I started keeping kosher in 2003, shortly before my husband and I got married. He and I took the process in baby steps, as to not go cold turkey from the foods we were used to eating. At first, it was just short separations between meat and dairy, extending an hour more each year. Eventually we gave up non-kosher meat altogether. Along the way, it was amazing to see how many products we could find that were kosher. Nowadays, we love being able to go into an all-kosher supermarket, or to eat at Ben and Jerry’s guilt-free.

I recently had the chance to speak with Roger Horowitz and Sue Fishkoff, two authors who explore kashrut through their books, Kosher USA and Kosher Nation, respectively. Horowitz follows the journey of kosher foods through the modern industrial food system and traces how iconic products, such as Coca-Cola and Jell-O, tried to become kosher, among other things. Fishkoff travels throughout the US and to China to find out who eats kosher food, who produces it, who is responsible for its certification and how this fascinating world continues to evolve.

Sue Fishkoff, author of Kosher Nation

Sue Fishkoff, author of Kosher Nation

Jewish Food Experience®: What was the motivation behind writing your book about kashrut?
Sue Fishkoff: I came up with the idea for Kosher Nation in late 2007, when I was covering Jewish identity and expression as a national reporter for the JTA. I found myself coming across more and more stories having to do with new twists in Jewish dietary practice. That summer, for example, I was in Sumy, Ukraine, on assignment and met a Chabad rabbi and his wife who drove out to a country village every week to watch a farmer milk his cow, so they could give their children fresh dairy products that adhered to the Chabad stringency of “Cholov Yisroel,” which is milk watched by an observant Jew from the moment it leaves the cow’s body.

A few weeks later I was at alternative Shabbat services on the Upper West Side with a group of twenty-somethings, and the potluck dinner was served on two tables: one for packaged vegetarian food with a kosher certificate, or hechsher, and one for homemade vegetarian food without a hechsher, a kind of radically inclusive kashrut policy that indicated their respect for tradition as well as modern political sensibilities. I realized then and there that something was brewing in the world of Jewish dietary practice all along the observance spectrum. When I then saw an AP article saying that kosher labels had appeared on more new food products than organic or “all-natural” labels that year for the third year in a row, I knew I had the topic for my next book. Jews are just two percent of the US population, yet more than 30 percent of the money spent on food in this country is spent on kosher-certified food. Who’s buying it, and why?

Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA

Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA

Roger Horowitz: I give my Uncle Stu credit for starting me on this book. Under trying circumstances that I describe more fully in Kosher USA and my website, he read my last book, Putting Meat on the American Table, and called my mother to ask why I hadn’t written about kosher meat. His question was in part a query as to why I, as a trained historian, hadn’t looked into this, but it also was in part a challenge to look at the roots of an historical process of which I, and our family, were a part. I never actually talked with Uncle Stu about it; he died just days after his conversation with my mother. But his question stuck, and I expanded it to look more generally at how kosher food had fared in our modern industrial food system.

As I did so over the next few years, the family element of this story, which Stu had embedded in his initial question, became stronger and stronger. My father, and especially my mother, engaged with my research by telling family stories about encounters with kosher food by their parents, and by themselves in younger days. These stories became increasingly poignant as their health started to fail; both died when I was about half-done with the manuscript, necessitating a long delay as I dealt with their estates. So while this is a book of history, it has many family stories, and was a very personal book to me as it was written as an answer to Uncle Stu and to fulfill a commitment to my parents who were so engaged with its creation.

fishkoff-koshernationJFE®: What trends do you see happening for kosher food in the next ten years?
SF: As more baalei teshuva, or formerly non-observant Jews, join the observant community, they will continue to pressure the kosher restaurants, wineries and food manufacturers to come up with higher-quality products. The kosher suppliers no longer have a captive market content with sweet, syrupy Concord grape wine or tough, overcooked steak.

This big group of new kosher consumers has tasted the real stuff, and they don’t want second best. This has been going on for a generation already, and gave rise to restaurants like Levana and Prime Grill in New York, along with, much more recently, top-notch kosher wineries like Covenant, in Berkeley, California, and caterers like L’Chaim Sushi in San Francisco, just to mention two outfits in my neck of the woods.

RH: Sue is absolutely right; I would add as an emerging trend increases instances of multiple certifications—of food that is certified kosher and organic, or kosher and GMO-free, or kosher and fair trade and so on. Kosher food is benefitting by the growth of niche markets for food products that appeal to consumers willing to spend more for items that meet their ethical or nutritional preferences. So major kosher food producers such as Manischewitz and Kedem (the latter through its Gefen brand) are seeking out additional certifications to open their products to consumers seeking greater control over what they eat.

This direction has the potential to address some of the “kosher bottlenecks,” such as with kosher meat, with suppliers such as KOL Foods producing beef that is certified as grass fed plus antibiotic free as well as kosher. Much as kosher food production expanded enormously in the late-20th century by becoming part of the industrial food system, I see kosher food moving into an increasing range of niche markets in the 21st century by reaching out to consumers for whom kosher is one of a number of criteria they demand for the food they eat.

kosher-usa-coverJFE®: What is one thing people might be surprised about while reading your book?
SF: The sheer number of kosher-certified food products sold in this country shocked me when I first began my research, and I’m sure I’m not alone. As I wrote above, given that Jews are such a small part of the American consumer market, why do so many food products carry kosher labels? There’s no reason for it, beyond marketing; somehow the American public has become convinced that kosher products—particularly meat and poultry—are better, safer and healthier. And they’re willing to pay good money for it.

Another astonishing fact I uncovered in my research: about half the food products exported from China are kosher-certified. That’s mind-boggling. Most of this is food colorings, preservatives and chemical additives used in kosher-certified soups, sauces and other finished food products that are manufactured in the United States. Every tiny ingredient in a kosher-certified product must itself be kosher certified, and it’s cheaper to make these additives in China and ship them to US factories for inclusion in the final product. I spent a week in China visiting kosher-certified factories with a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) who flew in from the US periodically to supervise them, and it was amazing to see the respect the factory owners and floor managers had for the entire system—that in itself isn’t surprising, because if a factory loses its kosher certification, it’s cut out of the lucrative export market and has little chance of being allowed back in.

RH: Manischewitz wine. I didn’t plan to write about it at all. But everyone I talked to celebrated how dry kosher wine now was an alternative to Manischewitz. That made me curious about what had happened to Manischewitz. So I looked into it and discovered that Manischewitz had been the first crossover, branded Jewish product. As early as 1950, over 80 percent of Manischewitz wine customers weren’t Jewish. This is a half-century before modern kosher-certified processed food attracted non-Jewish consumers. So why was this tremendous success something bad, and the replacement of Manischewitz by dry wine something to celebrate? The reason: Manischewitz’s customers were predominantly blue-collar African Americans, and this is not an association that the partisans of today’s kosher food want to emphasize.

The irony is that today’s dry kosher wines have none of Manischewitz’s crossover appeal and are really only purchased by Jews. Indeed, the only kosher wine that has crossed over the religious line recently to any degree is Bartenura’s sweet Moscato wine through its popularity (echoing Manischewitz’s success) among African-American consumers. To this day, sales of kosher wine are a fraction of those of Manischewitz in its heyday.

JFE®: How do you feel perceptions on kosher food have changed over the past 30 years?
RH: I think many more non-Jewish consumers seek out kosher food than 30 years ago. The market research on this is utterly conclusive. Kosher does carry an endorsement of quality, simply by virtue of its endorsement by rabbis whose commitment is to their religion, and are not in some way tied into the food system. That said, kosher also is an impediment in some areas, especially wine, where to non-Jews the kosher designation carries a stigma.

Kosher meat also is a contested area, where the good feelings about kosher certification can be outweighed by the complaints about a key kosher requirement: that the animal be conscious at the time of slaughter. In Europe these views have led to a movement spearheaded by right-wing political parties to ban ritual slaughter that is performed in accordance with both the Jewish and Muslim religions. So much as kosher food has become more acceptable outside the Jewish community, it still is a marker of Jewishness. Indeed, there are many Jews who follow their own versions of kosher that diverge from the official Orthodox rules, but nonetheless speak to them as an affirmation of our special identity stretching back thousands of years.

SF: I agree with what Roger says, and I would add that within the non-observant Jewish world, there is much greater interest in Jewish dietary practice than a generation ago. As the Reform movement in particular has become more open to the spiritual potential of Jewish rituals, including Hebrew, mikveh and minor holidays, so have liberal Jews become curious about kashrut as a mark of tribal identity and a moral or political statement. Americans in general have become used to specialty diets, from vegetarianism to gluten free to organic. Keeping kosher is no longer something to be embarrassed about in “polite” company.

And as a moral structure, it is admirable, for kashrut teaches us that we humans are not the center of the universe, but part of a network of life and death that began before us and will continue afterward; we cannot have everything we want whenever we want it, but must practice discipline and conservationism. These are modern lessons that come from our ancient tradition, and they speak to many of today’s young Jews.

Top photo by Uriel Heilman