One Man’s Kosher Is Another Man’s Treif

November 20, 2007 |

“I keep kosher. Sort of.” I’ve always felt the need to add a disclaimer to the end of that sentence, because I don’t keep kosher the way that some people do. This comes up whenever I’m trying to explain what I do and don’t eat to someone, Jewish or not, who isn’t intimate with the Jewish dietary laws. Conversations like these can be particularly confusing for the non-Jewish partners or family members of Jews who practice some form of kashrut, because the varieties of what “kosher” can mean are perplexing at best, and sometimes downright maddening.

Personally, I don’t eat chicken and beef that haven’t come from a kosher butcher, nor have I ever tasted pork (no big loss, from what I hear) or shellfish (which, I’m told, is more of a sacrifice). Still, I happily order fish and dairy dishes in non-kosher restaurants, and, what’s more, I don’t even ask the waiters whether my mushroom risotto’s been softened with beef stock, even though, as the author of a cookbook, I know that it almost certainly has been. When it comes to the animal-based oils used in frying, to the presence of rennet in cheeses, and to unknown species of fish when I’m dining out abroad (what North American really knows, offhand, what lotte or rochen correspond to?), my policy is simply Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If there are no cubes of ham staring up at me from the split pea soup, I tuck in and hope for the best. And I turn a blind eye even though I know my maguro may have snuggled up next to some uni in a sushi chef’s display case.

My eating habits are restricted next to someone who doesn’t keep kosher at all (like my Jewish fiancée, who eats literally everything and anything that tastes good to her), but I don’t even compare in the field of dietary limitations to my Hasidic aunt or Modern Orthodox friends, who wouldn’t dream of ordering a dressed salad, let alone pizza or French fries, from any establishment without hashgakha (rabbinical certification). Those people, I’ve always felt, are the ones who really keep kosher.

The truth, though, is that the rules of kashrut aren’t simple or clear for anybody. Even among the most traditionally observant Jews, the standards for what counts as kosher vary so widely from place to place and evolve so regularly that no one can reasonably claim their practice as definitive. It is well known that on Passover, Ashkenazi Jews eschew rice and beans while Sephardim don’t–which is why some people, like my oldest sister, suddenly start claiming spurious Moroccan ancestry come springtime.

Variation in standards over time, and from place to place, is common. Orthodox rabbinical authorities have recently been prohibiting more and more fruits and vegetables, for example, because of the tiny insects that hide within their leaves; by the current standards of the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, fresh cauliflower, spinach, and raspberries are almost completely verboten. But pious Jews, in Montreal and everywhere else, have been dining on such foods for centuries: do the new regulations mean that generations of the devout have been chowing down on treif all along?

In non-Orthodox contexts, the boundaries between what’s kosher and not become even fuzzier, and the choices more personal. The permissibility of swordfish and sturgeon (and sturgeon-derived caviar) have been debated for centuries, because the nature of these fish’s scales–the definitive feature of a kosher sea creature–is unclear. Though virtually all authorities treat the two fish together and either permit both, as does the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, or neither, like most Orthodox rabbis, my parents have never tasted swordfish, but adore caviar. In other words, they–like many people–have a kashrut standard that makes sense to nobody but themselves.

The point is that while the dietary laws are relatively simple, the ways people actually eat are infinitely complex. Many of my Jewish friends will eat any chicken and beef, regardless of where it came from or who butchered it, but won’t touch shellfish, or pork, or both. One of these friends was out to lunch with a partner from his law firm a couple of weeks ago and liked the sound of the Seafood Cobb Salad. Since he doesn’t eat pork, and Cobb salads usually feature bacon, he asked for it to be left out. The partner, who is also Jewish, turned to him and said, incredulously, “Did you just order a salad with shrimp, lobster, mussels, and scallops without the bacon for kashrut reasons?” He shrugged, and a few minutes later she was telling him about her own idiosyncratic practices: she’s never tasted a cheeseburger, because to her that would be unkosher, through she orders veal parmesan about once a week.

Then, of course, there are people who eat differently according to the time and place. I have one strictly kosher friend who decided to eat everything while traveling in Japan, in accordance with the old idiom When in Rome…. Like most kashrut logic, this doesn’t make much sense: it was precisely because the Jews of the ancient world kept finding themselves in Rome (or Egypt, or Babylonia, or some other Diasporic hotspot) that the laws of kashrut became crucial Jewish practices, in order to distinguish the faithful from the local populations. From a sociological perspective, the point of kashrut is precisely to remind Jews of their Jewishness when they’re among foreign people. Having said that, many modern Jews, like my friend, don’t have any trouble remembering their Jewishness whether they keep kosher or not; not to mention that the ancient rabbis probably had no idea just how delectable a spicy scallop handroll could be.

More common, perhaps, than eating treif while on vacation is the practice of keeping kosher in one’s home and eating everything and anything outside of it, a simple-seeming solution that harks back to the Enlightenment and Yehuda Leib Gordon’s pithy 1863 advice: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.” What becomes tricky, though, is when people who keep kosher this way bring the streets back to their tents, specifically in the form of non-kosher take-out. Some such suburbanites gobble their pepperoni pizza, moo shu pork, and buffalo wings in their backyards or garages, while others bring it into their kitchens and fress it off of paper plates.

To traditionalists and the nonobservant alike, these attempts to maintain partial kashrut practices may seem absurd: does God really want us to eat in our garages? Lest some curmudgeon lament all of this mishigas as an unfortunate recent development, though, it is worthwhile to recall that such ambiguous and confusing responses to the Jewish dietary laws have a very long history.

Kashrut has been a hilariously contested practice in America for more than a century: when the first graduating class of Reform rabbis in America were feted with a “Trefah Banquet” of delicacies ranging from soft-shell crabs to “Grenouiles a la Crème [sic]” in Cincinnati on July 11, 1883, newspapers reported that at least a couple of traditionalists ran screaming from the room. Similar controversies were common in Europe, too, where a late 19th-century German memoirist remembered his mother saying, “We live in the year 1854. Nobody takes that kosher business so seriously anymore!”

The perplexities of the dietary laws, like so much in Jewish culture, have roots as far back as the Talmud, in which scores of pages are dedicated to arguments about what counts, and what doesn’t, as kosher. The debates, such as the one between Rav and Samuel as to whether a warm fish dish with a dairy sauce could be served on a plate previously used for meat, suggest that the range of practices during the Rabbinic period may have been as varied and contradictory as the ones we observe today.

For some people, the occasional absurdities of kashrut practices are too much to take. What’s amazing, though, is how many people derive satisfaction or meaning from kashrut practices that they themselves recognize as partial or eclectic. And if we acknowledge that everyone who keeps kosher only sort of keeps kosher, there’s no reason to feel guilty or conflicted about one’s own behavior. The key, of course, is to find meaningful ways of organizing your culinary life, and to relate your practices to tradition in a way that feels valuable to you. This may lead to some perplexing moments–I had one recently, when a waitress volunteered, unhelpfully to me, that the gazpacho I had just ordered had a bit of Clamato juice in it–but a little confusion never killed anybody, right?

[Originally published on]