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The Allure of Kosher Food for the Jewish Holidays

Monday, November 01, 2010 | Permalink

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 for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s  Visiting Scribe.

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.

Sure, most of that kosher-certified food represents mainstream products like Heinz ketchup and Tropicana orange juice that consumers buy without regard to its kosher status. More telling is the same report’s figure of $12.5 billion in sales within the dedicated kosher market, meaning products purchased because of the kosher label.

Who’s buying this food? Many are non-Jews who believe that kosher food, especially kosher meat and poultry, is safer, healthier, and of higher quality than its non-kosher counterpart. Others are non-Jews whose moral or religious beliefs are satisfied by kosher certification—Muslims who buy kosher meat when halal is unavailable, and vegetarians who look for a “D” symbol indicating a meatless product, fall into this category. They might be lactose-intolerant, assured by a pareve label that a product contains no dairy; there are a host of reasons.

But many of the people who buy kosher food on purpose are Jewish, simply nonobservant. Some of them buy kosher products for the same reason as non-Jews: they believe it’s safer or of higher quality. But many more do it for reasons of community, tradition and Jewish identity.

This is particularly true on the Jewish holidays, which have become times for nonobservant Jews to connect with their history by putting Jewish food on the table. Many Jews who don’t keep kosher the rest of the year buy kosher wine and matzo for Passover, sometimes out of respect for parents or grandparents, sometimes because it makes them feel more Jewish, and sometimes because of an inchoate feeling that it would be wrong to do otherwise.

When I was researching Kosher Nation, I spoke to many nonobservant or partially observant Jews who bring out the kosher food on sacred occasions.

One woman told me she keeps a kosher-style home, meaning she does not bring in pork or shellfish, but she will buy packaged food products without kosher symbols. But when her children were little, she made the family home kosher for Passover every spring. They’d put all the bread, pasta, cereals, and other non-Passover foods in a pantry, which she would lock for the duration of the holiday. The kids would draw skulls and crossbones on the door to indicate it was off-limits for the next eight days. She also bought kosher-for-Passover food items, even though those same foods without kosher symbols were good enough the rest of the year.

“Partly it was how I was raised,” she told me. “Partly it’s a way to identify as Jewish. And partly it’s to honor my forefathers and foremothers.”

So why do I seek out kosher, Israeli wine for Shabbat and Jewish holidays? Probably because I miss Israel, where I lived for many years. Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about the (illusory) power of the artifact to collapse the distance between producer and consumer. When I hold a bottle of Yarden or Gamla wine, I feel a physical connection to the soil, the grapes, and the workers who produced it. And when I pour it into my cup and make the kiddush, I feel connected to the generations of Jews who have broken bread together over the years, and who are doing so today no matter where they live.

Illusory? Not to the soul. Names do matter, no matter how sweet the drink.

A version of this article originally appeared at www.jta.org.

Sue Fishkoff will be blogging here all week.

Gary Shteyngart Tours Stuyvesant High School

Friday, October 29, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) gives NYC Media and The Daily Beast a tour of his alma mater, Stuyvesant High School:

You Are What You Read

Friday, October 29, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Yesterday, Scholastic launched You Are What You Read, a social networking site for readers. Users can log in using their information from their choice of a handful other popular networking sites, create a profile that includes all their favorite books, and find other readers with similar tastes. The site also asks users to create a “bookprint”—a list of five books that have had the most impact on their lives. (This particular user, for one, may never be able to complete her bookprint, because, wow, that’s tough to narrow down.)

Not surprisingly, a number of books by Jewish authors are popping up as frequent favorites: Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl have all made an appearance on the “most liked” list.

  

In my cursory exploration, I’ve found the Pass It On feature, which lets you keep track of the books you’ve shared with others, and the Books Around The World Map, which allows you to see what books are being read where, most intriguing of all the site’s offerings. While the celebrity endorsement seems a bit heavy-handed, I must admit I kind of like finding out which books shaped the lives of household names like Whoopi Goldberg, Daniel Radcliffe, and Bill Gates. It satisfies my voyeuristic urges in a way that’s much more genuinely interesting than the celebrity scoop I’m used to having forced upon me.

All in all, the site looks like a fun place for us book people to play around. If we can pull our heads out of the books long enough to make use of it, anyway.

Joel Chasnoff Visits…the Miami Jewish Book Festival

Friday, October 29, 2010 | Permalink

NETWORK author Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah) will be blogging for the JBC over the next month about his travels around the country for Jewish Book Month. Be sure to check out his website to see if he’ll be visiting a city near you…maybe you’ll even end up in one of his posts! And, if you haven’t read his posts for the JBC/MJL Author Blog, you can find them all here.

Terrific event last night at the Miami Jewish Book Festival.

About a hundred people showed up. The crowd was focused, asked great questions, and was totally engaged, except for that one guy in the front row, a 90-plus-year-old man who brought his own oxygen tank and nodded off halfway through my introduction.

It was an older audience – lots of sixties and seventies, and older – and their questions reflected their demographic. I’ve done a few of these book events now – DetroitColumbus, and, last Sunday, DC – and I’ve noticed a connection between the general age of the audience and the questions they ask.

Younger crowds, like the one in DC, ask questions about my military service itself: Was it difficult? Did I see action? Did I pull the trigger and/or get shot?

Middle-aged crowds, folks in their forties and fifties, are interested in the backstory: What was my upbringing like? And what compelled a nice Jewish boy like me to join the Israeli Army in the first place?

And older crowds, like the one last night, always want to know one thing:

“What did your parents say when you told them you were moving to Israel to join the army?”

Last night, I answered that question the way I always do – with a short reading from the second chapter of my book, the chapter called “Mr. Bay City High School”, in which I go to breakfast at an IHOP restaurant with my father and tell him that I plan to join the IDF.

The reading always gets a laugh. But I always wonder if the audience is laughing at my father’s shock or my own naivety that I, the skinny Jewish kid from Chicago, actually think I might be a hero in the legendary Israeli Army.

Joel Chasnoff is the author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, a comedic memoir about his year as a combat soldier in the Israeli Army, published by Simon and Schuster. This fall, he’ll blog his book tour across America for the Jewish Book Council. Visit Joel and read excerpts from his book at www.joelchasnoff.com.


Book Tour 2010: Joel Chasnoff

Thursday, October 28, 2010 | Permalink

NETWORK author Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah) will be blogging for the JBC over the next month about his travels around the country for Jewish Book Month. Be sure to check out his website to see if he’ll be visiting a city near you…maybe you’ll even end up in one of his posts! And, if you haven’t read his posts for the JBC/MJL Author Blog, you can find them all here.

Just landed in Miami for tonight’s event at the Alper JCC, and already it’s been a harrowing day.

The chaos began at 7:30 this morning. I was in the cab on the way to La Guardia when my wife called to thank me for leaving her the Macbook. In our house, we have two computers – an 8-year-old Dell desktop that couldn’t detect a virus to save its life, and a glorious new Macbook Air that detects WiFi like a dream, weighs less than a glass of milk, and that I purchased specifically to take on business trips like this one.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The Macbook,” she continued. “It’s sitting right here on the kitchen table. You didn’t leave it on purpose?”

So instead of blogging from the confines of my luxury hotel room, I’m sitting in the hotel Business Center three feet away from a 50-ish woman in faux pearls and a pants suit, whistling “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” while Xeroxing flow charts on the public copier.

It’s just as well. Because to really get a sense of what it’s like to go on book tour, you need to understand the ins and outs of life on the road: the early morning taxi rides, the missed flights and random security checks, the hotel rooms that could be in any city in America, and the scrounging through airport garbage cans for the receipts for your bagel and tea because you just remembered that you actually get reimbursed for food as long as it’s less than twelve dollars.

Not that I’m in any way complaining. In fact, what makes all of this bearable – no, enjoyable – is the chance to talk about my book to an audience who actually cares. We authors spend years crafting our books. (In my case, my contract with Simon and Schuster specified that I write the book in nine months; in the end, it took three years.) We fret over commas, spend hours debating whether or not to split one sentence into two, and watch in horror as editors cut entire chapters from our work…

Then, finally, the book comes out. And we wonder, paranoid, if anyone will even bother to read it.

Which is why every author, deep down and no matter how much he or she complains, is thrilled to go on book tour: it’s the only way to know for sure that somebody gives a damn about our precious baby.

More thoughts later after tonight’s reading in Miami…

Joel Chasnoff is the author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, a comedic memoir about his year as a combat soldier in the Israeli Army, published by Simon and Schuster. This fall, he’ll blog his book tour across America for the Jewish Book Council. Visit Joel and read excerpts from his book at www.joelchasnoff.com

Twitter Book Club Countdown

Monday, October 25, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Tomorrow at 12:30pm EST our Twitter Book Club discussion begins! Have your questions about The Invisible Bridge ready to pose to author Julie Orringer and fellow readers. Use #JBCBooks to follow and join in.

A Fine Romance wins 2010 Deems Taylor Award

Friday, October 22, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

David Lehman, author of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, wrote to us with some exciting news:

My book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs has won a 2010 Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers). I have known for a couple of weeks but was urged to tell no one until nearer the date of the official announcement. It was difficult keeping this exciting news to myself.

“I’ve got a feeling you’re fooling,” I said when the guy from ASCAP called. I was sure he was mouthing little white lies. But True Blue Lou was on the level. My heart stood still, and now I’m sitting on top of the world, which I’ve got on a string.

Congrats, David!

Here’s a great video of David speaking about the book at Jewish Book Week 2010.

A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs from Danny Bermant on Vimeo.

Hope, Not Fear

Thursday, October 21, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to assist in the development of a book website for Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, co-authored by Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff. Beth recently approached me about blogging for the Jewish Book Council, and I’m pleased to share her thoughts below on how she came to write the book, her own struggles with Judaism, and the Jewish identity she wants to instill in her children. Read below, enjoy, and share your thoughts. As always, we’d love to hear from you!

For most of my adult life I have been, like many other American Jews, secular in my outlook and uncertain about my commitment to living a Jewish life, whatever that might mean. Where I differ from the norm is in the time I have spent employed convincing others to commit to Judaism, most recently as the co-author of a book with philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman: Hope, Not Fear: a Path to Jewish Renaissance.

My first job after I graduated from college was an internship at an organization that promoted Jewish education. This was 1996, and the Jewish communal focus was “Jewish continuity,” a phrase that had come into use since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey sparked the fear that American Jewry would intermarry itself into extinction. I found all the discussion of how to “get” the Jewish young people pretty alienating. I didn’t like the feeling of Jewish organizations breathing down my neck, trying to shape my identity. When the internship was over, I felt a sense of relief to have some distance from Jewish community.

The opportunity to work on a book with Edgar M. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagram and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, came when I was in my late twenties. Bronfman disliked the term “continuity.” The phrase he wanted to bring forward was “Jewish renaissance,” and this was the subject of the book I was hired to help him write. The idea is that American Jews need to do more than continue the Jewish life of their grandparents, which took shape amid the struggles of the immigrant experience and the reality of anti-Semitism in everyday life. The book’s title, Hope, Not Fear, expresses the idea that fear for Jewish survival can no longer be the driving force in the American Jewish community. Young Jews, having grown up comfortably in a society that is welcoming to Jews, need to recreate Jewish life for themselves. The book also argues that Jews should stop talking about intermarriage as an enemy or danger. Instead, the communal focus should turn to welcoming non-Jewish partners and creating vital communities that will be attractive to Jews and non-Jews alike.

The difference between continuity and renaissance may seem rhetorical, but the shift felt right to me. And I found some important points of connection with Edgar Bronfman. He does not often attend synagogue, and says publicly that he does not believe in the God of the Old Testament. After what he describes as a lifetime of alienation from Jewish practice, he started reading the Talmud in his sixties, and now holds weekly text study sessions at his office for his staff and others. The tradition of text study is for me one of the great draws to Judaism. I first encountered it during my high school summer on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel (which Bronfman created and continues to fund), where there was a thrill to jumping into interpretation alongside kids from Orthodox day schools.

My work with Edgar Bronfman came as I faced a new set of choices about the role Judaism would play in my life. Both my daughters were born during the time I was working on the book, and I had to make decisions about Hebrew School and synagogue membership, significant investments of time and money I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I saw both how little and how much it takes to create what the book’s final chapter calls the most important piece for Jewish identity—the Jewish home. Without a strong religious commitment or an active community of Jews, even something as simple as lighting Shabbat candles takes the effort of prioritizing, of weighing the value of one activity against another. I know I want to bring up my three children with an understanding and appreciation of Judaism, but I don’t always find the time and energy to create the kinds of Jewish experiences I have in mind.

Sometimes I feel almost apologetic to the Jewish community for investing in me. One of the ongoing debates in Jewish education has been in-reach versus outreach—is it worth devoting time and money to secular Jews whose interest in Judaism is unreliable? Would it be better to let Jews like me fall away, and invest in the committed core? But then I get back into the mindset of the convincer. I think that Judaism is fascinating in all its layers: its history, texts, ethics, rituals and traditions. I don’t want to give up on the idea that it has something to offer to people who are secular, and that secular people have something to contribute to the new shape of American Judaism.

I also recognize in myself a childlike sense of pushing back at a Jewish community that wants something of me, even as I have been part of the identity building enterprise myself. Among Jews below a certain age, there seems to be a need to feel like we’re always wanted, but also to maintain an ironic distance from the Jewish institutions that hover around us and make us feel guilty. There’s no doing away with guilt or irony in Jewish life—we would certainly be lost without it—but I know from experience that there’s no monolithic Jewish parent out there trying to reshape your life. It’s not Edgar Bronfman, who, like many of the convincers, has done a lot of work to convince himself that Judaism matters, and to explore why. For myself, I know it’s time to take ownership of what I value in Judaism, and to figure out how to share this with my kids.

Beth Zasloff is the co-author, with Edgar M. Bronfman, of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, which will be released in paperback on October 26, 2010. Her fiction and essays have been published in JANE magazine, in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, and in the anthology Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art. She has taught writing at New York University, Johns Hopkins University, and in New York City public schools.

Hungry for Hungary

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Today marks one week until our Twitter Book Club with Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge. The book is full of all sorts of little details that bring the time and place of the story to life, but the ones that stuck with me most were the mentions of food. I love trying to recreate foods that pop up in novels; it helps make what I’m reading that much more real to me. And since I’m more of a baker than a cabbage-stuffer by inclination, I decided to try my hand at Hungarian walnut strudel—a dessert Andras and Klara share more than once over the course of the novel.

I drew largely from this recipe, but my version is vegan because that’s the way I roll. As it were. (This version is also pareve!)

Hungarian Walnut Rolled Strudel

Dough
2 T sugar
1 packet dry active yeast
½ c lukewarm water
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 c all-purpose flour
¼ c Earth Balance or other non-hydrogenated margarine, softened (or butter)
1 T ground flaxseed + 3 T water (or 1 egg)
½ t salt

Filling
½ lb freshly ground walnuts
1 c sugar
½ c milk substitute, boiled—I used oat milk (or milk)
2 T Earth Balance, melted (or butter)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In small bowl, add yeast and sugar to lukewarm water and stir until dissolved. In larger bowl, blend flours and Earth Balance with a pastry blender. Add yeast mixture, flax mixture, and salt into larger bowl. Mix until dough is smooth and pulls away from side of bowl. Divide dough in half. On floured surface with floured rolling pin, roll out each portion into a rectangle, about 11”x15”.

In medium-sized bowl, mix walnuts and melted Earth Balance. Boil milk and add all but about 2T to walnut mixture. Stir to create thick, spreadable paste; add more milk if necessary.Spread half of the walnut filling on each dough rectangle. Roll up dough from narrower side, jelly roll style.

Place rolls seam side down, 2” apart in greased baking pan. Prick sides and top with a toothpick. Bake for 30-45 minutes until browned. Cool and dust with sugar. Cut into ½-inch thick slices. Makes about 20 pieces.

Recommended for nibbling on as you make your way through the last chapters of The Invisible Bridge in the days leading up to our Book Club, or as a lunchtime treat the day of.


Excerpt from Yael Hedaya’s Eden

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The fall issue of Zeek is now available! The newest issue features fiction from Yael Goldstein Love. Also, check out an excerpt from Yael Hedaya’s latest novel, Eden, on Zeek’s website.