When I was growing up as one of the only Jews in most of the places I lived, including college at a Catholic university, I would frequently attract as friends converts-to-be who wanted to ask me all about my faith. Why these people wanted to convert was always a mystery to me. Jewish culture inherits so much baggage, I felt, and so many nonsensical rules that are outside the realm of normal American, nominally-Christian frameworks. They were converting depite the barriers because it called to them spiritually. But noticeably, health was never a reason why.
Yet KosherToday and newspapers everywhere report the soaring demand for kosher food. Ynet reports today, “In the last decad, [sic] kosher food sales in American supermarkets have reached a growth rate of 15 percent as opposed to a four percent growth rate for food that is not kosher. Eleven million Americans buy kosher food, and they are responsible for a yearly turnover of $9 billion. What’s interesting in all this data is that there are only just over six million Jews in America and even fewer keep kosher.” And why? 55 percent of kosher shoppers do so because they believe it’s healthier.

But it’s not just a matter of healthy perceptions either — I believe it’s increasingly from unhealthy perceptions that comes from celebrity fads and an unawareness of what kosher really is. As Ynet points out, kashrut’s prominence has been aided by Madonna’s patronage of a kosher restuarant which she shares with Sasha Baren-Cohen, Paris Hilton’s request for kosher jail food, and Donald Trump’s insistance on either organic or kosher food. So is kosher on the same level as organic?
“Americans like the fact that kosher food is prepared under the watchful eyes of supervisors, often more than one, and kosher restaurants in Manhattan are proud to announce that ‘all the food here is prepared under strict supervision’. This impresses the customers, even if the watchful eyes are those of a kashrut supervisor who is only making sure that the dairy and meat utensils stay separate from each other.”
Which is my point: kosher is not organic, nor is it healthier or local or more humane, and this bubble is sure to pop.
You can see this surge in kosher as “better in general” prick the spines of those who know differently. I speculate that PETA’s assault on the reputation of kosher meat processing plants aims to contradict the misperception that kosher equals organic, or humane, or healthier. Their basic position is that eating meat is wrong, and damaging the perception that kosher slaughter is more humane is useful in pulling out the rug beneath conscientious carnivores. Kosher slaughter isn’t necessarily more humane — which should bother all of us who care, but shouldn’t be the reason I do kosher in the first place. PETA’s sideline sensationalism aside, we should expect to see a phenomenon similar to the debate over circumcision — is it beneficial or not, which seems to change every decade — where kosher food will likely pick up counter-movements challenging it’s claims to belonging in the food movement pantheon.
Kosher is not necessarily organic, local, humane or healtheir. (Which makes DC’s Tuv Ha’Aretz all the more smart and laudable.) Kashrut supervision enforces meat/dairy separations, types of animals eaten, and the preparation thereof, and only those concerns. This has led to the Tzedek Hechsher’s desire to address broader, contemporary questions, which I wholly support. But as an example, eating meat is eating meat. I eat meat and I eat kosher when I can, but I don’t salve my conscience with foolery that it’s anything more than what it is: a set of very, very bizarre rules set by rabbis centuries ago ostensibly to keep Jews separate from other nations, for the sake of communing more deeply and tightly as a community with God.
Convert friends of mine made the choice to join the Children of Israel not for health reasons, but spiritual ones. We would do well to remember the same and understand that what goes up must come down, as the kosher fad is sure to do.
(Read the full Ynet article here. X-posted to The Jew & The Carrot.)