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Finding Temporary Clarity in the Kosher Food Aisle (and Store!)…by Sarah Szanton

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Imagine, if you will, you’re at a Shabbat morning service. It’s time for the Torah procession when you usually sing, “Al Sh’losha D’varim” – Upon three things the world stands: on Torah, on worship and on deeds of lovingkindness.

Only this time, you and your fellow congregants are more honest about what the world really stands on. In the words of “Oliver!”: “Food, Glorious Food!”

Particularly in Judaism, often it’s upon just one thing that the world stands: food. Or, if we had to make it three things: buying, preparing, and eating food, all roughly within the broad framework of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.  Some of us follow those laws as carefully as possible, consulting experts about how to interpret every aspect of those laws and how to apply them. Others regard the laws selectively, choosing which parts of kashrut are the most meaningful. Still others pretty much disregard kashrut altogether, preferring to focus on other Jewish food traditions like schmoozing and noshing.

As a Reform Jew, I like to think that I’m in the second camp: choice through knowledge. I choose to avoid pork and shellfish because in my family of origin, those foods epitomized treif, foods that Jews do not eat for purposes of identity and tradition.   I don’t separate milk and meat and I don’t buy kosher meat because those are not practices that I find meaningful. I don’t look for a hechsher (the symbol on foods indicating rabbinic supervision) on everything I buy because that is not an authority I choose to follow. And I use my oven and other electrical appliances on Shabbat because . . . well, I don’t really have a good reason for that.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have rock-solid reasons for many of my choices. Reform Jews don’t readily acknowledge it, but the truth is that many of our choices are based on convenience rather than ideology. The culture of our community allows us that freedom. I cook on Saturday because I’m not organized enough to do it all on Thursday night and Friday before sundown. I buy shredded mozzarella cheese without a hechsher because that’s the only shredded mozzarella available at my regular stores. I could buy the whole chunk of kosher mozzarella and shred it myself, and I could make all kinds of different choices. But I don’t bother because I don’t have to.

Having that freedom is both liberating and daunting. When making decisions, whether about food or about other Jewish traditions, I constantly have to ask myself what values are most important to me and why. The ethical decisions are easy because Jewish teachings on how to treat our fellow human beings usually accord with common sense. But ritual decisions are more complex. Which Jewish traditions do I want to adopt or at least explore, even though on the surface they may seem archaic? How important is the non-rational aspect of Judaism to me? How hard do I want to try to find meaning in the ancient practices of my ancestors? How much initiative do I want to take to make my life and my home more halachic, more in line with God’s laws and my people’s ancient traditions?

These are not easy questions. They strike at the core of who I am and who I want to be. They are questions that embody lifelong struggles for me.

So it comes as something of a relief to have to rise above that struggle and resolve it in favor of tradition. That’s what happens when my son and daughter-in-law, Jules and Caren, visit. They keep kosher, so I try to accommodate them. I admit, though, that my attempts are a work in progress. The bottom line is that it’s almost impossible to prepare kosher meals in a non-kosher kitchen.

One thing I can do, though, is make sure that every food I buy or cook for them is kosher. That means that every ingredient needs to have a symbol like this, a hechsher:

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Finding foods with hechshers can be difficult in Maine. Shuttling among Hannaford, Shaw’s, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, I can find most of what I need. But a trip to an all-kosher grocery store makes it much easier. Last Thanksgiving, I went to the Butcherie in Brookline. This summer, while visiting relatives in Bloomfield, Connecticut, I stopped in at the Crown Market in West Hartford. A fixture in that city since 1940, the Crown Market is a beautiful store, complete with produce, a bakery, a wide variety of groceries, meats, poultry, fish, and a fancy section called The Five O’Clock Shop, with salads, kugels, main courses, and other ready-to-eat items.

The Crown Market on Albany Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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I found everything I wanted and more at the Crown Market. I bought kosher Parmesan cheese (impossible to find in Portland, Maine), mozzarella cheese, olive oil, vinegar, rugelach, granola, a loaf of Ciabatta bread, a strawberry-rhubarb pie, and more. I knew I could get kosher chicken and wine at Trader Joe’s back in Portland, so I did not get those at Crown. But they had a terrific selection.

Kosher Parmesan cheese in the dairy case at the Crown Market.

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Sliced or unsliced? Cranberry pecan or sourdough? Crown’s bakery has it all.

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So I brought my kosher groceries home and prepared the meals I had planned for my family. Wednesday night dairy. Thursday night meat. No mixing those ingredients. No cooking on Shabbat. No ingredients without a hechsher. I knew I wasn’t doing it perfectly.   My pots and pans, knives, cutting boards and kitchen utensils were not all from the special collection I keep in my kosher-only Rubbermaid tub. And I probably didn’t cover everything with heavy-duty foil as much as I should have. But it was close. Knowing I was at least trying to follow a set of rules felt clarifying. Despite the competing values of taste, nutrition, local availability, etc., I was prioritizing kashrut.

Having a son who keeps kosher has revived a long-dormant tradition in my family. My mother keeps kosher only to the extent that I usually do (“kosher style.”). My paternal grandmother, Mary, did not keep a kosher kitchen. (My dad actually has childhood memories of eating bacon for breakfast and bologna-and-cheese for lunch.) My maternal grandmother, Freda, did keep a kosher kitchen for the sake of her in-laws, Sarah and Meyer. But Freda died at a young age and Aunt Lillian took over the kitchen , abandoning the kosher practice. My father’s maternal grandmother, Mindel (“Minnie”), kept a kosher kitchen in Europe and for as long as she could once she immigrated to the United States. But then her husband my legendary great-grandfather, David Hein, had the wild idea of moving to Santa Barbara, California. Minnie objected because there was no kosher butcher there, but David insisted. His mind was on assimilating into American culture, not on maintaining the old ways of life.

My dad often talks about the complexity of being a liberal Jew in the modern age. We have many choices, few if any absolutes, and few if any guidelines for deciding exactly how to live a Jewish life. I am very much my father’s daughter. I too appreciate the complexity of ambiguities of modern life, but at the same time I yearn for wholeness with Am Yisrael and a sense of holiness in my own daily life. I am also lucky enough, however, to be my son’s mother and my daughter-in-law’s mother-in-law. For the few days a year when they visit, I resolve ambiguity in the kitchen by making traditional Jewish choices. My angst is quieted. My kosher lasagna dinner, complete with kosher Parmesan and mozzarella, is served.

 בתיאבון – B’tayavon!

One thought on “Finding Temporary Clarity in the Kosher Food Aisle (and Store!)…by Sarah Szanton

  1. I grew up with a crown market in new Haven and in later years west Hartford. Nostalgic article for me..especially. being newish in Maine and missing my Jewish ct. Roots.

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