Guest Column: Kosher lite

Plenty of Jews go to nonkosher restaurants but are careful about what they eat.

2902-carroll (photo credit: Bloomberg)
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
So a reporter comes to me with a great idea for a feature story. Jewish moms are buzzing over a new "meal prep" place in a local strip mall. The business, called Dinnersmith, isn't a restaurant per se. It's kind of a community kitchen, where the owners provide ingredients, recipes and utensils. The customers put everything together and cook it all up at home. Dinnersmith isn't kosher, but, as the reporter points out, it accommodates those who "keep a lenient form of kashrut." The owners will cover the counters in plastic, show customers the labels and substitute ingredients, and there are always vegetarian and fish entrees. How does a Jewish newspaper write about an establishment that is clearly nonkosher but goes out of its way to cater to a crowd that keeps a personal form of kashrut outside the home? More to the point, how does it write about it without really ticking off rabbis who demand that clear lines be drawn between what is certified kosher (that is, carries a hechsher from the local rabbinical council or a national agency) and what isn't? In other words, what do we talk about when we talk about kosher? The reality is that plenty of Jews go to nonkosher restaurants but observe what some call "kosher lite" - ranging from no pork or shellfish, to no meat or fowl, to eating cold foods only. Many of them keep kosher homes. (They're the ones who never ask for doggie bags.) By the Orthodox rabbis and many Conservative rabbis (but not all, as we'll see), kosher lite is like being a little bit pregnant - or a little bit not-pregnant, if you want to be technical (and if you care at all about kashrut, of course, you want to be technical). AND YET, for many people, limiting the menu outside the home is a personal and, in some cases, a profound statement of Jewish identity, whether or not the restaurant has been kashered. When I started becoming observant in my 20s, one of the first things I began observing was kashrut, under the theory that no matter what else I did or didn't do Jewishly, I'd be making Jewish choices with every morsel I put in my mouth. I'll eat in a nonkosher restaurant, but each time I pick and choose among the vegetarian and fish choices, I remind myself and my tablemates that I belong to a people apart. In 2004 the New York Jewish Week reported on a survey of almost 1,000 Conservative rabbis and cantors. The survey found that "more than 80 percent eat warmed fish in nonkosher restaurants." Many cited legal opinions within the movement in defense of the practice; others complained the survey question was loaded. The findings prompted one rabbi to consider writing a legal opinion that would unequivocally ban the practice. "There is a misconception in the Conservative movement that Conservative Jews are permitted to eat hot food in nonkosher restaurants," said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, who chairs the kashrut subcommittee of the movement's main lawmaking body. "That is not true." Even if such a ruling were to change the behavior of the rabbis, I doubt it would have much of an impact on the rank and file. There the essential debate is not between Hillel and Shammai, but between Authority and Autonomy, the milk and meat of modernity. Non-Orthodox Jews tend to base their Jewish choices on what is meaningful on the inside, not what is permitted from the outside. And, as Arnold Eisen and Steven M. Cohen showed in their 2000 book The Jew Within, even when a Jew in the 21st century falls in line with authority, that's still a choice. New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni stepped into this debate this month, in a blog item about the Second Avenue Deli. "I have several friends who adapt and interpret kosher dietary rules in unusual and permissive ways," wrote Bruni. His friends won't eat pork or shellfish, but will eat other food from a nonkosher kitchen. Adds Bruni: "For them 'kosher' - and they do use the word itself when explaining their menu choices - isn't an exact and exacting prescription so much as it is an ideal toward which they take small steps." FOR TRADITIONALISTS, them's fighting words. "The word 'kosher' originated in the Torah, the Jewish Bible," writes a Menachem Rosenberg, in the blog's comments section. "The only definition that can have any standing is based thereon. Following it is, of course, a matter of choice; defining it is not." But Bruni's talk of "small steps" fits nicely with the "ladder of observance" - the signature concept of Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "An ideal Conservative Jew is a striving Jew, one who is always trying to grow in commitment and knowledge," Epstein has written. "Each of us should continually climb the ladder of observance." In the end, we published the Dinnersmith article but gave readers the chance to make their own informed choices. For the uninitiated, "the owners cover the counters in plastic" sounds like mere fastidiousness. For others, it's code for "we'll do all we can to keep your meal from touching another's treif." We'll also leave it to readers to debate whether it is better to help people do a mitzva as they define it, or only as the rabbis define it. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.