Friday, October 31, 2008

FAQ: What is "kosher," anyway?

When I brought my Jewish fiancee home to Warrenton,Mo., I introduced him to my dad's boss,Mr. Eisenstein. The very first thing Mr. Eisenstein said to Fred--I kid you not--was "I love ham."
Poor Mr. Eisenstein, it must have been lonely and uncomfortable all those years being the only Jew in town. Still, "I love ham" is sort of an odd conversational gambit! Surely it was his way of saying he had thoroughly assimilated, and Fred had just better not expect any Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) from him.

But back to your question, What does "kosher" mean, anyway? In a general sense, "kosher" means proper, or worthy. The most common use of the word refers to the following of Jewish dietary laws, a practice also called by the Hebrew word kashrut. The laws are set forth in Leviticus and interpreted in the Talmud by generations of rabbis. The subject is extremely technical and complicated, but I hope that this posting will provide a brief intro.

Until recently, Reform Jews opposed the practice of keeping kosher, but that seems to be changing. In general, most Conservative and all Orthodox Jews keep kosher. However, Jews vary widely in how strict they are. For example, I know quite a few people who keep kosher at home but will eat at non-kosher restaurants or at the homes of non-kosher friends.

Keeping kosher involves eating kosher meat--i.e. meat which is slaughtered in a certain way under rabbinical supervision. The animal, which is killed in one swift stroke of the knife, is drained of blood because the Bible says "You shall not consume the blood of any creature; for the life of any creature is its blood, whoever consumes it will be cut off." Only certain animals can be kosher; for example, pigs and shellfish are prohibited. (Many, many other animals, such as snakes, worms, crocodiles, weasels, and birds of prey, are prohibited also, but I'm assuming they won't be a problem, right?) Fish with scales are okay. Prohibited foods are called treif (pronounced trayf).

A key principle in kashrut is the separation of meat and dairy because of the biblical injunction against boiling a calf in its mother's milk. Apparently the Chaldeans, neighbors of the ancient Hebrews, featured this dish. Some modern scholars argue that the law against mixing dairy and meat functioned by preventing the Hebrews from mixing with the polytheistic Chaldeans.

Keeping kosher involves eating either a dairy or a meat meal,and waiting a certain specified number of hours in between. To make sure that meat and dairy do not mix, a kosher cook needs two sets of dishes, separate pots and pans, and separate kitchen areas for food prep and storage.Foods that are neither dairy nor meat, such as fruit and vegetables, are called parve. They can be served with either dairy or meat meals.

Prepared foods which we find in supermarkets--boxed, canned, frozen, for example--are either kosher or unkosher. Small symbols, called hechshers, indicate which rabbinical authority has supervised the processing. If you see a small D, that indicates that the food contains dairy. The symbol with a U inside a circle indicates the high standards of the Orthodox Union.

Why keep kosher? To Orthodox and many Conservative Jews, the answer is clear: it is God's law. In addition, the laws encourage kinder treatment of the animals we eat. A further reason, as stated by Lise Stern in her new book How to Keep Kosher, is "Keeping kosher helps us pause and think about what we eat, and how we eat it, and elevates the act of eating into a spiritual as well as a physical activity."

We shiksas sometimes find the plethora of Jewish dietary laws quite alien. Some of us were taught about Jesus who, in the role of reformer/revolutionary, said that it is not what we put in our mouths, but rather what comes out of them, that is most important. Nevertheless, we know that those who keep kosher are engaged in a very demanding discipline which commands our respect.

Here's a fun joke about keeping kosher. Remember that treif (pronounced trayf) means non-kosher, and therefore forbidden.

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