Sue Fishkoff, in her latest book, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, takes fifteen riveting chapters explaining just that. From who keeps kosher and why, to who certifies food and the politics encircling the agencies, to Jewish delis to and kosher wine, to the events in Postville, Iowa, and the new Jewish food movement. And each chapter is filled with interviews, history, and heavy doses of reality where necessary (have you ever slaughtered your own chicken?).
My personal favorite chapter was “Kosher Law and Its Discontents.” As a Reform Jew who basically keeps kosher by eating a vegetarian diet, I’m fascinated (and troubled) by the way “kosher” is defined, how the target keeps moving, and how certifying agencies (and their adherents) keep upping the ante on what qualifies as kosher. Three hundred years ago, most families were lucky if they had more than one pot to cook in; they certainly didn’t have two to four or more sets of dishes and cooking implements – and no one would have told them they weren’t keeping kosher. Fishkoff writes, “The increasing variety of products being brought under kosher supervision is part of what David Kraemer calls the humratization (application of stricter and stricter interpretation of Jewish law) of the industry. If the kosher laws as developed by the early rabbis were intended to separate Jews from non-Jews, Kraemer says the increasing strictness of kashrut standards today work to separate Jews from other Jews, based on their level of observance.” When there are so few of us, how can we possibly create these kinds of rifts between members of our own tribe? These are the kinds of informed, passionate discussions the book invites.
No matter where you fall on the observance spectrum, and no matter how involved you are with the food you eat, there is undoubtedly something contained within the pages that will engage and inform your conversations, from nuggets of cocktail hour trivia (did you know Jewish women rioted in the streets of New York City, Chicago, and Pittsburgh in 1902, 1916, and 1917 because of price-fixing of kosher meat?) to issues demanding real dialogue and debate (why aren’t Conservative or Reform rabbis accepted as shochtim?)
Fishkoff’s writing is compelling, well-researched, and balanced. Best of all, it reads like fiction, only all the stories are true and affect our lives whether we like it or not. College students should pray that this is assigned reading. But it isn’t just for academia – if you keep (or are considering keeping) kosher, are Jewish, or simply shop at a grocery store, this should be on your list next to milk, bread, and eggs.