Monday, June 17, 2019

My bus didn’t leave for 20 minutes, so I decided to head up to Hudson News to get a quick snack. I chose to purchase some Keebler Peanut Butter crackers—they seemed cheap, somewhat filling (I knew at the time that it would be more than an hour until I’d have dinner at home, barring any quintessential Port Authority delays…) and tasty. What I forgot to check, however, was whether they were kosher or not—and I only remembered after leaving the store. I scrambled to read over the packaging, looking for a tiny symbol and thinking: “I thought they were kosher—they’re Keebler, they must be kosher—they’re just peanut butter crackers, but maybe they’re not kosher and then I can’t eat them and—”

Then I found the small OU-D symbol in the bottom left-hand corner of the package, and all was right in the world until my 8:50 p.m. bus inexplicably arrived at 9:20 p.m. I could talk about the challenges that bus delays have posed to me in my life, but I don’t think that would make for very interesting reading, so let’s discuss kashrut instead.

Kashrut has always been a cornerstone of my life and my Jewish identity, simply because it is relevant every single day. Sure, the vast majority of time when I eat at home, at school or at a friend’s I don’t need to worry about whether this piece of chicken is kosher or not, or whether this wine for Kiddush is mevushal, or anything like that. But when I’m out and about, and need to get food, kashrut becomes front and center. That snack looks unique, but does it “have anything”? (Read: does it have a hechsher symbol?) I wonder if there are any kosher restaurants near here, let me check Shamash—but who is the person certifying that place? Is that certification reliable? Is that symbol a good one? Kashrut is the cause of a thousand questions, and the constant impetus for a search for answers.

Perhaps one of the reasons I’m attuned to think about kashrut is my father. (Yes, I know it was just Mother’s Day…) My dad loves using reliable books on kashrut symbols, or, in recent years, websites such as KosherQuest to check out kashrut symbols he doesn’t recognize. Yes, we know the stalwarts (the OU, the Kof-K, the CRC, etc.), but what about a regional hechsher from say, Florida? Perhaps it’s one we can trust. (I understand that hechsher reliability can be subjective and that different people handle it in different ways; I’m just talking about my family’s own experience.)

When the symbol or certification is less clear-cut—such as if the item has a “K” on it, which could be anyone—my dad will, if he is interested in the item, try to contact the company and figure out if the item is kosher. I remember back when “The Simpsons Movie” came out, there was a special promotional cereal themed after the characters, but the only kashrut symbol it had was a K. For Kellogg’s cereals, that’s fine, but this cereal was made by “MOMCO,” whatever that was. My dad contacted the mysterious company and found out that the company was Malt-O-Meal, which makes cereals certified kosher by a reliable source, but using the K symbol.

Thinking about it, I would guess that kashrut is both easier and more difficult for all of us nowadays.

It’s easier because there are so many kosher symbols out there and so many resources, online and offline, to use to figure out if you’ll be comfortable eating something. Also, because companies are cognizant of the fact that they can score a significant amount of consumers if they turn kosher, more and more items nowadays are receiving certification. Just think of food and drink like Tootsie Rolls or Gatorade—it’s hard to imagine life without them, yet I still remember the days when they had no hechsher. (Yes, I know I’m spoiled because Oreos and M&Ms have been kosher for my entire life… My parents have told me about when those became kosher years and years ago.) A side benefit of kashrut ubiquity: getting to experience tastes that are usually non-kosher, such as fake bacon. Funnily enough, I’ve had “Baconnaise”—bacon mayonnaise—that was certified OU-D.

Bu kashrut is also more difficult to keep nowadays for various reasons. One main reason is that ingredients have become far more complicated, given how much can be manufactured with absurd combinations of chemicals and mysterious substances with scientific names. A few years back my family went to “Harry Potter World” in Orlando, and not only was the Butterbeer drink (which is featured prominently in the books) not certified, but we couldn’t even tell if it was “ingredients kosher” because every ingredient had six syllables. (Except, I think, for “water” and “sugar.”) It can now be either hard or impossible to tell if an item without certification is actually kosher or not, which means we need to rely far more on symbols.

Another challenge is simply the pressure, in some sense. There are always commercials for non-kosher candy and treats on kids’ channels, there are always glowing reviews of unique new non-kosher eateries popping up, there are way too many “Tasty” videos on Facebook that show how to cook delectable treif dishes. There seems to be this whole WORLD of delights out there that those of us who keep kosher miss out on! I’d love to try that gelatin “raindrop cake,” but I can’t. I’d want to get some of the cheaper/more convenient food in Manhattan, but instead I’ll have to travel farther to the pricier place.

Sometimes it seems like kashrut could be a burden. But that’s not how I view it.

I view kashrut as a series of puzzles I need to solve. One puzzle might be to find the kosher place nearby. Another might be to find out if this item is actually kosher. It actually becomes more rewarding to discover that the item with the weird hechsher is one I can have! Yes, it can get annoying—but it’s manageable, feasible and the right thing for me to do. Thanks to my parents and my background, I’ve learned how to keep kosher and how to be discerning about what I eat. It is never easy, but I try to solve the challenges that it sends my way, and then come out the better for doing so. Case in point: I’ve been trying to find kosher-certified bubble tea, which even according to the internet didn’t seem to exist in America. (I don’t know if bubble tea is “ingredients kosher” but I’ve heard there are problems with gelatin in it.) But after some hardcore Googling, I found a place in Great Neck (27 Dressings) that is kosher certified AND has bubble tea! By putting in the effort, I reaped the reward, and the satisfaction of having solved the challenge… at least partially. I have yet to get to Great Neck, but everything in due time...

This all leads to the greater dimension of meaning behind kashrut in my eyes: the spiritual dimension. Kashrut allows me to tangibly follow God’s words and to be conscious of my religious and spiritual identities even when I’m doing something seemingly as materialistic and earthly as eating. That makes all of the challenges worth it.

By Oren Oppenheim

Oren Oppenheim, 18, is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist and a journalist. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at Facebook.com/orenphotography. He is still planning his trip to Great Neck for that bubble tea.