Author Archives: Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff

About Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is a special correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, based in Northern California and covers American Jewish issues, with a special focus on Jewish identity and affiliation. She was previously the associate editor of a weekly newspaper in Monterey, California and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, Moment magazine, and other Jewish publications.

Making Kosher Food Is an All-Night Affair

Earlier this week, Sue Fishkoff wrote about watching a goat slaughtered and people who only keep kosher on holidays. She is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority

The most fascinating work of kosher food manufacturing takes place in the middle of the night. That’s when factories shut down their lines for koshering, when ovens are blasted with blowtorches and boiling water is run through miles of pipes and in and out of huge stainless steel vats.

That’s when the mashgiachs, or kosher supervisors, start work in industrial kitchens and banquet halls, cleaning bugs from pounds of lettuce, celery and other fresh produce.

And that’s when the flour for Manischewitz kosher-for-Passover matzah begins its journey from western Pennsylvania to the company’s $15 million manufacturing facility in Newark, NJ.

Matzah is important to Manischewitz. The 120-year-old company makes a wide range of kosher products, but it was founded in 1888 to produce kosher for Passover matzah on a new assembly line format, and matzah is still central to its mission. Like most ethnic kosher food manufacturers, Manischewitz’s busiest season is Passover. Fifty percent of its business involves kosher-for-Passover food. According to one survey, 24 percent of American non-Jewish consumers bought a Manischewitz product during the previous year; most of them bought matzah.

Passover matzah is the most labor-intensive kosher product in the world. As one of two sacramental foods required at the seder table, along with wine, its production is carefully controlled to ensure that water only comes into contact with the flour for less than 18 minutes. Longer than that and, according to rabbinic authorities, leavening might begin. That would mean it cannot be eaten at all during the eight-day Passover holiday.

In industrial production, the flour must be watched by a mashgiach from the time the wheat is milled until water is introduced to the flour during the mixing process. At that point the dough remains under even closer supervision to make sure it is completely baked in less than 18 minutes.

Getting Close to Your Food Is Harder when Meat Is Involved

On Monday, Sue Fishkoff wrote about people who only keep kosher on holidays. She is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority

The first time I had my hands inside a still-warm turkey, I wondered just how far I was willing to take this business of getting up close and personal with my food.

I was at an organic turkey farm an hour and a half north of San Francisco with two dozen other volunteers on a wet, cold winter morning in December 2008, preparing what would become the main entrée for the Hazon Food Conference’s Shabbat dinner later that week. We stomped around in the drizzle and fog, as organizer Roger Studley explained what we were about to do.

“We’re doing this old-school and hands-on,” he stated. “We’re doing it as a community, making meat for the conference we are about to attend. This is a project bringing us closer to the source of the food we are eating, making real the fact that we are taking the lives of animals in order to sustain ourselves.”

The annual Hazon conference is the preeminent national gathering of activists in the new Jewish food movement, a growing family of mainly younger Jews who want to make food choices that are in line with Jewish values as well as their moral and political beliefs concerning workers’ rights, good health, humane treatment of animals, environmental protection, and food access for the poor. This laundry list of concerns makes it difficult to

feed a conference of 600 hungry people, something the organizers discovered earlier that summer when they debated whether to include meat at all for a gathering that typically includes so many hardcore vegetarians.

The choice was made — Shabbat isn’t Shabbat without the option of a roast bird — so there we were, watching shochet Andy Kastner grab the first turkey and slit its neck with a quick back-and-forth motion of his carefully sharpened knife.

Kastner was still in rabbinical school — he’s now the Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis. I’d met up with him a few months earlier at a kosher goat slaughter in a Connecticut field, and he’d shared his thoughts as he skinned and eviscerated his first mammal. It was, he admitted, not an easy experience.

The Allure of Kosher Food for the Jewish Holidays

Sue Fishkoff is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority. She will be blogging all week of the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s
Author Blog.

When I’m invited to a Shabbat or holiday meal in a Jewish home, I always bring kosher wine. Not just that, I try to make it Israeli.

It’s not because I keep kosher. And it’s not because the people I’m visiting necessarily keep kosher either.

If wine by any other name smells as sweet, why bother?

I know I’m not alone—plenty of Jews who ordinarily ignore the laws of kashrut buy kosher wine for Shabbat, stock their pantries with kosher-for-Passover food every spring, and pay extra for kosher catering at their simchas.

Hypocritical? Yes, if you believe that procuring and ingesting kosher food has merit only within the context of a fully observant lifestyle. But that construct holds sway today mainly at the far ends of the observance spectrum, among the most hard-line haredim, for whom any deviation from the path plunges the offender into heresy, and the few remaining Classical Reform Jews who are hostile to Jewish rituals in general, including kashrut.

Increasing numbers of American Jews, however, do not consider the kosher diet a divine commandment but an expression of Jewish identity, a mark of membership in the tribe. As such, it is a moving target. Putting kosher food on the table does not signal one’s denominational affiliation or level of observance so much as the strength of one’s connection to Jewish history, Jewish community, and even the land of Israel.

It’s a different, very modern and specifically Western way of looking at Jewish dietary practice.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the Mintel International Group, a market research firm that releases periodic reports on the kosher industry, more than 40 percent of the food sold in American supermarkets is kosher-certified. The group’s January 2009 report claimed that $195 billion of the previous year’s $400 billion in food sales came from kosher products, an astounding figure given that Jews make up less than three percent of the population—and most don’t even keep kosher.

Chabad Today

Although many Hasidic sects exist today, Chabad-Lubavitch is by far the most well-known, because of its public profile. Starting in the 1950s, the group’s leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson–the seventh and last Chabad rebbe-emphasized outreach to non-observant Jews. To increase Jewish observance, he sent emissaries around the world to revive small communities, bring individuals to more traditional practice, and establish Jewish communities where none existed before.

Schneerson died in 1994 at the age of 91, after which media coverage of Chabad focused mostly on the belief of some Lubavitchers that the rebbe was the messiah and would come back from the grave as King Messiah. As the following article shows, there is another story of Chabad in the years since Schneerson’s death. Excerpted with permission from The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken Books).

jewish world today quizIn the decade after Schneerson’s death, Chabad’s infrastructure grew faster than during his lifetime. Between 1994 and 2002, more than 610 new emissary couples took up their postings and more than 705 new Chabad institutions were opened, including 450 new facilities purchased or built from scratch, bringing the total number of institutions world­wide–synagogues, schools, camps, and community centers–to 2,766. In the year 2000, 51 new Chabad facilities were established in California alone. 

The Numbers

Annual operating costs of Chabad’s empire today approach $1 bil­lion. And that budget doesn’t include construction costs for new build­ings, which have been going up at an astonishing rate since Schneerson’s passing: a $10 million synagogue in Bal Harbour, Florida; $25 million for a Chabad complex in San Diego; $20 million for a Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights; plus a $1 million Chabad center in Las Vegas, $2 million for American Friends of Lubavitch headquarters in Washing­ton, D.C., $5 million for a day school in Pittsburgh, and $3 million for a community center in Montreal.

Chabad building projects around the world have kept pace with those of North America: a $15 million girls’ school outside Paris; a $14 million community center in Buenos Aires; plus soup kitchens in Brazil, syna­gogues in Germany, schools in Latvia and Lithuania, and orphanages in Ukraine. Chabad’s expansion into the former Soviet Union alone is phenome­nal. In 1994 the movement maintained emissaries in just eight cities in Russia. By January 2002, Chabad had full-time emissaries placed in 61 cities across Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics, and Central Asia, with 13,000 children studying in their day schools and thousands more attend­ing their kindergartens and summer camps….

Try It, You’ll Like It: Should Jews Proselytize?

Reprinted with permission from the July/August 2002 issue of Moment Magazine.

Christopher and Marie O’Malley are sitting at home one evening when the doorbell rings. Chris opens the door to find a well-dressed couple on his steps, smiling politely.

 “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” one of them asks.

 “No,” Chris responds.

 “Have you ever considered Judaism for your spiritual needs?” the interloper continues, reaching into her satchel for a bunch of brochures, which she hands over to the bewildered homeowner. “We’re holding a class tomorrow night. Perhaps you’d like to stop by and see what we have to offer.”

 This would never happen, right? One thing that has always set Jews apart from Christians and Muslims, something we point to with pride, is that Jews don’t push their religion on other people. Jews don’t tell non-Jews that they’re going to hell, that they’ll be denied salvation if they don’t accept the halachic yoke. Jews don’t proselytize.

But we sure used to. Most Jews today may not be aware of it, but Judaism has a long history of not only welcoming, but encouraging gentiles to become Jewish. From the day Abraham picked up a flint and performed his own circumcision, thus becoming Judaism’s first convert, ancient Israelites openly spread their teachings among the nations they encountered.

Jewish proselytizing was so successful, it’s estimated that by the first century C.E. fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish, close to 8 million people.

“It’s an incredible number, and it means that the Jewish community was not meant to be this tiny, minuscule group,” notes Rabbi Lawrence Epstein, founder and president of the Conversion to Judaism Resource Center in Commack, N.Y.

 Jews only stopped open proselytism because of pressure from Christian and then Muslim rulers, beginning in 407 C.E. when the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death. But the internal, theological impetus to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) persisted through the centuries, albeit undercover, advancing and retreating along with Jewish fortunes in the Diaspora.