In today's world, we seem to be ever more inundated with new, biologically-spliced food derivatives, protein-infused heath drinks, self-proclaimed convenience foods, fast foods and a plethora of other items that frankly have little resemblance to their original, nutritional form.
Sometimes, it's just good to go back to the basics.
For that reason alone, many people around the world have adopted the kosher diet as a way of avoiding many of the pitfalls of consuming continually over-processed food. Some of the large food processors, even, are climbing on the bandwagon, and more and more mainstream foods are becoming kosher certified.
For many others, however, it is a way of life that is tied directly to their religion, as well as to Kashrut, the Jewish Dietary Laws which are believed by some to be a healthier alternative to many of the processed foods available today.
While the Jewish dogma does not require one to follow kosher guidelines, it does definitely advise it. Regardless, it is a personal decision that makes one feel healthier in spirit as well as yielding the many physical benefits associated with a kosher diet.
In the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, kosher is actually defined as "fit" or "spiritually fit". In a more current use, it has become synonymous with clean, healthy, quality food -- unfettered -- by many of today's processing techniques. The very act of processing, slaughtering and packaging of foods in the kosher methodology represents, to many, a safer, healthier food to those who consume it.
Some processed food, however, might include small amounts of non-kosher ingredients and be considered unclean, according to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, supposedly written by Moses upon which are based all Jewish dietary laws. In fact, the laws governing kosher food are much more stringent than those of the USDA and in some cases kosher butchers and slaughterhouses have become exempt from many of the requirements of the USDA for that reason.
In recent times, a variety of secular experts have examined the laws of Kashrut to determine why they exist at all. Some believe that they were set up as health laws by Moses from God to prevent the extinction of the Jewish race at a time when disease, pestilence and plague were rampant. But many modern Jews believe they are so antiquated that they are no longer applicable with the advent of modern processing techniques, refrigeration and preservation methods.
"Every part of the tradition is now being mined for new meaning," said Rabbi Marc Fitzerman of Tulsa's B'nai Emunah Temple. "Some people remain distant from the system, but many are connecting Kashrut with mindfulness, our relationship with the created world, and the slow process of self-definition. What we eat gives us a chance to say who we really are."
In fact, with the increasing evolution toward innovative techniques, natural cross-culture and fusion cuisines, and exposure to the many television, internet and print sources on all things food, the notion of "What we eat gives us a chance to say who we really are" applies to a great many of us in many different cultures and cuisines around the world.
For the record, kosher is not food that is "blessed by a Rabbi," as is often thought. The Kashrut guidelines are very specific as to what is acceptable kosher food, and what does not fall under the specific qualifiers within the kosher food laws.
While the Jewish ritual does require a blessing be said before each meal, it in no way has a direct kinship to the laws of Kashrut. For many Jews, keeping kosher is a spiritual choice as well as a dietary one.
Again, contrary to popular visibility, there is no such thing as "kosher-style" food.
Kosher is not a cuisine, and should not be confused with Jewish food, which really is comprised of variations picked up by the diaspora, based on foods discovered in the Middle East/Mediterranean, or Poland and Germany, for instance.
It is important not to confuse the two, kosher and cuisine, for a number of reasons -- but on its most fundamental level, it is simply because Jewish foods do not always meet the criteria, and do not always fulfill the stricter guidelines required by Kashrut.
The rules under which kosher food is handled and prepared are many and complex, but derive from a few fairly simple, straightforward rules:
1) Certain animals may not be eaten at all, which includes animals that do not have cloven hooves and do not chew cud. Therefore, according to the Torah, animals such as the camel, the rabbit and the pig are not kosher. Certain birds and insects are also forbidden. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals.
2) Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law. For example, animals that have died from natural causes or have been killed by other animals are not considered kosher. Instead, an animal must be killed by cutting its throat with a sharp knife.
3) All blood must be drained from meat and poultry or broiled out of it before it is eaten.
4) Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten, such as the sciatic nerve and its surrounding blood vessels.
5) Fruits and vegetables are permitted, but must be inspected for bugs (which cannot be eaten).
6) Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat.)
7) Utensils (including pots and pans and other cooking surfaces) that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.
8) Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.
The Torah tells Jews that "a kid must not be boiled in its mother's milk," and for that reason, the early rabbis determined that meat and dairy should not be consumed together. Additionally, this applies to eating utensils, cooking vessels, containers used for washing, sponges, scouring pads and the towels used for drying.
"The food gets absorbed in the utensils that you use," said Rabbi Yehuda Weg of the Chabad House in Tulsa. "If you cook meat in a pot, some of that meat will become absorbed in the walls of the pot. Therefore, when you use that some pot again, some of that meat will be expelled and mixed in the second meal."
There is a segment of the appliance industry that addresses these specifics -- a two-drawer dishwasher for instance, was first designed to meet kosher requirements. Additionally, a kosher household will have two sets of cutting boards, knives, pots, pans and more to accommodate these specific requirements.
Even the act of eating meat and dairy is separated under the laws of Kashrut. Most agree that one must wait six hours after eating meat before consuming dairy with the exception of Germanic Jews, who believe one must wait at least three hours.
"That's how long it was considered for the body to rid itself of the meat," Rabbi Weg said.
Others only require one to rinse out the mouth and eat a neutral solid such as a piece of bread, unless the dairy is of a nature that it will stick to ones mouth and teeth, as in the case of hard or aged cheese.
Of course from the beginning of time, one of the oldest and most basic sources of nutrition in the world is meat. It is eaten in almost every culture, and in every country on earth. But Jewish dietary laws have very specific -- by some standards even rigid -- criteria for the slaughter and consumption of animals.
Essentially, of land-based mammals, the Torah qualifies acceptable animals for consumption as "any animal with cloven hooves that chews its cud." If an animal does not have both of these characteristics, it may not be eaten.
Therefore, cattle, sheep, bison, deer and goats are all acceptable -- if they are slaughtered properly and if the blood is drained rapidly.
Jews are not allowed to eat pork, as well as other meats mentioned in the Torah such as rabbit, camels and others because these meats do not meet the kosher requirements. It should be noted that to the best of modern day scientific knowledge, there is no known reason why camel and rabbit are any less healthy or less safe to eat than the permitted animals.
In the case of water-based animals, anything with fins and scales is acceptable, which rules out clams, oysters, lobster and crab. Fin fish such as tuna, carp, herring, salmon and trout are all acceptable.
Flying or winged animals have their own set of qualifiers. The breakdown is for the most part a line of demarcation between scavengers and non-scavengers. Consequently duck, geese, chickens and turkey are acceptable. Some, in the most literal translation of the Torah, will not eat turkey because it was unknown at the time of the "giving of the Torah" and therefore falls into a bit of a grey area.
In general, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and most insects are forbidden, although the Bible does state that certain species of grasshoppers and locusts are permissible. Only a few societies, such as the Jews of Yemen, still eat these insects.
"The rest of us have lost the tradition to know which species they are," Rabbi Weg said.
There is more than a casual amount of effort and a high degree of commitment related to the decision to eat and "keep" kosher. In a world that is becoming more and more hurried, and with people who are becoming less and less prone to put a committed effort into many things, it takes a lifestyle change, especially with the younger generations, to follow the laws of Kashrut, Rabbi Fitzerman said.
"I see passionate people in every demographic who are engaging with the tradition, but there's a special category of young seeker-thinkers who want to know more about purpose and practice," he said. "The process is almost always incremental.
"People will start with one aspect of the system and see if they can sustain a commitment. I think that's a healthy way to make an important existential change. One of the most significant concerns of dietary law is our relationship with animals. Kashrut asks how we can make that relationship more gentle and humane. How do we address the painful brutality of slaughter and foreground the values that express real humanity?"
Now, We Are Getting Somewhere
Animals slaughtered for consumption under Kashrut guidelines must be killed under humane guidelines by highly trained ritual slaughterers, and must follow all the rules of kosher preparation.
Again, in accordance with the Torah, the blood of animals, with the exception of fish, cannot be consumed. Many uninformed mistakenly assume this is because it is considered dirty or unclean. The Bible states that the blood of an animal carries its life or soul, and to consume it is to violate that sanctity. For that reason, kosher meat must be completely and properly drained of all its blood.
Rabbi Weg said liver has its own set of requirements dating back to the time of Moses, which include brining or soaking. It also must be broiled. Additionally, the former creature must be cooked within 72 hours of slaughter, and never after it has been frozen or ground up.
The sciatic nerve and surrounding vessels may not be eaten; leading to the common practice of selling the hindquarters to a non-kosher butcher since it is extremely time-consuming to remove them.
Strict kosher laws regarding blood even refer to an egg with a blood spot. For that reason some will crack eggs into a glass before putting them in a pan to avoid turning a kosher pan into a non-kosher pan. The simple act of putting an egg with a blood spot into a frying ban renders the pan useless in that respect. If you were baking a cake, and the recipe called for a number of eggs, prudence would have you break each egg into a small glass dish, then pour it into a separate dish before cracking the next one. If you broke them all into one dish and the last one had a spot, it would contaminate all of them, and you would have to start over.
Kosher cheese has its own unique set of requirements as well, since normally cheese production uses an ingredient called rennet, a set of enzymes from the stomach of mammals that consequently cannot be used in the making of kosher cheese. Even though cheese was probably invented by some infidel who once carried milk in a convenient pouch. Yuk!
Instead, today, microbial coagulants are used, and the kosher cheese production must be done under constant supervision.
Fruits and vegetables are all kosher, as long as they do not contain bugs or worms. For that reason, they must be painstakingly inspected for any type of insect. There is excellent information at star-k.org/cons-appr-vegetables.php about the proper methods for inspecting fruits and vegetables.
Foods produced in accordance with the laws of kosher food preparation must be done using equipment that is designated for kosher preparation. If a machine or piece of equipment is used for the preparation of non-kosher food products, it cannot not be used again for kosher production until it has been re-readied for that purpose through a process called kosherization.
Essentially, if the non-kosher food produced was a liquid or used a liquid in its preparation, such as a soup, gravy or broth, the cooking vessel must be cleaned by prolonged boiling. If there was no liquid involved, then the item must be purified by the application of intense heat to restore its kosher status.
In Hebrew, the word "pareve" means neutral. Therefore foods that are designated as pareve can be consumed with any item. Since the Jewish dietary laws forbid the consumption or combination of meat or meat derivatives with milk, it is of great marketing significance to a kosher food producer to be able to have the additional label modifier of pareve. Conversely, if a product is designated as dairy, it cannot be combined with meat or poultry, and marketability is a bit reduced.
The Hebrew word "glatt" translates to mean "smooth". When cattle are slaughtered, some authorities require a post-mortem examination of the lung tissue to check for adhesions and clots. If there are none found, then the meat is considered glatt kosher.
It has become commonplace these days for animals to be inspected in this stringent way, and it is virtually impossible to find meat that is not labeled "Glatt Kosher" thanks to modern practices.
With that in mind, deer, sheep, lambs, calves and all fowl must always be glatt to be considered kosher. Sometimes confusion occurs when a product is labeled glatt rather than Glatt Kosher. There most certainly is a difference.
But Rabbi Fitzerman said no one should have trouble finding kosher foods.
"Kosher-supervised goods are widely available in every part of the country," he said. "This is a fast-growing part of the economy; with many people who are not Jewish themselves seeking out kosher goods on the assumption that supervision insures greater quality. The challenge is almost always kosher meat.
"Many markets in Tulsa carry it, and the Synagogue always stocks products for the sake of convenience. But like many smaller communities, we don't have a local kosher butcher who can supply fresh goods. I hope that the Synagogue will eventually be able to remedy that problem, but it's a work in progress."
Rabbi Charles Sherman of Temple Israel said that because of the almost total lack of kosher restaurants and a decided lack of a Jewish neighborhood and temples within walking distance, Orthodox Jews simply don't move to Tulsa. Keeping an Orthodox and kosher lifestyle is an almost unachievable goal in anything other than the most austere of circumstances.
Others in the Jewish community echo his sentiments by saying without hesitation that there are no places in Tulsa that accommodate the kosher community well and no kosher-only meat markets at all. Even travelers passing through Tulsa planning to stick with a kosher diet have to pack their bags with a few of their own foods. The Tulsa International Airport only offers retail packaged items that are certified kosher.
There are those among modern Jews who hold the philosophy that the Kashrut laws are merely antiquated health laws and are unnecessary with today's methods of food preparation and regulation. Rabbi Sherman echoed this when he said that Jews often use this argument to justify or rationalize why they do not keep kosher. And perhaps -- from only that point of view -- there is some validity, although there is no question that at least some of the laws of Kashrut have health and safety benefits.
But to the spiritual Jew, there is a much simpler and more fundamental reason -- that the Torah requires it. For those devotees, no other reason is necessary.
While keeping kosher implies one may be eating cleaner, it doesn't necessarily mean one is eating any healthier, said Betsy Cooper, a licensed nutritionist at the dietary company Keith & Associates, which provides nutritional services to anything from nursing homes to prisons.
"It's not that it is healthier, but you do use cleaner cuts of meat," she said. "It's considered cleaner because you're not transferring bacteria."
In his book To Be A Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that it is a calling upon on a more spiritual level, almost holiness, he suggests, on a par with many of the acts of devotion in any religion.
Says Fitzerman "Kashrut was once the background hum of traditional community life," he said. "Many people lived within the system as a matter of course. At this point, it represents a more conscious decision to live in a certain way, making thoughtful choices at each turn. Younger people who make the commitment tend to be quite serious.
"The American Jewish community as a whole used to be more traditional. I grew up in a kosher home and many of my peers would say the same. What's interesting to me is not the current lack of tradition, but the number of people who are looking closely at the ethics embedded in the system and finding something of meaning and value.
"Authentic observance comes in many different flavors. My own denomination permits observers to eat dairy, vegetarian, and many fish meals in restaurants. I've never been in a restaurant in Tulsa where it was impossible to find something to eat. That's a pretty good record for 25 years."
In addition, the kosher trademark is becoming more and more common, and most people don't even realize how many certified kosher items they do consume each day.
Walk down the aisles of most grocery stores and look closely at the labels, and you may be surprised to see how many items carry one of the dozens of other official kosher trademarks representing the kosher certification. In fact, that certification appears on more than 60 percent of America's produced foods, on items as common as Oreo Cookies, Bumble Bee Tuna, Gatorade G2, Tootsie Rolls and Coca-Cola. In this nation alone, more than $150 billion is spent annually on kosher foods.
According to Oukosher.org, there is verifiable evidence that having the kosher certification increases market share by up to 20% when marketed side-by-side against non-certified items.
But Does It Play in Tulsa and Into the Future?
Locally, most groceries carry a selection of kosher foods in an actual kosher-specific section, as well as items throughout the store. Around 75-100 items can be found at many Reasor's Foods stores as well as Akins Natural Foods, and a little less in the local Homeland stores.
In addition, a search for kosher markets in Tulsa unfortunately yields none within a 20 mile radius. One hundred items may sound reasonable, but think about planning your diet and menus around such a limited number.
One might assume that the dietary and religious laws among nations in the Middle East could be similar, simply due to proximity. Neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork, and both eat chicken. In the United States, if one travels from Georgia to Texas, or Arizona to Missouri, while there are some differences in preparation, and perhaps a few differences in popular dishes of an area, the foundation overall remains the same among the general population.
And yet, as evidenced by the meal nightmares of the luncheon after the signing of the 1993 Israeli-PLO Peace Accord at which both Muslims and Jews were catered to, nothing is ever so simple. Muslims do not drink liquor, and so no wine could be served. Additionally, no wine vinegars could be used, or even wine in the food preparation.
On top of that, all the food for the Jewish contingent had to be glatt kosher, presenting additional problems.
Is there any wonder why we all can't get along?
The meal could be served on glass plates, which are acceptable if they have had non-kosher food served on them before, but not china since the porous nature of it could allow for non-kosher food particles to adhere even after washing in a sterile dish machine. All the kosher food was prepared off-site by a certified caterer, and then had to be served in the sealed packet, to ensure to the diner that it is truly kosher prepared.
Hinduism has it's own set of restrictions, and different sects have different compliances, but for the most part, due to the philosophy of non-violence and re-birth, many sects are allowed to eat dairy and other by-products. Still others are forbidden to eat root vegetables, and for the most part, Hindus do not drink alcohol.
Buddhism does not have any dietary restrictions, although it is common practice to follow self-imposed rules.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints forbids caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.
Catholics are still saddled by the no meat on Fridays concept, which really has never gone away, though the stricture was dropped in the mid-'60s. Those who will take their faith seriously know they are to consider Fridays important for the sake or recalling Jesus' death and are encouraged to do some sort of special act of penance or good work in remembrance.
Almost every society, and seemingly almost every religion have some dietary commitments and even ideologies associated with them.
Despite all the laws associated with "going kosher," there is no sort of penalty or penance for beginning to follow the laws of Kashrut at a later stage in life, Rabbi Fitzerman said.
"A person can enter the system at any point in life without penalty," he said. "The tradition honors the person who is chozer bi-t'shuvah, who sincerely undertakes a new course of action, a new way of looking at the world. The assumption here is that life is an endlessly renewable resource and that no one should be kept from a fresh start."
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