisible, yet concrete, walls as well as with a growing dividing abyss marking our boundaries and thresholds. In this fractured, denominational Jewish world we do not all pray together and rarely do we cook and eat together. Are we paying too high a price for adherence to the laws of kashrut? Is it possible for us as Jews to envision a reality in which we celebrate what and who we are in full unique colors and still share a deep sense of togetherness with the world around us, regardless of race, color, or menu?

“As for the fear that social interaction between Jews and Gentiles may lead to the disintegration of Judaism, the reply is obvious: if Judaism is inherently so weak that it requires the artificial barriers of social aloofness fostered by dietary laws for its maintenance, the very need for maintaining it is gone.”2 

Recently observed at the children’s section of Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side: A young boy, maybe seven years old: screamed “Mommy, buy me this book!” The mother’s face darkens as she scans the book’s cover: “No honey, you can’t have it.” The boy is determined: “But we have all the other Dr. Seuss books!” The mother takes ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ out of his hands and puts it back on the shelf. “Some books are good for you and some not,” she says as she adjusts the blue velvet yarmulke on his head. “One day I will explain this to you better.” I was tempted to walk up to her and ask her about her choice of censorship but a wise voice inside of me suggested otherwise. I knew what she was going to say to me: Pigs are taboo. Will this little boy be spared Winnie the Pooh because of Piglet? I wondered. No Muppets because of Ms. Piggy? No Animal Farm? No Babe?

These may not seem to be important sacrifices and obviously do not represent the whole of contemporary Jewry’s approach to this issue. But this incident clarified for me that the price paid for segregation among Jews is potentially a higher degree of isolation.

This young mother protected her son from the threat of assimilation in the best way she knew how. I remember his disappointed eyes following the coveted book back to its place on the shelf, identifying the forbidden pleasure of knowledge. How would this incident imprint itself on his impressionable soul? How would he learn to coexist with his surrounding culture? What is the eventual, inner price for this separation? The specific battle may have been lost by Dr. Seuss, but for the little boy, as for us, the cultural war – or rather this juggling act – is far from over.

 

  1. Isaacs, Ronald H. and Kerry M. Olitzky, Critical Documents of Jewish History, p. 60, Jason Aronson Publishing, 1995.
  2. Mordechi M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, The Macmillan Company, 1934.