Saturday, January 17, 1998

Kosher Oreos®: The Rest of the Story (Jewish Week)


Kosher Oreos®: The Rest of the Story

by Joshua Hammerman

The sudden appearance of the kosher Oreo, reported in the Jewish Week a few weeks ago, has by now received ample media attention, including my own observations in the New York Times Magazine. But the significance of the story cannot be overstated. My research has led me to some important conclusions that could not be discussed at length in the Times article. So allow me to fill you in some of what didn't fit amidst "all the news that's fit to print."

1) Kosher is not just trendy, it's becoming downright profitable. In recent years, a number of kosher food companies have been bought out by large corporations, not as an act of tzedakkah, but purely for profit. This makes for strange dietary bedfellows; like Shofar salamis being peddled by Sara Lee, and Hebrew National being owned by the same company that makes Armour bacon. If you don't believe that kosher is profitable, ask the overseers of Nabisco, who just spent big bucks to purify all their factories and change their packaging. The only thing they didn't do is throw out massive supplies of the old packaging, but that in itself was in compliance with the Jewish concept of "Bal Tashchit," which prohibits needless waste. This accounts for the annoying lag between the actual time when Oreos became a supervised kosher item (October at the latest) and the belated appearance of Oreos with the Orthodox Union symbol on the packages at your local grocer.

2) In marketing, perception is everything, and "kosher" has undergone a radical and positive image makeover -- among everyone except Jews. Why is it that kosher products are suddenly receiving rave reviews and double digit sales increases annually, while many Jews still seem to be abandoning our treasured dietary practices? Part of the answer is that non-Jews are coming at it from a very different perspective. They (or their parents) never rejected these laws, so there is none of the guilt or defensiveness often displayed by Jews when confronted with kosher options. Jews also can easily recall a time when Jewish cuisine was equated with soggy meat, bad breath and clogged arteries, a time when and all the good things in life, like lobsters and Oreos, were denied us.

But now vegetarians see kosher as implying creative meat substitutes, and Moslems see a guarantee of no pork, and these two groups are the fastest growing segment of the kosher market. It is estimated that in ten years, each of these groups will account for a larger share of the kosher market than Jews. In addition, pareve is becoming a magic word for those with lactose intolerance. And for the average American, who has seen Burger King close down because of tainted meat and the safety of just about everything edible thrown into doubt, U.S. government inspection has become something of a joke. Desperate for assurance, people are looking for dietary protection from a Higher authority.

While kosher products might not always be healthier, our dietary laws promote the type of self control that often leads to healthier living. They are based on a value system that sanctifies life, limits the pain of animals and views the body as a temple; all of which places these ancient principles in confluence with the current spiritual zeitgeist.

But while people all around us are looking for the kosher symbol, why do so many Jews still scoff at the dietary laws, considering them archaic, burdensome and pointless? And while everyone else equates kosher with quality and good health, why do Jews still equate it with cholesterol levels higher than the stock market?

Maybe it's because we like to be defiant. It's been part of our nature since Abraham challenged God over Sodom. Some Jews flaunt their consumption of "treyf," as a way of avenging an oppressive Jewish childhood. I feel for the poor guy who now won't be able to notch this one whopper of a sin to his defiant belt and say, "Take that, Rabbi Marcus! Not only do I eat Oreos, I LOVE Oreos! And I served 'em with shrimp at Joey's Bar Mitzvah!"

And who can blame us if we're confused by this Oreo revelation? Imagine how Adam and Eve would have felt if God had come to them years after Eden, saying, "You know that fruit, the one that caused all the trouble? Well, it's O.K. now. Here, unscrew it. Take a bite." Suddenly, what many avoided like the plague has become as blessed as mannah from heaven.

But most of all, our ambivalence about kashrut has little to do with confusion or defiance and much to do with our inability to see Judaism in shades of guiltless grey. While there are undeniable boundaries that clearly delineate kosher from non-kosher, in reality, for most of us the lines are much more blurry. There are Jews who eat kosher "in" and others who eat it "out," and others who simply avoid pork and shellfish. Some eat only "glatt," and others eat "glatt treyf" but never have milk with their cheeseburgers. We are all over the map. And all of us feel guilty about our level of kashrut, because each of us, without exception, has compromised from time to time, if only not to embarrass a host or or alienate a relative.

For everyone else, kosher has become synonymous with quality. For us, kosher remains that wagging finger of shame, ever reminding us of our shortcomings.

Rather than being so hung-up about our slip-ups, we should accept inconsistency, marvel at the wisdom of our ancestors, and seek to grow, spiritually as well as physically, with every bite we take. In rabbinic tradition, the pig is unkosher because of its hypocrisy. While it flaunts an outwardly kosher appearance, stretching its split hooves for all to see, it hides its dark digestive secret: it does not chew its cud (kosher mammals must be split hooved-ruminants). Too many Jews flaunt their levels of dietary observance or non-observance, wearing on their sleeves either a condescending strict adherence or an equally abrasive rebelliousness; but internally we all dwell in far more complex territory. We need to admit that and get beyond it.

Let's enjoy the cookie that the world has long enjoyed, just as the world is now learning to appreciate a philosophy of eating that has long sustained us. Let's delight in our de-larded Nabisco factories the way the Maccabees reveled after removing swine from the Temple. This Oreo thing calls for a celebration and a renewed appreciation of kashrut.

Got milchicks?

Friday, January 9, 1998

The Lord is My Chef (and the secret ingredient is Matzah)

(Learn Torah With Commentary for the portion of Bo, 1998)

In the world of outdoor barbecues, the most delicious thing imaginable is a mushy concoction called the S'more, given that name because invariably, those who consume one demand "some more." Had Hillel only known about this incredible blend of melted chocolate and (kosher) marshmallows surrounded by graham crackers, his Matzah, horseradish and Haroset sandwich would never have been invented.

In world of national Jewish liberation, an almost identical word clues us in to God's most delicious contribution. When one imagines the divine part in the Exodus, the metaphors that first come to mind might include "Masked Avenger," "Flaming Sword," or perhaps "Raging Sea." But a closer look shows us that the most appropriate role to assign God in this drama would be that of Cosmic Chef. And the key word is "Sh'mor."

In chapter 12, a pivotal section containing instructions for present and future Passover observances, a form of "Sh'mor," which means "watch" or "guard," appears no fewer than five times, each with clear culinary overtones. In verse 6, the Paschal sacrifice is to be "an examination" ("mishmeret") for Israel during the days leading to its being slaughtered, roasted and eaten on the 14th of the spring month. Rashi says that "mishmeret" refers to inspecting the animal closely for blemishes that could render it unfit. One could imagine a modern Rashi at Stop and Shop or Waldbaums on the day before Pesach, investigating each head of romaine in the produce section for microscopic bugs. It takes a discriminating shopper to prepare the perfect meal.

Then in verse 17, we are instructed to safeguard ("U'shmartem") the Matzot -- a great play on the expression "U'shmartem et ha mitz'vot," ("You shall observe the commandments"). We safeguard Matzah both in the meticulous methods of preparation and in our eagerness to fulfill the commandment by eating it early on the first day of the festival. As for me, well I respond to this instruction by being a "shmart" shopper, making sure that the box of "Sh'mura" Matzah doesn't end up beneath the jug of Manischewitz wine in one of my twenty five bags of overpriced Passover goodies.

Verse 24 says "U'shmartem et ha-davar," and verse 25, "U'shmartem et ha-avoda." These verses demand that we recall how the sprinkled blood from the Pesach offering saved each Israelite household and that this reminding ritual, later known as the Seder, should be observed perpetually and scrupulously. Verse 25 means, "You shall watch the work," and I can recall paying scrupulous attention to my parents' preparations; how I savor the memories of my mother making the gefilte fish in that big metal pot on the day before the Seder -- although I never actually ate the stuff.

And in verse 34, we read that the food from the original Seder was so good that the Israelites actually doggie-bagged the leftovers and brought them out of Egypt.

But where is God in all this? Up until now we've been provided with the key ingredients of the recipe, specifically the lamb and the crackers, the protein and the starch. Finally, in verse 42, we meet the Chef. Why was this night different from all others? Because after 430 years of watching Israel ferment as a nation, Le Grande Chef decided that the time had finally arrived to remove the Israelite cake from the infernal Egyptian oven and let it cool. "Layl Shimurim hu l'Adonai" it is called, "A night of watching for God."

Rashi sees "Shimurim" as "anticipation," implying that God had anticipated this night for centuries, the chance finally to fulfill the Covenant of Redemption made with Abraham. Or it can mean "protection," for on this night God protected Israel from the terrible tenth plague.

But for me all the previous ties between "Shmor" and food confirm that on "Layl Shimurim" God was neither a guard nor the original Promise Keeper, but rather a housewife --er, house-spouse -- in the kitchen. For anyone who has ever cooked anything, there comes a moment of truth, that can't-turn-back instant when the souffle is either going to stand firm or fall, when the main dish will either be spectacular it won't. Not even an expectant parent is as nervous as the host of the Seder when the oven timer goes off. This Night of Watching was God's most anxious moment since that Night of Resting following the sixth day of creation, when God looked around and saw that it was very good. Only then could God rest from Creation. God has yet to rest from the Exodus. On this night, the sacred dish was either going to turn out to be the most delicious S'more imaginable or a rancid, unkosher, unholy mess.

Was Israel ready for freedom? Would they make it through the Wilderness? Could they ever get beyond their petty complaints or would their fear ultimately engulf them? Which enemy would pose the greatest threat, Amalek or self-doubt? That's what was keeping the Chef awake that long night.

And at each Seder we ask the same questions: Is this family ready to go out and bring Torah into the world (add more sweet-smelling cinnamon to the Haroset)? Have they internalized the lessons we've been feeding them since infancy (add milk...)? Do they love Israel (...and honey)? Are they willing to stand up for themselves as Jews (Matzah balls)? Has our people risen to this generation's unprecedented opportunities to bring holiness (bagels) to the world? These are questions that not even the wise child (except possibly Julia) could answer.

God the Avenger and God the Shepherd can make a mid-course correction if things don't work out. God the Cook can not turn back the egg timer so easily, nor can parents and teachers. Once the dish is done, the dish is done. But we humans have a distinct advantage: We get to cook the meal again and again, every year, until we get it right. For God on E-Night, it was a one-shot deal, and this was a recipe never before attempted: Nation of Priests Flambee.

Let's take a quick look at those essential final ingredients, added to the mix in our portion. The roasted lamb was the starring attraction, but without a pinch of something extra, the Matzah, we'd have been left with n'more than a super barbecue.

On the face of it, Matzah was absolutely unnecessary at the time. But like any culinary masterpiece, and for that matter like the best wines, headache pills and rabbinic sermons, the most important ingredient is the one that can't be tasted right away. It is the lingering sensation of the wine that stays with us long after the intoxication has worn off. And I often thank God for videotaped Bar/Bat Mitzvah charges, because I know that the child before me won't really get what I'm saying until he watches the thing five years later. The Matzah is tasteless, but it never leaves you. Almost everything we eat is expelled from the digestive system less than a day later. On Passover it takes two days. For Matzah, it never happens. Trust me. It never leaves.

How do I know that Generation Ex. didn't need Matzah? Because they had lamb chops. Because they had enough chevre to open a chain of cafes in Beverly Hills. We shouldn't believe this "bread of poverty" stuff; if the Israelites were so poor, why was Moses so reluctant to leave the cattle and sheep behind and take the entire nation to freedom, as Pharoah offered just before the tenth plague? Lots of innocent first born sons could have been saved if Moses had said, "OK Ramses, we've got a deal, I take the people and you take the cattle." But he didn't. I would contend that Israel became as wealthy in Egyptian servitude as Jacob had under Laban, that their "slavery" was far more metaphysical than physical.

And finally, what was awaiting them just a few days down the road, on the other side of the Red Sea? Manna! Better than bread! A perfect complement for their abundant chevre. The last thing they needed was Matzah.

But Matzah was exactly what the recipe called for, what the Chef required and what we need too. Aside from being undigestable, Matzah leaves a permanent mark outside of our intestines: the crumbs. Those magical crumbs are Jewish Pixie Dust. On Passover, they are everywhere: on carpets, in the car, in the school cafeteria, in our teeth. Some would call them the eleventh plague, as ubiquitous as frogs and lice..."crumbs here, crumbs there, Matzah crumbs are everywhere." The Israelites left a Matzah crumb trail from Egypt to Canaan by way of Sinai, and, fortunate Hansels and Gretels that we are, the trail sticks (no wilderness wildlife will touch the stuff) so we can retrace it every year.

This is the secret ingredient that allows us to rise. When we point to the crumbs on the carpet, our co-workers, classmates and teachers learn the magnificent story we have to tell. When we floss thrice daily and curse those omnipresent crumbs, we recall who we are and why we're here. Matzah wasn't really needed, but the Chef de Chevre knew that this holy concoction required S'more. Could even the most ingenious human culinary creator have come up with so perfect an additive? Is there any better argument for the existence of God?