Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kosher Oreos®: The Rest of the Story

The Jewish Week, January 1998

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?

No comments: