Kosher Nation is a great book by Sue Fishkoff that taught me a lot. A fascinating read, with just the right balance of forest and trees,the book's subtitle is "Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority." Basically, the book is about kashrut -- both its religious and its political dimensions, its everyday and its lofty practices. . . . and the changes that it has undergone as food has become increasingly industrialized. The industrialization of kosher certification includes, for example, certification in China of food additiives and products, requests to "kosher" items that require no such action because they are always already kosher (e.g., water), competition among local and global kosher certification agencies, and lengthy disquisitions on aspects of kosher eating that are less familiar to many non-Jewish Americans than, say "no BLT' or "no cheeseburger." These incldue, for example, the proscription on consuming insects that appears (according to Fishkoff) much more often than the proscription of pork in Torah. (This appears in a chapter entitled "Please Don't eat the Broccoli: Bug Infestation Takes Salad Off the Table." What I learned in this chapter a) nearly put me off vegetables entirely and b) explains the presence of light tables in some (very) observant homes. Among the other things I learned about were the history of Reform Judaism's rejection of kashrut (and more recent bending in the direction of accepting it) and the evolution of an ethics of Jewish eating that thinks consciously about the relation of kashrut to worker's rights, organic foods, environmental pollution, treatment of animals, etcetera. While not caused by incidents in Postville (which I wrote about here), they do get attention in the elaboration of that incident detailed by Fishkoff, who does a great job situating this particular within the larger environment of Jewish food politics/religion. Perhaps equally fascinating are the aspects of the history of the transmission of the skills needed to undertake kosher slaughtering, the creation of appropriate knives, and the relation of all this to the great variety of jewish communities extant nationally -- and globally. Yes, there is more to kosher wine than Manishevitz, yes, there were women leading food riots in New York repeatedly in the early twentieth century over prices for kosher meat, yes, the matzo available in some locales has occasionally been deemed NOT kosher, and humratization may be my new favorite word -- something I can export from this book and this context to cover a whole array of ways that the world becomes increasingly rule-bound and litiguious and . . . . What it "really" means is the application of more and more strict Jewish law. But, it could be lifted wildly out of context and applied elsewhere, right? What a great word. (For its relation to controversy about whether Hebrew National Hotdogs are or are not kosher -- and a reminder that standards change -- click here.)
The book, by the way, actually begins by asking why the kosher food market is increasing wildly more rapidly in the US than the population of Jewish people or, even more the case, the population of kosher-keepign/observant Jewish people. It answers this in part by focusing on marketing -- kosher becomes healthy, less factory farm like, etcetera. (Not so, once you read the book, but hey.) It becomes, as Hebrew National taught through an advertising campaign, "answering to a higher authority" than, say the FDA. Hmmm. It considers topics as wide ranging as eco-kosher and a famous (well, perhaps infamous) banquet in the history of reform Judaism where oysters and ham were served. And, it nods in the direction of the web, by mentioning The Jew and the Carrot. All in all one of the best reads I have encountered. Whether you've ever wondered about the relation of Chinese food to kashrut, want details on teh burgeoning presence of kosher facilities in baseball stadiums, or want to know the current status of raisins -- this is the book for you -- and you will still get the forest with the trees -- the notion that kosher remains a crucial way of both connecting -- and separating American Jews from each other, from non-Jewish Americans, and connecting religion to embodiment, God to the everyday, in crucial ways.
And yes, it takes up what American might "really" mean -- and what religion might "really" mean -- with out ever meaning to do so.
Fishkoff also writes for the Jewish Journal. Click here. . .