Jewish tradition challenges and teaches families By Lenna Silberman Scottphoto courtesy of Lenna Silberman Scott The Jaffe family: Hannah, 8, dad Ezra, mom Marla, Aliza, 10, and Noah, 5, eat at Ken's Diner, a kosher restaurant in Skokie.
If you have visited a grocery store in the last few weeks you may have noticed a display marked "Kosher for Passover" featuring special products, including matzo, unleavened bread that many Jews eat during the eight-day holiday of Passover, which starts April 6. While "kosher" may have a higher profile during this commemoration of the deliverance of ancient Hebrews from slavery, for many Jewish families, including mine, kosher is a year-round part of life.
Kosher is not a style of food. Instead, kosher is a standard for types of food and food preparation.
"Kosher is a term that applies to foods that are fit for consumption by Jews in the observance of Jewish dietary law," says Rabbi Sholem Fishbane of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, one of more than 600 agencies that certify items as kosher.
Some believe that kosher standards evolved from ancient health and environment rules. Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove says for centuries there have been different explanations about why Jews keep kosher. But whatever the genesis, the simple reason families keep kosher is because they believe their religion commands them to do so.
"These dietary laws originate in the Bible and have been observed by Jews for over 3,000 years. The laws relating to kosher foods are detailed and intricate, but a few basics can be easily understood," Gamer says.
Gamer whose daughter, Maya, is not quite 2, says he does not yet need to give her an explanation for the family's practice. As she grows, Gamer plans to teach her that they observe these rules because it helps bring a sense of holiness to their lives.
"Eating on its most basic level is a very mundane act. Kashrut [Hebrew for kosher] raises it from a mundane act to a holy act. I have to know something about everything I put in mouth, I have to pause, think," says Gamer. "The best we can do as parents is to convey those teachings and ideologies and practice what we teach. That's important no matter what we do." Says Fishbane: "You are what you eat. There is a balance in every person between holiness and earthliness. The purpose of life is to elevate the earthly part to a holier part. The laws of kosher help us reach that goal."
Kosher basics The Chicago Rabbinical Council classifies food into three categories:
Innocuous. Some food items are always acceptable as kosher. Generally, these would be foods such as fruits and vegetables that are not further processed.
Kosher when supervised. Other foods may be kosher if the ingredients and processing meet kosher definitions when supervised by a reliable kosher authority.
Never kosher. Some foods may never be kosher. Examples include shellfish and pork, both of which are prohibited by religious edict.
Certain animals are considered kosher, or proper and fit for consumption, while others are considered trefah, unclean and forbidden. There are also specific rules about how the animal is slaughtered-it must be done in the most humane way possible-and what kinds of foods can be eaten together.
"The Torah tells us three times do not mix milk and meat together," Fishbane says. Therefore, all mixtures of milk and meat, including mixtures of fowl and milk, are forbidden.
While these are the basic rules, the reality of keeping kosher is much more complicated. Animals that are kosher must have split hooves and chew their cud-so beef is in; pork is out. Fish must have fins and easily removable scales-salmon and whitefish are in, but shrimp, clams and lobster are out. Creeping creatures-such as snails and frogs-are out, but chickens, ducks and turkey can be kosher. Predatory animals are not kosher. Fresh vegetables and fruit must be checked for infestation of bugs.
Families with kosher homes use separate plates, utensils, pots and pans for meat and dairy.
Rabbis teach that kosher laws help Jews emulate positive characteristics. Jews do not want to be predators, therefore, they do not eat animals that are predators, and they do not hunt animals as predators. When Jews kill an animal for eating, the animal is killed quickly and humanely by a specially trained professional. The animal is soaked and salted to remove all traces of blood because religion dictates that Jews should not eat the blood-the life source-of another animal.
The parts of the Torah that speak about mixing meat and milk come from the statement: "Thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother's milk." The bond between parent and child is holy and sacred, and while the Torah recognizes the need to eat animals, Jews respect that relationship.
Home life Not all those who are Jewish observe kosher laws. About 21 percent say they keep kosher in one way or another, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, the largest and most comprehensive survey of the 5.1 million Jews living in the United States.
Those who keep kosher homes usually include the vast majority of people who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews, as well as many Conservative and Reconstructionist, and some who are Reform. However, the observed standards may vary substantially from one home to the next.
For families, keeping kosher means many different things.
In my family we teach our children that keeping kosher is about maintaining a connection to Judaism in what we eat and how we prepare food in our home. My 5-year-old daughter recently explained to one of her friends that she didn't want a cheeseburger because we are Jewish and we keep kosher. She went on to explain that kosher means we don't mix meat and cheese. That tangible connection to religion is an important part of why we choose to observe the tradition.
The Jaffe family of Skokie has three children: Aliza, 10, Hannah, 8, and Noah, 5. They say that keeping kosher is about observing God's law and their beliefs bring meaning to every action that is commanded by God. They know that keeping kosher may make life a little more challenging, but their commitment to observance guides their decision.
"We do a lot of things that aren't the easiest to do, but this is the right thing for us. It is in the Torah, and it's what [God] wants," says dad Ezra Jaffe. "It's about choices."
Aliza Jaffe reminds her dad that this means when they want a certain candy at the movies they may need to make a different choice if their selection is not kosher.
Life outside home For some families, keeping kosher means choosing kosher restaurants over kid-friendly eateries such as McDonald's. A kosher restaurant will either serve meat or dairy, but not both, and will have supervision to ensure dietary laws are followed. Kosher foods are not specially blessed. But when food is prepared in a kosher facility it is supervised to ensure kosher laws are followed.
Other families, such as the Retskys of Highland Park, will eat "vegetarian" style at non-kosher restaurants. They've taught their children-Alyssa, 8, Rachel, 7, and Aaron, 4-from an early age which foods are acceptable to eat in non-kosher restaurants and which foods require a higher level of supervision. Depending on a particular family's level of observance, that answer can vary greatly. According to the Chicago Rabbinical Council, nonprocessed fresh fruits and vegetables are almost always acceptable without supervision. Other families will eat uncooked vegetables or even cooked ones if they are confident the products are cooked only with other vegetable products-no meat or dairy.
"It's like anything; it's a process," says Basia Retsky of her children's understanding. "They'll ask is that kosher. They know we don't eat any meat out unless it's certified kosher and certain types of vegetarian are OK, just not supervised. It evolves over time; now they understand because they can differentiate."
Understanding the rules of kosher becomes easier as kids get older. And it helps when your friends are also kosher-kids feel comfortable asking before eating yogurt, "Is this a dairy spoon?" But when kosher kids interact with the larger world, there is a new set of complications. What do you eat at school? Can you have dinner at a friend's house?
Last year Brenda Cole went to a private Jewish school. This year she is a freshman at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Going to a public school means Brenda is finding new challenges when it comes to keeping kosher.
Cafeteria lunches at school often involve meat that is not kosher, or sandwiches with meat and dairy mixed without a vegetarian option. Brenda usually brings her lunch so she knows it is kosher. She also always asks what is being served before accepting an offer to eat a meal out.
"Sometimes it's hard if people don't understand. They offer me bacon or ham sandwiches. It kind of gets uncomfortable in some situations," Brenda says. When invited to eat food that is not kosher, she will often avoid the situation: "I don't want to make friends feel bad, so I just don't eat, or I say that I need to go home for dinner. It would be easier if I didn't keep kosher, but I know that for me, it's more important to do something to keep my Judaism."
Prayer is part of it In addition to the foods they eat, for some kosher families prayer is a critical part of the eating process. Children learn from an early age which prayers are affiliated with which foods. The concept is that food is a gift from God and that God should be thanked with every morsel that enters their mouths.
"In the Jewish tradition, we believe that the world is created by God and that God gave us everything," says Gamer. "We are given permission to use those things that God gave us, eat those things. So when we say a blessing before eating we are asking God's permission and then afterwards, we say a blessing to say thank you. It's a way of thinking about something other than ourselves."
Because different families have variations of how they keep kosher, both Fishbane and Gamer suggest that families who want to entertain kosher friends should always speak to the family about their level of observance.
The Chicago Rabbinical Council marks products with a triangle that has the letters CRC inside, but other kosher symbols are found on packaged foods. Some symbols are not considered reliable, depending on a family's level of observance. These symbols signal to the community that this product is acceptably prepared with kosher items. Families that keep kosher teach their children from a young age how to identify a kosher product and which symbols are acceptable to their family.
"Look for a reliable kosher symbol on the package if you are serving a processed food. Don't assume that just because it has a symbol or Hebrew writing that it is kosher," says Fishbane. He also cautions: "Just because you buy a kosher item, doesn't mean it's kosher. A very important part of kosher is the kosher seal. Preparation is equally important."
Fishbane adds: "At one time, a woman did all of her family's food preparation in the kitchen. Then, it was obvious that butter was kosher and ham was not. However, in the past few decades the food industry has revolutionized the way most of the world eats."
Luckily for Chicago families, there are many different products that are certified as kosher and many restaurants in the Chicago area serve kosher food. Therefore, families can easily incorporate keeping kosher into their lives.
More information on specific kosher businesses and specific laws about keeping kosher can be found at www.crcweb.org.
Food facts So, if Burger King, McDonald's and the like are not options for families keeping kosher-what is? Luckily for families in the Chicago area, the answer is plenty. From two kosher Dunkin' Donuts to Chinese food, there are dining-out options.
The Chicago Rabbinical Council certifies nearly 40 different businesses, including restaurants, bakeries, candy stores and supermarkets. Several other businesses receive their kosher certification from another agency or rabbi.
Most major supermarkets have kosher sections that move beyond matzo ball soup and now offer certified Chinese cooking ingredients, gourmet marinades, even kosher buffalo meat. Jewel Foods has expanded its kosher offerings to include a kosher deli with rotisserie chicken and other prepared foods and sandwiches at its Highland Park store. Even the Peapod grocery delivery service advertises its extensive kosher product line, which includes burritos, ramen noodles and couscous.
Families who keep kosher can now experience a variety of foods, products and restaurants that were previously unavailable. There are even "Kosherables," certified kosher boxed-lunch options from the Funny Bagel Food Co. for kids craving the same prepackaged, ready-to-eat lunch experience as their non-kosher friends.
Kid-friendly kosher Here is a listing of some of the more "kid-friendly" kosher restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. A listing of restaurants approved as kosher by the Chicago Rabbinical Council is available at www.crcweb.org.
Bagel Country 9306 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie (847) 673-3030 bagels, soups, salads, sandwiches Dunkin' Donuts 3132 W. Devon Ave., Chicago (773) 262-4560 3900 Dempster St., Skokie (847) 673-7099
Ken's Diner 3353 Dempster St., Skokie burgers, fries and diner fare (847) 679-2850 Mi Tsu Yun 3010 W. Devon, Chicago (773) 262-4630 Chinese
Now We're Cookin' Grill 710 Central Ave., Highland Park (847) 432-7310 carryout or delivery barbecue
Slice of Life 4120 W. Dempster St., Skokie (847) 674-2021 pizza
Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza 6349 N. California Ave., Chicago (773) 764-3776
Lenna Silberman Scott is, among her other jobs, a writer living in Buffalo Grove with her husband and children: Andrew, 2, and Lauren, 5.