New book posits: America is going cuckoo for kosher

While in Ukraine to interview a Chabad-Lubavitch family that had moved there from Malibu, Sue Fishkoff found herself crammed into a “rickety, Russian-made car” with the rabbi, his wife and their three children.

Sue Fishkoff photo/erika gosser

They were on their way to a farm two hours outside of the main town to watch the farmer milk his cows. But this wasn’t a one-time educational outing. Being Orthodox, the family drank only cholov Yisroel, milk that has been watched from the time it leaves the cow until it gets poured into a glass. To have enough to drink, they made this lengthy journey two or three times a week.

Though she has never kept kosher herself, Fishkoff was intrigued by their dedication. “It impressed me,” Fishkoff said in an interview from her home in Oakland, “the lengths that family went to to preserve kashrut.”

Meeting that family proved to be one of the inspirations for Fishkoff to start work on her second book, “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority,” which was published Oct. 12. She will speak about the book at the JCC of San Francisco on Nov. 3 and the Contra Costa JCC on Nov. 10.

“Kosher Nation” is filled with stories from the year Fishkoff spent on the road talking to mashgiachs (people who supervise food production to make sure it meets kosher standards), vintners, butchers, grocery store owners, factory managers and dozens of others about the state of modern kashrut.

Fishkoff grew up in New Jersey, moved to Monterey after college and eventually ended up in Oakland. She has been working in Jewish journalism for 20 years, first at the Jerusalem Post and now as a staff writer for JTA. She also is the author of the book “The Rebbe’s Army,” an in-depth look at the origins, adherents and tactics of Chabad-Lubavitch.

For “Kosher Nation,” Fishkoff took a leave of absence from JTA and traveled the country (and crossed the Pacific, for her chapter on kosher certification in Chinese factories that produce food for export) to gather material for her vivid and comprehensive look at today’s kosher industry. She also delved into the history of American kashrut — a history that often resembles a gangster movie, with its tales of price fixing, strong-arming and mob connections.

Some stories didn’t make it in — such as the time Fishkoff visited a Tropicana orange juice factory in Florida while it was being kashered for Passover.

“For 12 hours, this billion-dollar corporation shuts down its entire line for Pesach,” Fishkoff said, describing the Orthodox rabbis cleaning the factory with blowtorches and the non-Jewish workers looking on in awe.

But keeping kosher, Fishkoff explained, isn’t just for observant Jews anymore. The new Jewish food movement, which has its roots in liberal Judaism, encourages its followers to become mindful eaters — which can include eating kosher.

“After a century of liberal Jews feeling threatened by Jewish rituals, including kashrut, today’s young liberal Jews don’t feel threatened like that, and they’re looking for spirituality in every aspect of their life — including food choices,” she said. “It’s hit on a trend in American life.”

And it’s not just for Jews, either. Up to 40 percent of the food sold in this country has kosher certification, Fishkoff said, which means that most of it is being bought by non-Jews.

“The largest number of people who buy kosher food are doing it unconsciously,” she said. “But I think as the incidence of food-borne illnesses increases and becomes more publicized, American shoppers want to feel comforted that an extra pair of eyes is looking over the food production process. The idea that those are religious eyes gives them even more comfort.”

Not everything is entirely rosy in the kosher world, however.

Fishkoff noted that an increasingly insular ultra-Orthodox community has made it difficult for many kosher businesses to thrive (for example, by granting kosher certification only to establishments that are closed on Shabbat). Also, many potential kosher consumers are turned off by seemingly picayune practices, such as looking at vegetables on light tables for tiny bugs.

But overall, Fishkoff was enchanted by the world she discovered while doing research for “Kosher Nation” — such as the mashgiachs who, while supervising the fall grape harvest in Washington’s Yakima Valley, celebrated Sukkot in a tiny sukkah in the parking lot of a Smuckers factory.

“It was so magical and so wacky,” Fishkoff said. “I thought, only in America and only with Jews would you see such a scene.”

Sue Fishkoff will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$20. Information: www.jccsf.org. She also will speak as part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival at 10 a.m. Nov. 10 at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. $5. Information: www.eastbayjews.org/bookfest10 or (510) 318-6453.

“Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” by Sue Fishkoff (384 pages, Shocken, $27.95)