haredim kosher food 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
You have to admire Israel’s kosher entrepreneurship. All a person needs
is a bit of food, a hungry customer, a logo and – presto! – a new hechsher is
born. For Diaspora Jews, it’s a misery of riches. Which hechsher is real and
which a dream in a rabbi’s eye, religious food decoration? Among the infinite
variety of hechsherim in the US are the landmark ones, which everyone – Muslims,
hassidim and the lactose intolerant – relies on. Since the pioneering days of
the OU, we have added the OK, KOfK and HeartK. Even in remote American towns, a
traveler can find food stamped with universally recognized kosher symbols, or
she can feast on the fruit of the land.
Not so in Israel. Only a few
lines of Mishna are devoted to Hanukka, apotheosis of American Judaism. In
contrast, a whole volume of Mishna is lavished on Israel’s agricultural laws,
including (but not limited to): shmita, orla, kilayim, trumot, ma’asrot and
d’mei. To travel safely from a seed planted in the soil of the Holy Land and end
with food on a hungry man’s plate requires a lifetime of learning. Every lowly
lettuce leaf must have a provenance, and as for eating a peach...! In Israel, if
you are a Torah-true Jew, it is very hard to get down to the meal.
a hungry tourist to do? One couple I know carries food into the country with
them. Canned corn, smoked salmon and crackers tide them over their whirlwind
visits and they bulk up with Swiss chocolate. Religious Jews denying themselves
the produce of Israel is a delicious comedy: truly an excess of piety over
practicality. Did the Children of Israel import Cheerios upon conquering
Being a lawyer, my visits to Israel are presaged by
questions. I make inquiries of natives who have a robust fear of God and
an even more robust suspicion of man. “Let the buyer beware” is the Israeli
consumer’s byword, regarding kashrut no less than anything else. Only after
culling a list of hechsherim from reliable informers do I book my
Our most recent sojourn in Israel was in honor of my daughter’s
bat mitzva. Soon after arrival in Jerusalem, I discover that my hechsher list is
not of the common-orgarden variety. We traipse through whole neighborhoods
without one sighting from that list. Lucky we saved food from the airplane. But
I am not despondent; this is the very type of shopping challenge I relish. We
dig deeper and experience hunger-induced visions of the vetted logos on a few
pastry and fruit stalls in the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
But what of the
promise I made my children regarding Israel’s legendary milk and honey?
Fulfilling that dream requires infiltration into the city’s inner sanctums,
Geula and Mea She’arim. In one nook my daughter discovers her favorite yogurt,
in another, an impossibly good Napoleon. And far down the Road of a Hundred
Gates we find a grocer whose wares combine holiness and freshness. We have
Two conundrums are raised by these journeys of kosher
exploration. First, our flat is three kilometers from Mea She’arim and we carry
our food on our backs. Second, I cannot eat at any of my friends’
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The first problem is a pleasure: We forage for food at least daily
and develop hearty appetites coming and going. The second is a thorn in my side.
Although observant, my friends have never considered the reliability of the
symbols on their pasta, and certainly not the halachic issues with fresh
produce. When I ask one hostess if she had tithed the tomatoes she is serving
us, she looks at me as if I am daft. Wasn’t that something rabbis from
the Mishna babbled about? “I don’t even know how to do that!” she
But I am thwarted not only by ignorant housespouses; even the
most venerated of supervisions doesn’t comprehend my pedantry. The caterer I
have selected for my daughter’s bat mitzva outlines for me his modus operandi:
“I deliver you hot food and you return the pans when you’re done.” I respond in
disbelief. “You send your dishes out to all and sundry, people you don’t even
know, and you call yourself kosher?” Listening to my apoplexy, my mother ties on
her apron and commences catering the celebration herself, using food lugged
great distances in backpacks. The sink fills with tithings.
In time, our
steadfastness was rewarded. One stormy night in a Mea She’arim supermarket, my
daughter had an urgent craving for her yogurt, to be found only in the shop next
door. We rushed out and found the desired item, but when the time came to pay,
my purse was gone. I was distraught: A week’s spending money was in it.
We went back to the supermarket, where I asked hopelessly of the woman at the
checkout if she had by chance seen my blue felt wallet. “Of course,” she said.
“I hoped you’d come back.” The purse was unmolested, thick and full. I pulled
out some notes to reward the woman, but she waved me away, disgusted. “It’s a
mitzva!” she retorted.
Practical piety indeed.The writer is a
Washington tax lawyer and a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis
Institute of Brandeis University.
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