Can I Poll Rural Americans About Kosher Pickles?

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Dear Miriam,

My family recently traveled to a rural part of the country, and we were surprised to see a sign at an amusement park advertising “kosher pickles.” This sparked a discussion among the adults as to what kosher means to people who live in a place without an observant Jewish population. My spouse wanted to ask the employee what he thought it meant, and I did not want to call attention to us as Jews. So, what do you think the word kosher means in this context, and would there have been any appropriate way for us to poll people about this at the park?

Inconspicuous Tourist

Dear Tourist,

Anyone who visits a grocery store in any part of the country sees jars of kosher pickles on the shelf, and the connotation is, I think, that it’s a flavor like sweet, dill, or bread and butter. I doubt that most people in middle America give the meaning more than a passing thought, similar how they might see an OU on a package and maybe wonder about it, but not enough to do anything about it.

Anyone who watches any cooking shows has heard of chefs using kosher salt, and I suspect it registers for people as just a kind of salt. In neither case do I think that use of the word kosher brings up images of Jews or of a complex system of rules about shellfish and chewing cud. Even if some people might intuitively know that kosher has something to do with Jews, when it comes to pickles and salt, I think the connection is diminished compared to, say, the phrases “kosher butcher” or “keeping kosher.”

My guess is that if your spouse had asked an overheated, underpaid concessions worker what “kosher” means, the employee would have said, “It’s a pickle,” since that’s what the stand was selling. I can’t really envision how you would ask follow up questions without holding up the line, and this would definitely have called attention to yourselves – not for being Jews, but for betraying the social construct of concession stands where you ask for what you want and then move on without engaging in any social experiments or exploration of rural culture or etymology. I also can’t imagine a scenario in which you would ask other amusement park attendees this question without it being seriously strange, with the oddness probably getting in the way of any substantive fact-finding.

The other way in which people outside of Jewish communities engage with the word kosher is in the colloquial way of saying something is acceptable or all right, maybe about the rules in a game or a particular behavior. That use is pretty far removed from food, but there still may be a connotation that, when applied to food, “kosher” means that food is cleaner or better or somehow held to a higher standard. (I believe some hot dog companies have exploited this for marketing purposes, which may be another context familiar to non-Jews.)

When we travel, we accept that sometimes we are going outside of our comfort zones, and while we can learn from people in places we visit, it’s not really up to us, as tourists, to interrogate their understanding of the world. I don’t think you (or your spouse) would have that impulse in a foreign country, and it’s not fair to exoticize rural America either. Yes, there is an enormous divide between certain parts of our country right now, and yes, there are enormous misunderstandings of Jews that sometimes show up as antisemitism and sometimes just show up as ignorance, but I don’t think the amusement park is the place to examine these extremely complex issues of identity. Also, pickles are delicious; I hope you ate one and enjoyed it, said thank you to the employee, and tipped well. I also hope you relished (pickle pun!!) the opportunity to go a little outside yourself, to engage in a thought experiment about cultural differences, and to consider how you can be true to yourself and kind to others wherever you go.

Be well,