Raw and certified

The sale of unpasteurized milk in Jerusalem to ultra-Orthodox communities is becoming more popular.

Cow 521 (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Cow 521
(photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
In the inner recesses of Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood, a footpath leads to a capacious and open porch, showcasing two things in quantity: five dozen plastic jugs of milk neatly arranged, and a dozen siblings awestruck by the stranger at their fortress veranda. The home-brew peddled here actually puts the pusher at odds with the law of Israel. The contraband is unpasteurized, or “raw” milk, and über-haredi Yoel is the appointed milkman for this pious community.
His efforts are a matter of kashrut.
The going rate for two liters is NIS 14, a modest premium considering the commercial stuff is just a shekel or two friendlier. This porch, in this alley, is probably the only physical location in the whole of west Jerusalem where transactions of this sort can be had – provided, of course, the visitor survives interrogation by a circumspect Yoel. He and the porch crew introduce their proprietary hechsher, which they call “mehudar,” which translates approximately as “this is the most kosher” (this is a label in name only). Yoel’s domicile can be reached by anyone who can utilize a search engine and is willing to make a few calls.
The Weston A. Price Foundation, an international raw milk advocacy concern, is loosely represented in Israel by a woman whose name is, fittingly, Milka Feldman.
She confirmed that the milk comes from cows on Kibbutz Nehalim, in Petah Tikva.
“They are not given hormones, just vaccinations and shots, and even then, they are not milked for two weeks,” she says.
And then there is the issue of the stomach operations. Feldman explains: “This milk is mehudar because all other cows are given surgery on their stomachs.”
What she’s referring to is a fairly common condition in dairy cows where a heifer sustains a twisted stomach several weeks after delivering a calf. Abdominal surgery is the usual remedy for the displaced stomach, and it is this operation that makes the milk unkosher, for the ultra-ultra-Orthodox.
THE FIELDS of Kfar Bin-Nun, just 25 km. west of Jerusalem, cater to a faithful and growing demographic of Jerusalemites who demand certified organic and, of course, kosher potatoes. On 12.5 acres of fertile valley adjacent to the moshav, a cooperative after the community supported agriculture (CSA) approach, Chubeza, runs a business anchored in giving consumers the confidence of knowing where their vegetables come from. And it is a business model that wins over educated consumers throughout Jerusalem and its environs.
These CSA co-ops and the constellation of organic delivery services in the country highlight more than a modern or fashionable lifestyle vis-à-vis matters as intimate as food. You might think that the awareness and willingness of Israel’s savvy set to realize a back-to-basics approach to food, and efforts to circumvent the synthetic contaminants and genetic tinkering of Big Pharmacology, would extend to the cause for unpasteurized milk, as well. The connection between raw milk and raw foods, however, is not necessarily a natural one.
Chubeza’s Bat-Ami, green thumb and founding tiller, estimates that merely 1 percent of her patrons have ever made enquiries after raw milk over the years, even though local demand for organic foods has visibly increased compared to four years ago.
“Many more people are aware, considering and buying organic, whether through CSA or other direct marketing methods directly from farms,” she says.
As far as the competition Chubeza faces in catering to this market, Bat-Ami insists that the main objective is attracting more people to “the organic way of life, not dominating market share. We do not feel competition. We’re all complementing each other in my view. CSA does not fit all, and so it’s great that there are other good options.”
And recourse to options, to choice, from nuptials to nourishment, is a liberty the inhabitants of free markets are supposed to exercise and indulge. Its regulation by the authorities is usually defended in the name of public health.
If legally available, Bat-Ami, like most liberated consumers, would sensibly taste and compare the unpasteurized with the commercial option to determine which would be a good fit for her.
THE FUROR, in recent months, laid plain in an article entitled “Israel’s dairy farmers furious over dairy import decision,” exposes the censure the Israel Dairy Board reserves for this administration’s latest reforms affecting domestic commerce.
“Exposing the Israeli dairy market to imports will not lower prices. Instead, this decision, combined with the reduction in the target price of milk, will force hundreds of dairy farms to close down across the country,” it said in a statement. The Dairy Board went on to forecast that “The over-concentration of dairy production will only increase. This action has lowered the axe on Israel’s dairy farms.”
A fairly cut-and-dried solution to such a catastrophe might lie in legalizing the sale of raw milk in Israel, thus preserving the local dairies that provide this perishable product to their communities. Might a proposal like this be entertained or realized? “I don’t think so,” says Dr. Shmulik Friedman, scientific director for the Israel Dairy Board. “I’m talking as a medical professional of 25 years – raw milk is a danger to life. The decision that the Health Ministry took to prohibit it is the correct decision and I support it because you have to protect human health.”
Despite the inherent risks of consuming unpasteurized milk (pasteurization is at least 90 percent effective in eliminating harmful bacteria in milk such as listeria, salmonella, E. coli, etc.), some still take the position that government would do better to let the market andthe consumer decide what sort of milk to purchase. Friedman adamantly opposes such a policy.
“No, you can’t leave it to the customer to decide himself. It’s not right, not a decision for the customer to make. The risk is too great. We are not like European countries, or even the US, where each leaves it up to you to decide, in some places. In Israel we have to take care.”
Needless to say, Dr. Friedman has never enjoyed a glass of fresh farm milk, and advises farmers to never taste the pre-processed milk themselves.
Those who wish to circumvent pasteurization, those 15 seconds at 73º, are taking their lives in their own hands, it would seem. Heating milk kills the good, along with the bad, but what’s important is that it kills the bad.
In the meantime, the chairman of the Israel Farmers Federation foresees the slaughter of 30 percent of Israel’s dairy herds.
ABOUT 99 percent of the cows in Israel belong to the much perfected (read “tinkered with”) Holstein-Frisian species now known as the Israeli Holstein, distinguished for milk-producing capacity. These familiar black-andwhite bovines produce more milk than any other breed of cattle in the world during the 10-month lactation cycle.
Randolph Jonsson, nutritionist and raw milk enthusiast, elucidates the good, bad and ugly that breeders have effected in their quest for efficiency.
“Producing huge amounts of milk is good for the farmer, not so good for the consumer, and a definite minus for the poor cow. The milk produced from such animals lacks the nutrient density of milk produced by Jersey and Guernsey cows, including a lower butterfat content and reduced ability to protect itself from pathogenic contamination.”
This would begin to explain the considerable discrepancy between Jerusalem Raw and the stuff back home; the frothy yield of the fawn Jersey cows in rural New England is a treat, something of a bucolic milkshake.
Feldman would agree that those accustomed to the rich raw milk in the US will probably be disappointed with just how similar the local raw milk is to the stuff on the market shelves. It is true, the raw sap available to Jerusalemites has a hint of a gamey aftertaste, but is otherwise unremarkable. Even its appearance bears the same homogeneous consistency as its legal counterpart, absent a cream barrier in the uppermost layer. And even when refrigerated, the milk enjoys the half-life of a fruit fly, after which denizens of the Milk Underground recommend churning it into labaneh for a decent spread.
The milk of the Jersey cow can be had if you make the trip to Kfar Tapuah; hardly consoling for city-bound raw enthusiasts. And to dampen further the gusto of the raw milker on the prowl, Nehalim keeps its herd in a barn – not exactly foraging the meadows, and certainly not grass-fed. And with the cost of hay on the rise, they are mostly fed a blend of fodder; in summer a corn and wheat mash, in winter a variety of green tops let to ferment. And soy interspersed here and there.
This is less than ideal. Jonsson explains: “If Holsteins are fed grain and soy along with their hay rations, instead of green grass, the milk becomes even less nutritious and more likely to harbor pathogens. The cow’s health suffers too: too much grain can acidify the pH of the cow’s rumen and affect the quality and fatty acid ratio of the milk (pro inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids become higher than beneficial omega-3 fatty acids) which can adversely affect consumers who have inflammatory ailments such as asthma, arthritis.”
But for Yoel and his troop, the tahara, or purity of the milk, is not derivative of its nutrition or immunological benefit.
Like the CSA approach, it is about a measure of control, of establishing a personal relationship with one’s food.
While not contemptuous of the official national institutions and hechshers of halav yisrael, some communities simply desire the kind of supervision that milking the cow oneself, or close to it, secures the conscience. Like CSA, Community Supported Milk is a lifestyle choice first and foremost.
ONCE UPON a time the dairy of Givot Olam, in Samaria, was a reliable vendor of unpasteurized milk, serving a broad clientele. The people who answer the phones there today claim no knowledge of raw milk retailers or where it can be had.
“I think they’ve been getting problems.
The atmosphere is not so great now,” Feldman acknowledges. She realizes that Israel is becoming a tougher place for true believers to get their fix.
And for the minuscule community of enthusiasts in Jerusalem, Yoel’s porch is becoming more of a godsend.
Jonsson, Feldman and the rest of the worldwide camp who voice a laissez- faire approach to food freedom, want consumers, and not federal agencies, to decide for themselves a preference for raw or pasteurized milk. It is the system and surly scientists, some argue, who compulsively exaggerate the danger of so innocent a staple as, well, milk. If the beverage were really as bad as its rap, he contends, “We wouldn’t have made it past the Stone Age.”
As it stands, the contention that certain cultural enclaves have suffered an arrested development of some kind is insinuated. For some, the ingestion of raw milk in these circles is seen as symptomatic of a social stagnation.
Rabbi Yissachar Dov Krakowski is the rabbinic supervisor for OU Kashrut in Israel and regards the shirking of his organization’s halachic judgment by the likes of Yoel as misguided. He observes, “They don’t have historical perspective. They have only foresight, no hindsight.”
No mean observer, the rabbi alleges a working familiarity with the splintered tapestry of the more or less extreme and marginal communities of Mea She’arim; and Brooklyn, too. He admits to Satmar blood coursing in his veins.
“We have hindsight,” he insists.
“In the larger picture, they don’t have the expertise to oversee a real system, hence their methods. And also, their method, raw, has health problems, and there are a lot of viruses around. Anyway, there is no such thing as purely raw anymore, [what] with genetic tampering.”
“The more established, the better – you can’t compete with experience and expertise. When you have a lack of trust toward others, that can be a danger,” he emphasizes. His comments seem to resonate with another establishment authority, who wishes to remain anonymous, and characterizes “new” communities like Yoel’s as stringent to a fault, lacking clear leadership and guided by insular hashkafot, or perspectives.
And so, in this instance, what raw milk represents to the religious establishment is a disregard not merely of tradition, but of traditional authority.
Krakowski, continuing to dispute the efficacy of such naïve purist endeavors, then drops a bombshell – “Even organic is not purely organic.”
An ominous revelation, and one that could not be fleshed out by the suddenly elusive, or perhaps simply unavailable, rabbi.
An administrator in the establishment itself, his views are as unsurprising as they are sound. Expertise and experience, should they complement each other, are indispensable to the pious and heathen consumer alike. As for who makes the better case – that can be debated until the cows come home.
But until then, some hindsight might be instructive. Louis Pasteur didn’t emerge from a vacuum. When his friend Rabbi Dr. Michael Rabinovitch, who translated the Talmud into French, Pasteur acquainted himself with the wisdom of our Sages, who held that it is better to drink poison than water that was never boiled – from this sprang the germ of the idea that produced the method which bears his name today. Whats more, he also credits the Gemara for his idea on developing the rabies vaccine. “Someone who was bitten by a sick dog, you make him eat from the liver of that dog” (Yoma, 84).
From pasteurization to vaccination (“hair of the dog”), Jewish wisdom has made its contribution to science, and the Jewish faithful, true to form, will continue to prove that you can milk a mahloket (difference of opinion), whether or not you were aware that there was a mahloket to begin with.