Kosher Nation
by Sue Fishkoff

Schoeken, 2010. ISBN 978-0-805-24265-2.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 02/22/2011

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

Kosher Nation is a comprehensive, detailed look at the complete spectrum of kashrut, the restrictions involved in certifying that food is kosher. Fishkoff begins with an overview of why some Jewish people observe the restrictions beginning with passages from the Bible. She writes:

The kashrut system brings an ancient world of tribal ritual to bear on contemporary sensibilities of inclusivity, pluralism, and the search for meaning. Can the two coexist? Can two-thousand-year-old laws of kosher slaughter bring meaning to the daily life of a twenty-first century American Jew?

Fishkoff further suggests that, like other immigrant food traditions, kosher foods have also become American. It has also become big business as many large food conglomerates pay not only to have a symbol of kosher approval on their packaged foods but to have rabbis supervising production. The very observant want not only meat and dairy products to be kosher but salt, crackers and wine and everything else as well. The rules of kashrut which had begun in the Bible have become more stringent as time has passed. One is disrespectful of God if he ingests a microscopic insect hiding out in the dinner broccoli.

Over time, especially when Eastern European Jews poured into America escaping pogroms, military conscription and poverty, the kosher system developed. In the beginning, the immigrants shopped only in their neighborhood stores and relied on the integrity of the shop owners. Corruption seeped into a minority of operations. Thus, the formation of associations which certified foods.

How does this affect the American public? Because the Bible specifically states that an animal must be killed humanely, many non-Jews feel that kosher meats are higher quality than non-kosher meats. Fishkoff's chapter on the Postville Iowa Agriprocessors slaughter plant which was found to have violated health, safety and labor regulations belies this theory.

I found the chapter on kosher wine of interest as it covers the change from only sweet ceremonial wines to sophisticated $100 a bottle Cabernet Sauvignon. During Prohibition, ceremonial wine was exempt. "Bootleggers were quick to exploit this loophole, paying off rabbis to run liquor through their synagogues."

The final chapters raise questions on who is defining kosher and who is observing kashrut and how. There is a new concept of adding humane treatment of workers as well as animals into the formula. There are questions about whether eating a microscopic bug in your broccoli makes you impure or healthy. There are questions about why a vegetable needs any rabbinical scrutiny. These chapters discuss the history of liberal or Reform Jews moving from boycotting kashrut to accepting, at least, a kosher style of living.

Kosher Nation doesn't miss a detail. Fishkoff's writing is comprehensive and fluent. Anyone interested in the subject will find this informative and helpful. It should be in all large libraries as well.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Sue Fishkoff is the author of The Rebbe's Army. She is a national correspondent for the JTA news agency and lives in Oakland CA. Learn more on her website.

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