At Halloween, kosher candy rings the bell

This Saturday night, after waiting for three stars to become visible in the sky and observing Havdalah, the departing of Shabbat, with candle, wine and spice box, I will prepare to perform another ritual: I will pour gobs of candy into a large bowl to hand out to the sporadic stream of trick-or-treaters who will ring my doorbell.

Call me “orthodox” in my observance of this not-so-Jewish day, but this Halloween, I wanted to make certain that the treats we were handing out to the assorted ghosts, princesses and living dead who rang our bell were kosher.

Why? Kosher creatures are we, and I didn’t want anything unkosher — horror of horrors! — treifing up the house. I also wanted to show our undying (but not unhallowed) support for the companies that produce treats for the $2 billion Halloween candy market that were taking that extra step of making their products accessible to kosher consumers like me.

But during a late-night trip to the supermarket, I was surprised to find that there were almost too many hechshered treats from which to choose: M&M’s, Butterfingers, Dum Dums, Nestle Crunch, Baby Ruth and AirHeads all were kosher certified. Snickers, Three Musketeers, Twizzlers and even my favorite, Almond Joy (which my wife won’t eat because her dietary laws don’t include coconut. Pity; more for me.), were all deemed munchable by a higher source.

Not that I was kvetching, but I wondered: Why was so much of the Halloween candy kosher? After all, most Orthodox Jews, who do keep kosher, don’t celebrate Halloween. That’s because, according to an essay that appears on the Orthodox Union website, its origins are “a combination of Celtic, Roman and Christian holidays. All three are distinctly non-Jewish.”

For me, I see it more as an American holiday, one that I grew up with and enjoyed, and have chosen to integrate it into my Jewish life. But I was never sure if I was in the majority for doing that.

So why the kosher Halloween candy? Was there some religious shift of traditional Jews afoot unknown even to Pew? Were people who kept kosher quietly stocking up on low-priced Halloween candy for use on Hanukkah, or even Purim? Or was it an odd outcome of Halloween falling in the Jewish month of Cheshvan, sometimes called “mar [bitter] Cheshvan” because there are no Jewish holidays, and Jewish folks just needed something sweet to nosh on to keep up their spirits?

Still pondering this imponderable while studying the ingredients printed on a giant bag of Hot Tamales, I felt something staring at me. Looking slowly left, I found the culprit: a bag of candy called Creepy Peepers — round chocolates, each wrapped in a cartoonishly bloodshot eyeball foil wrapper. My own eyes widened as I realized they were kosher.

As I was to discover, all of the Halloween offerings produced by the R.M. Palmer Company of West Reading, Pennsylvania — from their fudge-filled “Mummy Munchies” to my favorite, “Dr. Scab’s Monster Lab Chocolate Body Parts,” a bag of fingers, ears, eyeballs and mouths — are kosher. (Better yet, the “body parts” are dairy.) In fact, Palmer’s entire line of chocolates, including Easter bunnies, are kosher.

From corresponding with the company’s marketing director, John Kerr, I learned that kosher certification is very common in the candy business. Palmer’s O.U. certification, which “requires additional inspections and standards for product quality,” provided “independent reassurance to consumers and retailers” that their “confections are high quality,” an email read.

I bought a bag, and after sampling a few eyeballs, I had to agree.

Another manufacturer, the Madelaine Chocolate Company, whose Halloween candy I found online, also offered crunchy chocolate eyeballs as well as caramel-filled ghouls — all kosher. Madelaine also makes chocolate coins for Hanukkah, chocolate turkeys for Thanksgiving and chocolate eggs for Easter — again, all kosher.

Speaking with Jorge Farber, the president and CEO of the company, I learned that Madelaine, based in Far Rockaway in the Queens borough of New York City, was established in 1949 by Holocaust survivors. Though gearing up for the busy holiday season, Madelaine was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which reportedly had destroyed its equipment and inventory.

After nearly closing in 2014, the company received $13.2 million in government recovery funds in January. At that time, only about a quarter of its peak season workforce of about 450 had been hired back. Today, as Madelaine brings its new equipment online, Farber said the chocolate maker is hiring more employees.

When I asked why their products were kosher, Farber — whose products are available at “higher quality” candy stores — explained: “There’s sort of a cache about being kosher.”

My basket of kosher candy was quickly filling up, but like a kid out trick or treating, I wondered if I should dare knock on one more door.

The Equal Exchange fair-trade organization sells a Halloween kit that consists of 150 individually wrapped, bite-size milk or dark chocolate bars and an equal number of illustrated information cards. Headlined “Chocolate Can Be Scary,” the cards presented the reasons for choosing fair-trade products: We “pay farmers a fair price for their cacao,” as well as “make improvements in their communities, and help protect the environment.”

“Faith-based groups get our message,” Susan Sklar, Equal Exchange’s interfaith manager, told me.

With “a Jewish audience in mind, many of our products are kosher,” she added.

Sklar noted that some of what Equal Exchange sells is also distributed additionally through two Jewish organizations: Fair Trade Judaica and T’rua, a human rights organization whose members are rabbis and cantors of all denominations.

Pointing out that most of the chocolate sold in the U.S. is the product of West African “young boys who are used as slave labor,” Sklar, who is Jewish, thought it was important for “Jews to support fair trade,” she said.

As for me, at this last stop for kosher trick-or-treating trail, I had found a Halloween candy that reached a different level of kashrut: It was not only pure in production, but in spirit as well.

French school identifies non-pork, non-meat eaters with yellow tags

A French municipality launched a probe into an elementary school’s use of red and yellow tags to identify pupils who do not eat pork and meat, respectively.

The city of Auxerre, located 105 miles southeast of Paris, opened the investigation on Friday after parents complained to local media about the school’s initiative, in which neck strings bearing red and yellow plastic discs were placed on pupils ahead of lunchtime at the school cafeteria.

The pupils wore the tags for one day before the faculty was instructed to stop using them.

The debate on the availability in public schools of pork-free dishes is a divisive issue in France, where rightist parties and other politicians advocating strict separation between religion and state see it as proof of a creeping influence on the public sphere, mostly by Muslims immigrants.

Malika Ounes, a conservative member of the Auxerre city council, told the news website “It’s revolting. It brings back memories of dark times,” in reference to the requirement in Nazi-occupied France that Jews wear yellow stars on their clothes.

Among the pupils instructed to wear the tags were Muslims and vegetarians. Reports in French media did not mention any Jewish pupils.

Some parents also complained about the tags, whose use Mayor Guy Perez of the Socialist Party termed “unfortunate.”

But other parents said they were the result of good intentions.

One Muslim mother of two boys attending the school, identified by the RTL broadcaster only as Sonia, said: “The yellow tag doesn’t even correspond with the yellow star. I don’t think there’s a scandal here, just an error that doesn’t require all this rebuke.”

CRIF, the umbrella group representing French Jewish communities, has remained neutral in the debate about pork in cafeterias, largely because observant Jews refrain from eating anything that doesn’t comply to kashrut standards, whether it contains pork or not.

But French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia in March weighed in on the debate, labeling the removal of pork-free dishes “heresy that contradicts the separation of religion and state.”

Is kosher ethical?

Almost 40 years ago I spoke about “The Case for Judaism”  to members of the tiny Jewish community of Moncton, in New Brunswick, Canada. It was a speech I had given many times before and would give hundreds of times more. In it, I described the ethical preoccupation of Judaism, including practices dismissed as only ritual. One example I offered in almost every talk was the laws of kosher slaughtering. For example, to ensure as rapid a death as possible the shochet (slaughterer) had to kill the animal with one cut of the throat and with a blade that had no nicks, lest the animal suffer.

During the question-and-answer period, a young man about my age (early 20s) rose and introduced himself. He had just obtained smicha (ordination as a rabbi) from Yeshiva University and was in Moncton as a potential rabbi for his first congregation. He differed with what I said about kashrut; it had nothing to do with ethics or morality, he explained. For example, he noted, a shochet could, in fact, cut the animal’s throat very slowly, causing real suffering to the animal, yet the animal would still be kosher.

I was reminded of this rabbi’s argument last week. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization of Charedi Jews in America, wrote that “kosher has nothing to do with health or ‘ethics.’ There are Jewish ethical laws and Jewish ritual laws. Kashrut is entirely in the latter category. And it is simply not Orthodox to contend otherwise.”

My heart sank, just as it did 40 years ago. I had always believed that as much as kashrut involved ritual laws, its ultimate concern, like that of all of Judaism, was morality (and holiness). If I am wrong, why is there a law forbidding the use of a nicked blade? Isn’t it obvious that the only purpose for this law is the prevention of more suffering to the animal. Yet here was an Orthodox rabbi again announcing — to millions of people — that kosher has nothing to do with ethics.

Rabbi Shafran’s letter was written in response to an article published in the Wall Street Journal a week before by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. 

Yanklowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who has given up eating kosher animal and dairy products:

“It pains me to say this,” he wrote, “but given what I have learned in recent years, I cannot pretend anymore that kosher meat, poultry and dairy is any [more] ethical than non-kosher food. …

“The fact that the modern reality of industrial food production extends into kosher facilities — which are supposed to be held to the highest ethical standards of treatment — brings me embarrassment and shame as an Orthodox rabbi and as a Jew. …

“Story after story continues to emerge about kosher-slaughterhouse scandals in Israel, the primitive method of ‘shackle-and-hoist’ used in kosher slaughter, and the lack of standards for decent treatment.”

There was one other letter published by the Wall Street Journal in response to Yanklowitz’s article. It was written by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of OU Kosher. He simply denied the rabbi’s charges.

“To declare kosher slaughter inhumane and unethical,” Genack wrote, is “quite simply … untrue.”

In light of Yanklowitz’s concerns — which are shared by an ever-increasing number of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews such as myself — it would seem that Genack has the ability to alleviate many of our concerns. All he has to do is invite Yanklowitz and others to see (and video) how kosher animals are raised and slaughtered.

In the meantime, I am certain that there are enough Jews and non-Jews who would pay extra to eat animals and products from animals (eggs, cheese, milk, etc.) that we know were treated decently prior to slaughter, and then slaughtered in as humane a manner as possible. If that is what “kosher” came to mean, wouldn’t that be a major kiddush haShem?

I am no animal rights activist. In fact, I have a mistrust of most of those who are preoccupied with animal rights. While individuals who are cruel to animals almost always end up being cruel to humans, there is, unfortunately, no link between kindness to animals and kindness to humans. On the contrary, many who have been major animal rights activists have been indifferent to human suffering. The Nazis, for example, outlawed experimentation on animals while practicing it on human beings. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are moral imbeciles who, among other things, equate barbecuing chickens with the cremating of Jews by the Nazis (“Holocaust on your plate”).

But both elementary decency and Judaism demand decent treatment of animals. To believe, as the rabbi in Moncton and the spokesman for Agudath Israel claim, that kashrut has nothing to do with ethics is a distortion of the Torah and of the laws of kashrut.  

Los Angeles’ top Jewish chefs under 40

What do the young Jewish star chefs in Los Angeles have in common? For those on the cutting edge of the city’s food scene, it’s not the laws of kashrut. Instead, for each of the 10 chefs and teams profiled here, all under age 40, the foundation of their cooking is seasonality, sustainability and a strong sense of place. Their styles and philosophy can be traced back to the temple of  Berkeley’s Alice Waters, who is not Jewish, as well as some leading local godmothers of L.A. cooking, such as Nancy Silverton, Evan Kleiman, Suzanne Tracht and Susan Feniger, who certainly are. 

Many of these younger chefs spent their formative years training with marquee names in iconic restaurants, like Campanile, Michael’s and Spago. Others have made their names via big-time reality TV food shows, while the rest have forged independent, idiosyncratic and often surprising paths. 

Most of the chefs we’ve included are Los Angeles natives who at some point left their hometown to develop their skills and knowledge in other cities, some overseas, but we’ve also highlighted a selection of transplants from the East Coast, as well as other parts of California, who’ve found inspiration and success in Los Angeles. All of these chefs benefited from supportive families, education and access, and almost all have an ownership stake in their current businesses.

They all come from Jewish families, and although mostly secular, their cultural and religious identities, along with formative food experiences, continue to influence what shows up on the tables of their popular and critically lauded restaurants. (Most of their establishments are among Jonathan Gold’s recent 101 Best Restaurants list in the Los Angeles Times.) 

And come major holidays, they might even reinterpret traditional Jewish foods in ways their bubbes never imagined.

Eric Greenspan
The Foundry on Melrose and The Roof on Wilshire

Equal parts extroverted, easygoing, precise and book smart, Eric Greenspan is that guy you went to Sunday school with. Come major holidays, he’s one of the local chefs who regularly puts his version of Ashkenazic favorites on the menu at The Foundry on Melrose (which is under renovation, until August). Meanwhile, Greenspan’s latke bites have proven popular enough to always be available at Foundry. His semi-regular fried chicken nights attracted regulars who shattered stereotypes of caloric decadence-fearing Angelenos.

Greenspan graduated from Calabasas High School, has degrees from UC Berkeley and Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu, and was named executive chef at Patina before moving to the erstwhile Meson G on Melrose (Hatfield’s now occupies the space). Greenspan said he doesn’t actively practice the Conservative traditions he was raised with, but he said he likes “to raise the flag of Judaism as often as possible.” Last February, for instance, he teamed up with chef Roberto Treviño for El Ñosh, a Jewish-Latin fusion pop-up concept during the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in Miami. And his haimish side really shines in his transcendent grilled cheese sandwiches, which became the inspiration for “The Melt Master: A Grilled Cheese Adventure Show,” on Tasted, a food channel show on YouTube. Now The Foundation Hospitality Group (which he formed with partner Jay Perrin and Jim Hustead, and which also operates the Beverly Hills-adjacent Roof on Wilshire, atop Hotel Wilshire) is turning a small space next to The Foundry into a sandwich emporium, dubbed Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese and slated to open in July. 

The Foundry on Melrose
7465 Melrose Ave.  –  Los Angeles
(323) 651-0915  –

The Roof on Wilshire Hotel
6317 Wilshire Blvd.  –  Los Angeles
(323) 852-6002  –

Giselle Wellman
Petrossian Café

Preparing Shabbat dinner “was the highlight of the week,” said Giselle Wellman, 28, about her early devotion as a teenager in San Diego to cooking for her extended clan. It didn’t occur to her that it was unusual for someone her age to plan her activities around preparing a large family meal on Friday nights. Nor did she automatically assume she was destined for a career commanding the stoves. 

“There are a lot of chefs in my family, but I was committed to the idea that we go to school, and we become doctors and lawyers,” the now-executive chef at the luxurious Petrossian caviar boutique and restaurant in West Hollywood explained. “Cooking was a hobby until the day my mom came home with an application for a nearby culinary school.” Not satisfied with her choices nearby, Wellman moved to Mexico City, where most of her family has been based since fleeing Eastern Europe during World War II, and she lived there with her grandmother while attending Le Cordon Bleu. Fluent in English and Spanish, Wellman speaks fondly of her family’s cultural hybrid traditions, such as adding a squeeze of lime to chicken matzah ball soup. 

A beautiful, simple salad with butter lettuce, shaved egg, mixed fresh herbs, crème fraîche dressing and a sprinkling of, yes, caviar, showcases Wellman’s deft hand when it comes to restrained indulgence. She satisfies the smoked fish fanatics and the ladies-who-lunch crowd, but Wellman also knows her way around a lamb pita sandwich. And if you’ve ever wondered what caviar tastes like atop a perfectly fried latke, Wellman is the chef to enlighten you. 

Petrossian Café
321 N. Robertson Blvd.  –  West Hollywood
(310) 271-0576  –

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Ilan Hall
The Gorbals 

When Long Island-bred, Culinary Institute of America-trained Ilan Hall came to Los Angeles from New York to invest his winnings from Season 2 of “Top Chef,” his location of choice — downtown — reflected the optimism of a new arrival. Opening a restaurant in the lower level of the once lustrous, now scrappy Alexandria Hotel in the Historic Core of the city pinned heavy hopes on the neighborhood’s renaissance. Hall’s bet paid off, and his meat-intensive, cultural mash-up cooking style has drawn customers to the increasingly vibrant intersection of Fifth and Spring streets since opening in 2009. Improvising from his Jerusalem-born mother’s heritage as well as that of his Scottish father, Hall, 31, makes food that is deeply personal. (The restaurant takes its name from Glasgow’s historically Jewish neighborhood where Hall’s father comes from.) “My mom, who doesn’t cook, made really good sandwiches. She made me a hummus and ham sandwich, and it was really marvelous. It was those two ingredients made to be together. That’s where it all began,” Hall told Orit Arfa, writing for in 2009. 

His in-your-face iconoclastic bacon-wrapped matzah balls might be what got people talking, but the Gorbals has evolved into one of the area’s staple late-night pubs, where folks can order reasonably priced dishes of welsh rarebit, homemade latkes, tongue confit, and Persian cucumbers tossed with crispy garbanzos and sumac. 

The Gorbals
501 S. Spring St.  –  Los Angeles
(213) 488-3408  –

Photo by Dylan Ho

Karen Hatfield
Hatfield’s and The Sycamore Kitchen

Chef Karen Hatfield and her husband, Quinn Hatfield, are as close as you get to a fabled L.A. storybook romance. Pacific Palisades-raised Karen, 37, met Quinn while working on the line at Spago, where she was a pastry chef and he was rising through the ranks of Wolfgang Puck’s legendary kitchen. Their first eponymous restaurant occupied an elegantly modest space on Beverly Boulevard, a few blocks east of Fairfax, before they ambitiously decamped to Melrose, near Highland, in the building originally occupied by chef Alain Giraud’s nouvelle cuisine institution, Citrus. The Hatfields’ exacting style fits the site’s pedigree and history. The couple also owns The Sycamore Kitchen on La Brea, a neighborhood utility player where locals drop in for coffee, sandwiches, salads and rustic pastries, including Karen’s notoriously delicious twist on an Old World treat: the salted-caramel babka roll.

6703 Melrose Ave.  –  Los Angeles
(323) 935-2977  –

The Sycamore Kitchen
143 S. La Brea Ave.  –  Los Angeles
(323) 939-0151  –

Photo by Jessica Ritz

Jessica Koslow

Good thing Jessica Koslow got her alternative career plans out of the way. The Long Beach-bred master food preserver, 32, earned her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and a master’s degree in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown before getting on the culinary track in Atlanta, where she started cooking at the lauded restaurant Bacchanalia under the mentorship of chef Anne Quatrano. Koslow moved to New York, and then was transferred home to Los Angeles while producing online content for “American Idol,” when she started delving more deeply into food preservation and baking. In the interim, she returned to Atlanta for a bit to help Quatrano open another restaurant. Back in L.A., Koslow began making and selling small batches of delicately flavored jams (Pakistani mulberry, Thai basil), and when her production needs exceeded capacity in the commercial kitchen space she borrowed, she found her own place on Virgil Avenue in East Hollywood to create Sqirl, her micro café, which attracts diners willing to consume $5 coffee and brioche toast piled with market greens, preserved lemon and slivered beets topped with an egg while sitting on a stretch of sidewalk that can hardly be described as glamorous.

Koslow still makes the popular jams, and she constantly returns to Jewish pickling; hulking dark brown ceramic fermenting crocks full of caraway-laced sauerkraut and kosher dill pickles can always be spotted somewhere around the kitchen at Sqirl. She maintains a discerning eye for top, peak-season ingredients and zero tolerance for short cuts (current project: mastering beef tongue pastrami). “Jewish food is very comforting. I think of it in terms of the home and family,” Koslow observed. “It’s what I know, and these things resonate.” Because she’s found an ever-expanding audience, the under-construction space next door to Sqirl will contain a provisions shop. 

720 N. Virgil Ave.  No. 4   –  Los Angeles
(213) 394-6526  –

Ori Menashe

The Italian-themed Bestia, located inside a converted industrial building in the downtown Arts District, has been buzzing since day one, thanks to chef Ori Menashe’s spectacular house-made, intensely flavored pastas, pizzas pulled out of the wood-burning oven at the right nanosecond and an extensive selection of his aromatic, expertly handled charcuterie. Salads and other vegetable-focused dishes at Bestia reflect the chef’s passion for Southern California produce, which is equal to his faith in his customers’ willingness to order grilled lamb heart with sprouted arugula. 

The Los Angeles-born, then Israel-raised Menashe, 32, comes from a mostly kosher household. He started flouting the rules upon eating his first cheeseburger when he was around 15. “That’s when I thought I could change my own direction,” he said, noting that he felt freer to explore traditions and ingredients outside of his family’s kosher home. He’s cooked in L.A. kitchens ranging from a café in Kosher Corridor, to Angelini Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza, before the omnipresent restaurateur Bill Chait (also the man behind Sotto; see below) came calling. Menashe’s wife, Genevieve Gergis, is Bestia’s acclaimed pastry chef. His Israeli upbringing, in combination with his parents’ Georgian and Moroccan roots, enriches his professional toolkit. Said Menashe: “A lot of my flavor profile is because of my dad,” who still owns a restaurant in Israel. “He’s really talented.”

2121 E. Seventh Place  –  Los Angeles
(213) 514-5724  –

Photo by Emily Hart Roth

Zoe Nathan
Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo & Olive and Sweet Rose Creamery

Westside restaurant power couple Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb met in the kitchen of Rustic Canyon, the Wilshire Boulevard restaurant Loeb founded and had named in honor of his beloved Santa Monica neighborhood. They’ve since married and had a son, Milo, all while continuing to make their mark among a receptive community. Chef Nathan, 31, who spent time at Mario Batali’s Lupa in New York and San Francisco’s seminal Tartine Bakery, keeps expanding her pastry and savory repertoires, from wood-fired pizzas at Milo & Olive to small-batch ice creams at Sweet Rose Creamery, to sandwiches at casual café Huckleberry, which she co-owns with entrepreneur Loeb. Despite this breadth, Nathan primarily identifies as a pastry chef and baker. The couple’s businesses are a natural extension of their values and worldview. “Zoe and I are much more culturally religious than actually practicing religious, but ultimately food is our religion as much as anything,” Loeb, 38, explained. During the holidays, Nathan notes that “brisket is a mainstay on the menu at Huck, and my flavors in a lot of my food are a play of salty and sweet.” Also of note: Now helming the Rustic Canyon kitchen is Executive Chef Jeremy Fox, a 2008 Food & Wine Best New Chef and 2009 Bon Appetit Best Chef (and Member of the Tribe), who brings the deeply seasonal, highly refined, gorgeously composed style he developed at Manresa in Los Gatos and Ubuntu in Napa. 

Rustic Canyon
1119 Wilshire Blvd.  –  Santa Monica
(310) 393-7050  –

Huckleberry Cafe
1014 Wilshire Blvd.  –  Santa Monica
(310) 451-2311  –

Milo & Olive
2723 Wilshire Blvd.  –  Santa Monica
(310) 453-6776  –

Sweet Rose Creamery
225 26th St. No. 51  –  Santa Monica
(310) 260-2663  –

Photo by Sean Murphy

Zach Pollack

Zach Pollack, 29, who along with Steve Samson, runs Sotto Italian restaurant on West Pico, near Beverly Drive, grew up “quite Reform” in Westwood. His mother was born in Germany to refugees who immigrated to the United States “in the aftermath of the Holocaust,” Pollack said. “We took Jewish cultural traditions seriously,” he noted, and religious practice less so, although he did have a bar mitzvah. 

Pollack’s formative professional conversion can be traced to his junior year abroad in Florence, Italy; after graduating from Brown University, he returned to Italy to fully develop his passion for its cooking. (Samson was raised in an interfaith family that didn’t regularly observe Jewish rituals.) The duo brings a seriousness of purpose and commitment to quality to a block not previously known for culinary accomplishment. That was until Sotto and its upstairs neighbor, chef Ricardo Zarate’s Picca Peruvian cantina, transformed their eclectic colonial townhouse building into a dining destination. At lunch and dinner, the cozy subterranean room is packed with diners sharing hearty plates of grilled meatballs with bitter greens, deliciously funky blistered pizzas, traditional Italian dishes that use quintessentially West Coast ingredients such as Fresno chilies and formidable protein dishes paired with seasonal vegetables. 

9575 W. Pico Blvd.  –  Los Angeles
(310) 277-0210  –

Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Microsoft

Jon Shook
Animal, Son of a Gun and Trois Mec

Jon Shook and his business partner, Vinny Dotolo, opened their first restaurant in the heart of the Fairfax District among the delis, Judaica shops and skater hangouts. But if you expect Animal to share anything in common with its next-door neighbor and landlord, the kosher icon Schwartz Bakery and Café, let us disabuse you of any such notions immediately. (Their lease agreement actually includes a non-kosher clause.) “It’s kind of random that we ended up on Fairfax,” Shook remarked, “but it’s been interesting.” Both Florida natives, Dotolo and Shook, 32, were among the city’s first ambassadors of the nose-to-tail philosophy and approach. And yet despite Shook’s love of a “Jewish-grandma-style brisket,” they’re far from being a one-trick pony extreme-meat shtick. The Shook/Dotolo brand has thrived with their seafood-focused Son of a Gun on Third Street, near La Cienega, which also happens to serve a crave-inducing fried chicken sandwich, along with the stellar petite lobster roll and raw seafood dishes infused with unexpected flavors. 

They’ve also opened Trois Mec (the name roughly translates as “three dudes”), a partnership with celebrated French chef Ludo Lefebvre, who is arguably best known for his series of highly in-demand pop-up dinners called LudoBites. This collaborative project is tucked within a former Raffalo’s strip mall pizza shop catty-corner from Silverton’s Mozza, and immediately attracted accolades for the inventive prix fixe menu that changes almost daily. The restaurant’s system, requiring advance purchase of a meal in lieu of making a traditional reservation, much like a cultural event, also got attention. Any resulting criticism hasn’t impacted the bottom line — Trois Mec’s 24 seats remain  among the hottest tickets in town. The most recent news out of the Shook/Dotolo camp is a vague plan announced via Instagram to take over the Damiano’s space on Fairfax; it helps that they own the building.  

435 N. Fairfax Ave.  –  Los Angeles
(323) 782-9225  –

Son of a Gun
8370 W. Third St.  –  Los Angeles
(323) 782-9033  –

Trois Mec
716 N. Highland Ave.  –  Los Angeles

Photo by Cathy Chaplin/

The Residency at Umamicatessen

“I didn’t set out to say I want to be the modern Jewish chef,” Micah Wexler, 30, explained at Reboot’s “Who’s Your Bubbie?” panel at the Skirball last November. “These were the flavors I grew up around, [and they] started to manifest more and more.” So it additionally stung when Wexler, who has staged in some of Europe’s most famous kitchens, was getting into the groove of revisiting the Ashkenazic culinary canon at his pan-Mediterranean Mezze restaurant on La Cienega then had to close down suddenly due to construction next door. 

Losing that venue as a home base for his Old World-meets-New, market-driven dishes, including chopped chicken livers with apple mostarda, farm egg shakshouka, soujouk sausage with muhammara and veal jus, and smoked sablefish with lebne, has by no means kept him out of the L.A. food scene, however. Wexler is currently in the midst of his second stint at Umamicatessen’s Residency project downtown, cooking multicourse dinners in an open kitchen surrounded by customers seated at his counter for a very specific experience. The configuration makes for a social, interactive Saturday night, as does the conceit. For the current “Dead Chefs” theme, continuing through July, Wexler turns to the canon to cook recipes from a different historical culinary giant for each of the 10 weeks, starting with Marie-Antoine Careme and concluding with Julia Child. 

“To Live and Dine in L.A.,” Wexler’s previous, inaugural session of the program, took a specific geographical approach, with nights dedicated to saluting the best of Pico Boulevard and exploring the diverse heritage Boyle Heights, among other communities. Wexler might have made an Israeli cheese-stuffed borek in reference to Eilat Market, but not one you’d typically expect. (Hint: Bacon was involved.)

A graduate of Milken Community High School, Wexler and his business partner (and fellow Cornell University alum) Mike Kassar, are setting their sights on settling down again, in a new locale, in the coming months.  

The Residency at Umamicatessen
852 Broadway  –  Los Angeles
(213) 413-8626 –

How to become a Jew


There are a variety of options for how to begin the process, but all involve study with a rabbi. Some people study with an individual rabbi for a period of time, and other people enroll in group classes designed especially for converts.

People find out about conversion classes in a number of ways: through the Internet, through family and friends, or by making an appointment to meet with a synagogue rabbi who recommends a program. Some students choose a particular religious movement’s program because that is the movement to which a Jewish partner’s family belongs, or perhaps the student is attracted to a particular rabbi or synagogue of that movement.

My program, Judaism by Choice, offers a Conservative curriculum, but which also welcomes other denominations; it includes 18 three-hour classes that cover such topics as Jewish history (biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, Holocaust, Israel/Zionism, American Judaism), Jewish holidays, Shabbat, kashrut, Jewish lifecycle (birth, marriage, death), theology, prayers, philosophy and rituals.

Students must also connect to a local synagogue and attend Shabbat services weekly, meet with the synagogue rabbi, observe Shabbat fully every week — including meals from Friday night to Saturday night — keep a level of kashrut (no pork, shellfish or mixing of meat and milk), learn to read Hebrew and have experiences in the Jewish community. Students must also attend our monthly Shabbat dinners and Shabbat morning learning services at Sinai Temple or Temple Beth Am and a Havdalah social evening at private homes.

When students in my program meet the conversion requirements, I give them a letter saying that they have completed all requirements in the Judaism by Choice program and are now eligible for conversion with either the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California (interdenominational). 


Men must undergo a ritual circumcision, or, if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit (symbolic circumcision), which is a procedure where the mohel draws a little bit of blood from the penis.


Once the candidate has fulfilled all the requirements, he or she meets with a beit din — a rabbinical court. The rabbis ask about why the candidate wants to convert to Judaism, what observances he or she follows and his or her knowledge of Jewish holidays and Judaica. The candidate must also willingly give up any former religion. After 30 minutes of questioning, the candidate is told whether they have passed, and those who have are asked to read aloud the “Declaration of Faith,” affirming that he or she is ready to assume the obligations of Judaism.

The candidate then immerses in the spiritual waters of the mikveh, going fully under the water three times. For the first two immersions, he or she says blessings, and on the third immersion, recites the Shema, affirming the oneness of God. After fulfilling this, the candidate is officially a Jew.

For those who want to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), conversions are regulated by the Jewish Agency under the Law of Return, and all converts, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are accepted. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still regulates permission to marry within the Jewish state, and non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox converts are not accepted for that ritual, although many are. 


After the conversion, some people celebrate at their synagogue, where the congregation welcomes them to the Jewish religion. The newly converted might be called for an aliyah (saying blessings over the Torah) during the Torah service, and a special blessing might be recited for them in front of the ark during a Shabbat service. We do this at our Judaism by Choice Shabbat morning service.

Our program also includes a special ceremony at a Shabbat dinner, or a Havdalah social evening, where we officially hand the new Jew by Choice a conversion certificate and publicly acknowledge that the person is now part of the Jewish People and Jewish community. Family and friends also come to share this happy occasion.


We hope the new Jew by Choice will be involved in the Jewish community, in addition to involvement in a synagogue. Our program also provides supplemental programs throughout the year specially geared to Jews by Choice. These have included a pre-High Holy Days spiritual retreat, a Sukkot wine-tasting party, Chanukah and Purim parties, a second-night Passover seder and an annual trip to Israel. 

 Just as the biblical Naomi was welcoming to Ruth, so should the Jewish community be welcoming to those who embrace Judaism. Jews by Choice are knowledgeable and observant Jews, and we should all celebrate the fact that they will help the Jewish religion and Jewish people to grow and survive.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg is rabbinic director and instructor of Judaism by Choice Inc.

Genetically engineered salmon: Coming soon to a bagel near you?

Do you want to be experimented on by eating sushi or bagels and lox made with a new type of salmon with eel genes in it — salmon which hasn’t been adequately tested for safety of human consumption?

If not, then we in the Jewish community need to speak up now, for the sake of our health, the environment, kashrut, and to ensure that there will be native salmon left in the future.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking public comments through April 26, on whether to approve the first genetically engineered (“GE” or “GMO”) animal species: Atlantic salmon with chinook salmon and ocean pout (eel, non-kosher) genes forced into its DNA. 

Manufacturer AquaBounty plans to sell it without a GE label.  You won’t know you are eating it.

Over 300 consumer, health, fishing, environmental, parent, and animal rights groups are opposing FDA approval.  The Los Angeles City Council unanimously opposes it.  Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s pledge not to sell it.

Here’s why I am taking action, and I hope you will, too.


Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) writes that the FDA determination of no additional significant health risk is based on manipulated data and inadequate studies. Allergy risk findings were based on only six fish, and those allergic to finfish could experience severe allergic reactions.

Friends of the Earth writes, “GE salmon are unhealthy and suffer from skeletal deformities, jaw erosions, inflammation, lesions, increased susceptibility to disease, and increased mortality, raising serious … human health concerns from eating sick fish.  Overall, GE salmon have 40% higher levels of IGF-1.” 

“IGF-1 is a hormone that has been associated with increased risk of a number of cancers, especially prostate, breast, colorectal and lung,” adds Dr. Hansen.

The Center for Food Safety summarizes that the science is not there to say these fish are safe to eat.  Further research is needed.


The Orthodox Union says GE salmon is kosher, because it has fins and scales.

However, even though some authorities currently state that this fish is kosher, there are Jews who will reject it, saying, “I definitely won’t eat it – it’s not kosher to me.”  Views ranged from an ethical sense of kashrut to “it’s not the natural, healthy food G-d created for us.”

Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz of Netiya said the Torah prohibits eating swimming animals that do not have both fins and scales. Eel lacks scales, suggesting GE salmon might not be entirely a salmon, and therefore may not be kosher. Also, creation of a part-fish, part-eel seems impermissible as a violation of the Torah’s prohibition to mix species.

Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Serebryanski said, even though a small amount of a non-kosher food doesn’t usually render a food non-kosher, it does when it becomes an intrinsic part of the food.  It is prohibited to genetically engineer salmon with eel genes because such boundary crossing is prohibited by the Creator. Using genetic engineering to cross boundaries set up by the Creator creates an imbalance and distortion, disrupting a person’s connection with the Creator.


GE salmon raises serious concerns about the survival of native salmon. AquaBounty says its fish will be infertile and cannot escape their controlled, land-based environment.  But the FDA allows for 95% sterility, and there will certainly be fertile fish that produce the GE eggs.  Fish and eggs can escape through land-based water recirculation systems. Market competition may potentially push all fish farms to buy and raise AquaBounty’s GE eggs.  Most farms are on coastlines. Thousands of farmed fish escape annually.

Could escaped GE salmon out-compete native salmon for habitat, food and mates, causing extinction of native salmon?   Would eating GE salmon cause illness, infertility or death to bears, whales, seabirds, etc., that rely on them as food?  AquaBounty and the FDA have not done adequate studies.   

The FDA is accepting AquaBounty’s assurances.  Instead it should honor requests from California Senator Feinstein and others, for a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, and from experts like Dr. Anne Kapuscinski, professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth, for a quantitative failure mode analysis.


Friends, if this salmon is approved, you and I may have to stop eating salmon completely to protect our health and/or Jewish practice. Even doing so might not protect our ecosystem from disastrous consequences.

We can make a difference on this issue!  Comments to the FDA may be made until April 26 at: To help stop this fish from entering the market by getting stores and restaurants to pledge not to sell it, contact or the author.

Lisa Kassner is the San Fernando Valley co-coordinator of the Label GMOs Campaign.

Learning how to respond to sin

“For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Kohellet, 7:20)

Everyone has their moments of failure, when they transgress. Not necessarily out of malice, but in response to temptation or opportunity or out of fear. Rarely do we see such failures play out in the kind of paradoxically public and intimate way, as the way we have seen failures in our community play out over these past 2 weeks. As a result of these transgression and failures, we have lost trust in a longtime community vendor whose products used to grace our Shabbat tables.  And many feel uneasy — or worse — about our local Kashrut agency that left a gaping hole in its supervision and which, in the opinion of some, has neither apologized sufficiently for its role in what happened, nor explained what specific measures it will take to prevent this sort of breach from happening again.  We have been confused by some of the words and deeds of community rabbis, and become unsure of who and what we should believe. It has been an awful couple of weeks in our community, and for all we know, the story is still not over. But it is already the right time to think about how we will respond spiritually and mortally to what has happened, so that this not become an episode that was filled with sound and fury but ultimately signified nothing. And so that we can emerge from this story as a stronger and better community. 

I’ll suggest two appropriate and necessary responses, one that is personal to each of us, and one that is more communal in nature. There’s a Talmudic story about Rabbi Yannai who was approached by the members of his community and was asked to render a Halachik ruling concerning a privately-owned tree whose branches had grown beyond the private domain, and which were now obstructing the passage of people and goods in the public domain. Curiously, Rabbi Yannai told the parties that that he could not rule just yet, but that they should return the next day. When they reconvened on the morrow, Rabbi Yannai ruled unequivocally that the tree needed to be removed.  “Ah”, the tree’s owner quickly responded. “Do you Rabbi Yannai not yourself have a tree whose branches extend into the public domain?” “Indeed so”, the sage replied, “but go out and see. If mine is still there, then you may keep yours there. But if I have cut mine down, than you must cut yours down as well”. Rabbi Yannai’s first response to the communal controversy was to examine himself, and his own degree of sensitivity to the community’s needs. Which led him, during the intervening night, to go out and remove his own tree.

Without excusing or justifying the bad and the questionable behavior that has come to light over the past weeks, personal introspection is one of the right and proper responses to it. The integrity of our outrage at others, for their having betrayed our trust and having acted behind our backs, is measured by our willingness to engage in self-reckoning, and to recognize that we too have not yet perfected ourselves in these areas. We all make promises that we don’t fully keep, and act differently when we think that no one is looking.  Similarly, the meaningfulness of our criticism that others did too much circling of the wagons and not enough forthright admission of fault, is completely tied to our willingness to search for evidence of the same tendency within ourselves – and none of us can claim that we’ve never acted similarly.

For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

And there is also a way to respond on a communal level. There is a level of consciousness and commitment that all of us together need to expect and demand from everyone who serves the Jewish community in any capacity. For inspiration we can look to the “Hineni” prayer recited by the chazzan on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The chazzan describes his fear and trembling as he stands before the Divine Judge. But the text makes clear that his fear and trembling is also the result of his consciousness that he is a public servant. “Do not hold them accountable for my sins; do not condemn them for my transgressions”, he says.  He realizes that he has undertaken a literally awesome responsibility in agreeing to represent the community, in assuming the role of “klei kodesh”, of a holy instrument who facilitates Israel’s encounter with God. And his greatest fear is that, even inadvertently, he might cause material or spiritual harm to the community he is serving. This level of consciousness and this degree of commitment represent the baseline that we must expect from anyone and everyone who takes it upon him or herself to serve the Jewish community.

And yes, this is an extremely rarefied expectation, and a very high baseline. But they are the very ones which explain the otherwise deeply puzzling story of God’s decision to bar Moshe from entry into the land over Moshe’s seemingly minor infraction of striking the rock. As Rambam explains, the community’s need for water in the desert was legitimate. And Moshe’s chastising them as “rebels”, and with the accumulated frustration of forty years, crashing his staff –  the symbol of his Divine appointment – upon the rock, was inappropriate, hurtful, and an abuse of his role as a communal leader, which is to say, as a communal servant. And to this day, everyone who takes on the role of klei kodesh walks in Moshe’s gigantic footsteps. 

As connected and involved Jews, we each make a myriad of Jewish-living decisions and choices daily. And the unfortunate events of the past two weeks have presented us with an invaluable opportunity to express, through our choices, the expectation that anyone who serves our community – whether as a rabbi or as a baker, as a school administrator or a butcher, as a chazzan or as a board member – possess the awesome consciousness that he or she is a “klei kodesh”, and function with the absolute commitment to, above all else, never bring material or spiritual harm to the community. Please don’t think that you can’t have an impact. Right now, more than any time I can remember in the life of this community, terms like “preserving trust”, and “the need for transparency” carry a power than no one can ignore. Collectively, we can make something good happen.

My Dad told me a story on his deathbed, a story he had never told me before. In the mid-70’s,  as a professional social worker, he was the director of a Federation storefront, charged with servicing the needs of the Soviet Jews who were coming to the Rockaways in large numbers at that time. By the mid-80’s the immigration had slowed to a trickle. An influential board member suggested that my father manipulate the numbers, to obscure the reality that the clientele had sharply decreased in size. But my Dad wouldn’t do it. Because he knew he had been entrusted with the Jewish community’s funds and resources, and now they were better placed elsewhere. And he closed the service center, and at age fifty-something, he looked for a new job. That was the first time he had told me this story. And it was the last story he ever told me.

Nobody can — or should — paper over or minimize the awful events of the past few weeks. But we can — and must — know how to respond to them.

Kosher Without Sacrifice? Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47

The most elaborate, comprehensive and effective system for the prevention of animal cruelty was not invented by the FDA or even PETA; it was devised by the Book of Leviticus. This may seem a strange idea. Without question, it swims rather roughly against that trusty river of intuition. Pigeon slaughter is rarely good for pigeons. Bull offerings are not something cows easily stomach. As far as “becoming a sacrificial lamb,” I have it on good authority that this is not what most sheep dream about when they are kids. 

To an untrained imagination, a “bustling Tabernacle” is a strange cross between an abattoir and a synagogue. A PETA activist might describe its practices as “murder in the name of God, differing from the Crusades only by the choice of its victims.” Well, my friends, I believe this is wrong on many counts. 

There is a peculiar phrase that accompanies nearly every mention of sheep, goat and cattle offerings throughout the Bible. In the Torah, where no word is out-of-place and no letter believed superfluous, repetition is a cause of interest, and should never be dismissed as careless writing. The word I refer to is “tamim,” and it means “whole, complete, unharmed, pure, without blemish.” At the start of Leviticus, we read: “A person who brings an elevation offering … shall bring an offering without blemish [tamim]” (Leviticus 1:2-3). Concerning peace offerings, they, too, are brought “without blemish” (Leviticus 3:1). Similarly, the paschal lamb had to be tamim, just as the red heifer (parah aduma temima) had to perfect in every way. To bring a blemished animal to the Lord was sinful, and Leviticus states this repeatedly. 

What this meant for any animal potentially destined for the altar is that it could not be harmed, injured or mistreated. Remarkably, if we compare the rules of blemishes to the sort of miseries and maladies routinely inflicted upon factory-farmed animals, something astonishing comes to light. Factory-farmed meat, served in our homes, would never be offered in the House of the Lord. 

Animals that are surgically mutilated or castrated, a regular practice among meat growers wanting more malleable livestock, would be grounds alone for disqualification (Kiddushin 25b). Animals pinioned in cages of their own muck could be disqualified on account of their disgusting odor (Temurah 28b). Most birds and cattle pumped with near lethal amounts of antibiotics to prevent their succumbing to illness would be disqualified for their being sickly (ibid). 

One often reads of meat growers stimulating rapid growth through steroids, genetic chicanery, artificial lighting, hormone-enhanced feed, all in an attempt to get meat faster to market. Such practices would be eliminated by the routine biblical requirement that offerings of sheep, goats or calves be minimally 1 or 2 years old (Leviticus 9:3; Rosh Hashana 10a). A 3-month-old calf the size of an elephant would be barred from the Temple gates.

This week’s Torah Portion, Shemini, shifts away — from sacrifices to general food prohibitions: kashrut. Numerous beasts are prohibited from the hog to the hare, to kites, crocodiles and chameleons. The many (often confounding) dietary laws are often believed to be beyond the pale of rationale explanation, yet that has not stopped commentators from trying to explain them. Historically, there are two well-known schools of thought. One is based on ethics. Laws such as, “Do not stew a kid in its mother’s milk,” and “shooing away the mother-bird,” teach us to be merciful. If we eschew animal cruelty, all the more so, we should eschew cruelty to our fellow human beings (R. Bachaya ben Asher; Ibn-Ezra). Another approach explains kosher laws as a means to teach people “temperance and self-control” (Philo, Maimonides).

In the sacrificial system, each view is valid. To raise an animal fit for sacrifice required both constant discipline and tenderness toward the animal in one’s keep. Farmers sacrificed time and resources to raise fowl, herd and flock. In approaching the altar, both animal and owner had to be tamim.

Today, we live without the Temple, and therefore without the mitigating requirement that meat not only be fit for eating but fit for sacrifice. It happens that in our day, thank God, modern Jewry has ready access to kosher products. Meat, rinsed and salted, is easily obtained. In Los Angeles, with little ado, we order cooked lamb, chicken, beef, bison in restaurants and supermarkets. Yet with so much available, lessons of temperance and ethics fall away. 

“Kosher” means “fit” or “proper,” but how “fit” is an animal when the finest moment of its life was the day its life of misery was ended in a slaughterhouse? Moreover, how tamim are we who celebrate our faith, and sanctify the Lord, by consuming endless plates of chicken and beef in our homes? With several meanings in mind, one might ask: “Can there be kosher without sacrifice?”

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Ziegler Rabbinic School, The Academy of Jewish Religion, and runs an independent Modern Orthodox minyan in Beverlywood. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Kosher – Farm to table

Jewish holidays are full of symbolic foodstuffs: We are people of the mouth and stomach at least as much as the people of the book. Passover provides perhaps the best example of this — not only does almost everything on the table have a story, the ritual of the holiday involves telling those stories at length. Everything from the parsley we dip to the wine drink has a narrative attached to it.

This spring there will be more stories than ever on the Passover table: For the first time, a group of Los Angeles families will include on their seder plate shank bones sourced from a sustainable, local farmer, attained through a new kosher meat-buying club recently established by Evelyn Baran, of Got Kosher?, working with Devora Kimelman-Block, of KOL Foods (

KOL Foods, based in Baltimore, sources meat from Maryland-area farms which it ships all over the country; the new club aims to offer California beef, raised to KOL Foods’ exacting standards, to Los Angeles consumers. Buying in bulk ensures that the meat costs substantially less than it would at a retail markup; buying local means avoiding prohibitive shipping fees and cutting the fossil-fuel emissions associated with cross-country transportation.

Until as recently as 2007, there were almost no such options for kosher sustainable meat available to consumers in the United States, and even today the pickings remain surprisingly slim. Although farmers across the country are embracing eco-conscious practices and raising sustainable, humane meat, there are few kosher slaughterhouses available for processing that meat, with more closing every year as increased regulation and market consolidation make smaller outposts financially untenable. Small businesses such as KOL Foods and this new collective are helping to revitalize the field, creating small but crucial markets for what are still considered to be specialty products.

In 2007, Kimelman-Block was frustrated by the lack of options for an observant Jew concerned about the environmental impact of the meat she eats, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. “I wanted to have farmers’ market-type meat where I knew where it was coming from,” she says of KOL Foods’ early days, “except I wanted it kosher!” The company now sells cuts of beef, lamb, salmon and assorted poultry to Jews all over the country; every one comes backed by the assurance that animal lived in environmentally sustainable, humane conditions and was slaughtered in accordance with the strictest laws of kashrut

They also come with a story; consumers can learn about what Kimelman-Block looks for in a farm on the KOL Foods Web site. The company is invested in transparency, in educating consumers about what goes on behind the scenes and then helping them make purchases they can feel good about on a religious as well as environmental level. For Kimelman-Block, this was an obvious choice: Her region along the Chesapeake Bay feels the effects of overcrowded cattle farms directly when runoff from manure lagoons pollutes local waterways, fouling up scenic beauty and threatening tourism.

Buying meat from a grocery story is a particularly anonymous experience: You pick up a boneless, skinless cut wrapped in plastic and placed on Styrofoam; it looks nothing like the animal it once was and offers no connection to where or how that animal was raised, nor what kind of impact its life had on the land where it lived. Kimelman-Block wanted to erase that distance and bring buyers back in touch with the whole story of what was sitting on their dinner plates every night.

Kimelman-Block quickly had customers from all over the country. “The minute I put up a Web site, I got people from here, from there, all over,” she said. Though she’d initially hoped to keep it local, she says she immediately “felt that pressure, you know, I wanted there to be access. … If people don’t have that, they’ll stop keeping kosher or they’ll eat meat that’s bad for their health and bad for the environment — and I don’t like those options.” Still, shipping fees, especially for larger cuts, can be prohibitive to the individual consumer, especially those living far away from her Maryland warehouses.

Enter Baran, who initially got involved with Kimelman-Block and KOL Foods in 2012, hoping to source local, sustainable meat for Got Kosher, the cafe and catering service she co-owns with her partner, Alain Cohen. In January 2013, the two women began their bulk beef-buying club, offering sustainably, humanely raised and kosher-slaughtered cuts of beef to Los Angeles area buyers. Kimelman-Block said she particularly appreciated having another woman on her team, someone with experience in the traditionally testosterone-heavy field of cattle, slaughterhouses and big cuts of meat.

Kimelman-Block found the farmer she uses by approaching slaughterhouses; there is only one kosher slaughterhouse in California, and since it happens to be in Pico-Rivera, she started by talking with the man in charge of kosher production to ask if he knew any farmers who might fit her criteria. Finding farmers who are raising meat ethically and sustainably is getting easier with more demand from customers, Kimelman-Block acknowledged, but tracking down a nearby, certified kosher slaughterhouse for her customers can be tricky. Her farmer also sells non-kosher beef to restaurants around the city, and has won awards for his meat; both Kimelman-Block and Baran stress that their standards for taste are just as high as for every other aspect of the process.

The club’s first delivery was in late January of this year, and a Passover order will be in refrigerators across the city in mid-March. Unfortunately, the deadline for that delivery has passed, but KOL Foods offers special packages for various holidays — its Seder kit includes soup stock, kishkas, shank bones and readings about the relationship between environmental sustainability and Jewish tradition. Subscribers pick up their cuts at Temple Beth Am, which Baran says has been a vocal supporter and advocate for the buying club since its inception.

The traditional laws of kashrut ask us to consider the circumstances of slaughter of the animals we eat, but many kashrut-observant Jews are starting to wonder if that’s enough. Eco-kashrut asks that we look to the conditions of life, ensuring that what we eat sustains not only ourselves but also the planet we live on, and that our ethical acts add up to something more than merely symbolic.

For more information on joining the coop, e-mail Evelyn Baran at

Conversion: Michael Pershes

Throughout his conversion process, Michael Pershes claims he was an “obsessive superstar Jew.” The 42-year-old real estate developer and fashion designer studied Torah and the laws of kashrut, learned modern Hebrew at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, volunteered for the first time at Jewish Family Service, wrote monthly essays, celebrated Shabbat every week and joined his synagogue’s choir in the two-and-a-half years it took him to convert.

Three years ago, Pershes’ dog, Ellie, was getting old. He was trying to cope with the fact that his beloved pet was going to die, which brought up memories of his sister, whom he had lost at age 16 to cystic fibrosis. Growing up Catholic, he said, there was no way to get out of the mourning process for her. “I didn’t know where to go. All I knew is the religion I grew up with didn’t work for me, and I needed a deeper connection with my life. I was floating around in the universe with no connection to anything.”

While Pershes’ sister was alive and dealing with her illness, their mom brought in different religious leaders to try to find a cure for her. “It was like a spiritual quest in the house,” he said. “My mom would do anything to find a cure for my sister, and at any given time in my youth, you may have found a rabbi, a priest and a swami in my home.”

Years later, Pershes found he was taking a cue from his mom in trying to figure out where he belongs in terms of religious practice. Through his research, he found Judaism. He started attending classes with Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism course, then studied with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “I just kept trying to learn as much as I could and engage in Judaism as much as possible,” he said. “I never felt lost, but I always felt like I needed more information. One question always led to another. I have never been so engaged and so comfortable as I have been studying Judaism.”

Pershes, who is gay, chose to become a Reform Jew because of the movement’s liberalism and attitude toward homosexuality. He also felt at home at Temple Israel, he said, and valued that he could follow along with the services. “I felt comfortable with my partner [at synagogue],” he said. “It was a nice experience to feel so welcome and embraced. I never experienced that with religion. No one [at Temple Israel has] ever made us feel uncomfortable or looked at us differently.”

Pershes and his husband, Clifford (who shares the same last name), live in Silver Lake and have been together for 19 years. Clifford also happens to be Jewish, but Pershes said before he began his own pursuit, he never experienced much of his partner’s culture and religion. “In all that time, we went to three seder dinners in Boca [Raton, Fla.], and that was it. He did not sign up for this. This is not the person he got together with. But he has embraced it. In a weird way, he’s remembering all these things from when he was a kid, like Shabbat and his bar mitzvah. Now he’s experiencing Judaism without all the baggage.”

When Pershes decided to convert, it strengthened the relationship between him and Clifford’s family. “They were ecstatic,” he said. “After I started the process, I got the ‘I love you’s’ on the phone.”

Although Pershes’ mother had a tough time at first, by the time the process was completed, she had accepted her son’s conversion. His father was supportive from the start, downloading the Jewish calendar onto his phone to keep up.

Pershes stepped into the mikveh in November 2011 and said he felt truly like he was being reborn when he emerged from the water. “There is an educational and spiritual process and building up of this foundation all for this moment,” he said. “When I came out of it, I felt like it was a new beginning for me. It really felt new. When that cold water comes out of the little spout, it has this kind of spiritual connotation to it, and it really transforms you. I felt different from that moment I got out. I felt like a Jew.”

Next May, Pershes will become a bar mitzvah, which he is planning and preparing for now. He and Clifford are also in the process of adopting a child. And even though his partner didn’t “sign up” for a Jewish mate, Pershes said it has brought them closer together. Every week, they observe Shabbat and they continue to attend services at their spiritual home, Temple Israel. “I made a promise when I converted to continue to study and engage [with] Judaism,” he said. “I love the process of learning and challenging myself. I think it’s important for me to create my own Jewish history since I do not have a memory bank filled with Jewish moments. I am so happy to have found Judaism and cannot wait to see what is next for me.”

Pershes said what he values most about Judaism is “the sense of questioning. It’s so liberating and free not to have answers. Growing up Catholic, that was all there was. Judaism allows you to keep asking and growing instead of feeling like stopping. It means always moving forward and evolving, and I love the sense that it evolves with community instead of being stagnant. It’s really lovely. 

“I also love the food. C’mon. I can’t be Jewish without saying the food.”

International Chinese Culinary Competition: Culture on the menu

Times Square, the icon of New York kitsch and tourism, pop culture and media art, not only looked different that day in late September, it smelled different. The place that many people call the center of the world was transformed into one big Chinese kitchen. That's right. Times Square was home to the 5th International Chinese Culinary Competition.

I was there, ostensibly, to taste and review the first offerings of the day kosher Chinese food. In order to maintain a strict level of 'kashrut' the kosher competition was the first item on the agenda to ensure that all utensils, still new, would neither touch nor be tainted by anything non-kosher.

But more than my taste buds were tingling. This was not a mere foodie fest, it was an educational culture fest. The cook off organizers created a cooking challenge in order to make Chinese culture fun, hip, vibrant and if you will, palatable to Chinese youth living around the world who have abandoned the ways of their ancestors in order to realize the modern dream of franks, beans and apple pie.

The competitions are sponsored by the NTD-TV, the New Tang Dynasty Television network. Mr. Zhong Lee, president of NTD-TV, sat with me as the chefs were saut ing and explained that of all the competitions they could have chosen they felt that the food competition would be the best vehicle to educate and inform a new generation about the greatness of Chinese culture.

Mr. Lee explained that his network, rather than toeing the Chinese line, challenges the dictates coming from mainland China. The network is a tool to teach people about what is actually happening both around the world and also – in China. Most importantly, they teach about freedom and democracy to people who are always fed the party line.

NTD-TV is not welcomed by the Chinese government. In fact, the station is blocked in China, but yet, people still find a way to watch and to listen. Not surprisingly, NDT is also closely watched and carefully monitored by the leadership of Communist China. The government, too, uses NTD-TV as a learning tool. Communists need to know what is really happening in the world and they need to understand other points of view in order to confront them.

Communism, in addition to denying liberties and individual expression, has destroyed the great love for and appreciation of Chinese history, culture and, of course, religion. They created a revolution in order to step away from the past. The result is that a legacy forged over centuries has been pushed aside and forgotten.

Today's youth cannot connect to Confucius. They have no understanding of Daoism or of Buddhism. No matter where they live in the world, from Tiananmen Square to Trafalgar Square to Times Square, today's Chinese youth know very little and care even less about their heritage and culture.

Until, that is, NTD-TV was born. This TV network, broadcast around the world to a half billion viewers, introduces people to their heritage by making their heritage hip and sexy. The 6th International Cooking Competition was part of the network spin. It tweaked an age old tradition and injected a sense of modern day pride. The Food Network does it. The Cooking Channel does it. And so does NTD.

The addition of kosher Chinese food as an appetizer was not just shtick. The Jewish-kosher angle fit simply and squarely into the NTD-TV paradigm. Jewish culture and community serves as a model for NTD president Zhong Lee. Jews throughout the world demonstrate communal awareness and love of their unique culture and heritage. The highly developed Jewish sense of pride in the past and the great gifts that individual Jews and the Jewish people donate to the world are, according to Lee, what he hopes to inculcate in his audience. And especially the connection to Israel – the ancestral homeland. Through NTD-TV Zhong Lee hopes to recreate the Jewish model for Chinese living in China and living in the Chinese Diaspora.

Jewish food is part of Jewish tradition. Jews from various parts of the world all have their own very unique and distinctive foods. There is a literature about food and there is lore and recipes are handed down from generation to generation with great pride and satisfaction. That was one of the goals of the Chinese cook off competition in Times Square and that is why there were four kosher chefs who participated in the first round.

I tasted the kosher offerings- and they were OK. But I did not come for the tasting. I came to understand the link between a world media giant and kosher Chinese. And I came away with an understanding of the great pain that some very creative and exceptional minds not in China, but expressly outside the community, feel over a loss of pride and lack of knowledge in Chinese heritage.

Let me tell you a famous story about an argument between a Chinese person and Jewish person. The

Chinese person said: We Chinese have the oldest, richest culture in the world dating back to the Xia dynasty 2100 BCE. That is 4100 years ago.

The Jewish person said: Nonsense. We have the oldest culture in the world dating back 5700 years ago.

The Chinese man stroked his beard for a few seconds and then politely asked: If that is so what did the Jews eat for 3600 years?

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History's Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute

About eight months ago, when Katsuji Tanabe agreed to display the Tav HaYosher certificate in the window of his one-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the head chef and owner of Mexikosher knew that the “ethical seal,” issued by the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, would inform customers that he treats his workers with respect and in accordance with California labor laws.

Tanabe didn’t know that in displaying the certificate he was also, in effect, choosing a side in a mostly covert battle between two segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.

On one side is Uri L’Tzedek, a four-year old nonprofit promoting social justice causes that has been supported by a handful of prominent Jewish foundations, including the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the Jewish Federations of North America. On the other are an unknown number of individuals who are acting independently and largely anonymously.

At Mexikosher, the certificate hung in the window for between four and six weeks; during that time, Tanabe said he received phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as being from “different Chabads,” and threatening to boycott his restaurant if he didn’t take the certificate down.

Tanabe, who said he hadn’t changed any of his policies to earn the Tav, decided to remove it.

“I don’t talk about politics or religion in the restaurant,” said Tanabe, 31, who describes himself as “Mexican-Japanese-Catholic.” “We only talk about food.”

Although the pushback against the Tav appears to be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from individuals affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there is no evidence that any official encouragement came from Chabad, according to the organization’s leaders and those involved in the anti-Tav efforts.

The headquarters of Chabad of California is located on Pico Boulevard, within blocks of a dozen Kosher-certified restaurants, including at least one that displays the Tav. In a recent interview, the group’s CEO, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, said he hadn’t heard of the Tav or Uri L’Tzedek until very recently, and that he knew of no coordinated effort to oppose the program.

“If there’s any such conspiracy it’s deep underground,” Cunin said.

The battle between Uri L’Tzedek and the mostly nameless Orthodox Jews threatening to boycott the 100 restaurants nationwide that participate in its signature program may be taking place in the shadows, but it illuminates a rift within American Orthodoxy stemming from the 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Uri L’Tzedek established the Tav Hayosher in 2009 as a free certification. To qualify, employers must demonstrate that they calculate worker’s hours accurately, pay wages—including overtime – promptly and in full and grant breaks to their employees, as required by law. Studies have shown that many food-service businesses – both kosher and non—fall short of these basic legal requirements.

Over the last few months, multiple owners of kosher-certified businesses who display the Tav have been urged to take it down.

“People are threatening the 100 Tav owners around the country, saying they are going to hurt their business and boycott them,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Journal on July 9.

The hardest-hit are in Los Angeles, Yanklowitz said, where Tav-certified businesses have received more complaints than in any other city. Yanklowitz said three local restaurants chose to drop the certification in the face of this controversy. As of July 20, nine Los Angeles-based businesses were listed among the certified restaurants on the Tav’s website.

The issue appears not to be the Tav certification, per se, but rather that in 2008, Uri L’Tzedek was the instigator of a boycott of products from the Agriprocessors meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in the wake of the massive immigration raid that closed down the plant.

Aron Markowitz, 31, a self-described “Chabadnik” who has a book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on his desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, is among those who’ve objected to the certificates. He said in an interview that he first heard about the Tav less than a month ago, and, initially, the principle behind the Tav certification sounded to him like a good idea.

Letters to the Editor: Pamela Geller, orthodoxy, kashrut

Hate Speech or Free Speech?

As Jews, Christians and Muslims united together to find paths to peace, we the participants and friends who are part of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, are grateful for The Jewish Federation’s decision to cancel the speaking engagement of Pamela Geller (“Federation Bars Anti-Muslim Activist From Speaking,” June 29). The last thing this or any other community needs is a hate and fear promoter “shouting fire in a crowded theater” in the name of “free speech” or “balanced debate.” Ms. Geller’s record of vitriol and venom speaks for itself, and her appearance, like her other talks, would have been a deliberate, hate-filled provocation. Her words of anger and panic would not have contributed to an honest, respectful expression of a contested viewpoint, but instead would have inflicted significant damage upon any fragile bridges of true understanding that we and others have been trying to build for years.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels
Rabbi Jonathan Klein
Rabbi Steve Jacobs
The Rev. Ed Bacon
The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGuiness
The Rev. Paige Eaves
Pastor Ryan Bell
Hussam Ayloush
The Rev. Dr. Art Cribbs
The Rev. Frank Alton
Father Chris Ponnet
Dr. Steve Wiebe

I went to The Jewish Federation to hear Pamela Geller. What a disappointment to learn that Federation had canceled her due to “security concerns.” Geller does not endorse the use of violence or the threat of violence. Were the “security concerns” cited by Federation violent threats? And if yes, violence from whom? Geller is not about violence, and, contrary to other press accounts, she is not about “hate.” If someone hates what someone else is saying, does that mean it is “hate speech”? No, of course not.

Ellen Switkes
Sherman Oaks

Defining Orthodoxy

Pini Herman’s argument that it is in the self-interest of non-Orthodox movements to support the Orthodox community, while a noble idea, is based on a false analogy (“Will Your Great-Grandchildren Be Jewish?” June 29). Herman cites the fact that in 1996, four out of five Los Angeles Jews who reported being raised in Orthodox homes chose other denominational affiliations, as evidence that today’s Orthodox Jews will also leave the fold. The problem is that the data he relies on includes the responses of people who came of age prior to 1960, when the term “Orthodox home” meant something vastly different than what it means today. In that earlier period of American Judaism, an Orthodox home more often than not referred to a family that attended High Holy Days services at an Orthodox synagogue and where some form of the dietary laws were observed. Very few of these families were Sabbath observant and virtually none of them sent their children to Jewish day schools. It is misleading to compare this earlier generation with today’s religiously observant and yeshiva-educated Orthodox Jews.

Louis Gordon
via e-mail

Industrialized Foods Prompt Spiritual Crisis

Rabbi Israel Hirsch amply illustrates the spiritual crisis in the mainstream attitude to the kashrut of industrialized food (Letters, June 29) — perhaps more poignantly than Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz himself did in the well-grounded cover story (“How Kosher Is Your Milk,” June 22) to which Rabbi Hirsch responded.

Rabbi Hirsch admits that major kashrut organization’s permission to drink milk from abused cows is based on a statistically untenable leniency. We have historically applied such leniencies only where they help achieve sanity or some other greater good. How can one justify the use of such a leniency to commercially endorse animal cruelties of exactly the type that our sages have tried to prevent for centuries?

A choice confronting Orthodox entities: (a) adhere to technical leniencies divorced from any semblance of their God-fearing, world-healing purpose, alienating Jews from the sense of discipline and tradition for which Orthodoxy normally stands; or (b) advocate for harder but more spiritually fulfilling sacrifices, increase ethical practices among Jews and the larger world, and make a kiddush ha-Shem for Judaism and pious life. Smaller organizations like Rav Shmuly’s are increasingly choosing the latter path. I encourage our larger institutions to consider the impact and positive publicity involved in a similar course of action.

Michael Feldman
Los Angeles

Drop-Out’s Success Story

My own Hebrew school drop-out graduated college Phi Beta Kappa, had a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall during a Birthright trip, spent a year in Israel through Masa as a Menachem Begin Fellow in public policy, just completed graduate school at NYU and has a job as a program associate at a foundation supporting education and worker rights (“What Happens to a Hebrew School Drop-Out,” June 29). Not having a traditional bar mitzvah did not appear to color the rest of his youth or education.

Sherri Morr
Los Angeles

Kashrut supervisors trained in Poland

Following an increasing demand for kosher food in Poland, 17 Polish Jews graduated from a seminar certifying them as kashrut supervisors.

The graduates, most men and women in their 20 s and 30s, participated in a three-day training seminar in Krakow, offered by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization under the auspices of Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich.

Wednesday’s graduation marks the first time since the Holocaust that Jews have been certified as kashrut supervisors in Poland, according to the organization.

The increased demand for more locally produced kosher foods has come as a result of a reemerging Jewish community in Poland, as well as a rise in Jewish tourism to Poland, according to Shavei Israel.

Can we afford kosher lettuce?

On a Monday morning in November, two men sat on the edge of a field in Carpinteria, 85 miles north of Los Angeles. The older one, middle-aged, wiry and bareheaded, had the face of someone who has served in the military, worked in agriculture or, in his case, both. Alongside him was a younger man who wore a black kippah and looked, from his complexion, like he spends his days indoors.

Between them, a young head of romaine lettuce sat on a table. It was cracked open, the small leaves splayed outward to reveal a few flecks of soil.

“Did you see anything moving?” the older man asked.

“No,” the younger one replied. “No, this looks very good.”

Yossi Asyag, 45, is an Israeli-born agricultural entrepreneur and the founder of a small farming operation that grows kosher-certified fresh lettuce and herbs. Yosef Caplan, 27, is assistant director of the kashrut services division at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). Every Monday, Caplan drives from Los Angeles to Carpinteria and then to another site nearby for his job as Asyag’s farm’s mashgiach, or kosher supervisor.

That nothing was moving in the lettuce on the table on this day left both Asyag and Caplan hopeful that no bugs inhabited the other 5,000 heads of lettuce growing in the greenhouse a few dozen yards away.

Harvest time would come two weeks later. Through a combination of careful monitoring and judicious application of pesticides, Asyag said, the lettuce in the greenhouse stayed bug-free. That week’s haul of romaine lettuce from the farm was certified as kosher.

Worse than a cheeseburger

The presence of even one whole bug, dead or alive, can render an entire vegetable treif — unkosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.

“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it, the salad is worse,” Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who runs the nonprofit Kosher Information Bureau, told me when I met him at his home office in Valley Village.

With stakes like that, it’s no wonder some kosher-observant Jews are willing to pay top dollar for kosher-certified produce. At one store in Los Angeles earlier this month, an RCC-certified head of romaine was selling for seven times the per-ounce price of one without the kosher designation. For East Coast consumers, who buy the majority of Asyag’s produce, most of the lettuce is first pre-cut and bagged as processed salads, and then sold at an even higher markup.

Greenhouse-grown, bug-free kosher lettuce is an Israeli innovation. First pioneered in 1990 in the then-occupied Gaza Strip, the growing technique is still often referred to as the “Gush Katif” method, named for the now-dismantled Jewish settlement where it originated.

Over the past five years, California has become home to the largest North American bug-free-growing operation, and it’s about to get bigger. Asyag, who has been selling RCC-certified lettuce under the brand California Kosher Farms since around 2008, is about to embark on a major expansion, aiming to double his farm’s output over the next 12 months to more than 1 million heads of lettuce a year. He’s looking to buy more land in Oxnard and has already started using Israeli-designed hydroponics to grow more lettuce in less space.

But while the equation “lettuce minus bugs plus rabbinic approval equals good returns,” might seem simple, the reality is anything but. This nascent industry is fraught with disputes, not just over what Jewish law requires, but over what price consumers and businesses should have to pay in order to keep their salads kosher.

Through dozens of interviews with growers, rabbis, local kosher caterers and staff from one local kosher supervision agency, a complicated picture emerges of a niche business that illustrates the complexities and the unusual financial challenges of the modern kosher marketplace. One thing is certain: It is the RCC supervisors who hold most of the cards.

The RCC does not have an ownership interest in the operations of the farm that grows the vegetables it certifies; nevertheless, the farm would not exist without RCC certification and support. In aiming for the absolute highest standard of kosher, the RCC — widely considered the most stringent and broadly accepted kosher certifying body in the region — has chosen to certify just one grower, granting him a monopoly and even privileging his interests over those of the caterers the RCC also certifies.

“These ladies were scrubbing the lettuce with soap.”

Unlike, say, the prohibition on eating pork or shellfish, few non-Orthodox Jews today know about the “no bugs” kosher requirement. A section about insects from the fourth edition of Eidlitz’s book “Is it Kosher? An Encyclopedia of Kosher Food, Facts, and Fallacies” suggests that even as recently as 1999, the author’s largely Orthodox readership wasn’t paying as much attention to keeping bugs out of their food as he thought they should.

“Although eating insects is strictly forbidden by the Torah, we find this concern often overlooked,” Eidlitz writes. In the 1950s and ’60s, Eidlitz said in an interview, when the application of dangerous pesticides, including DDT, ensured that very few bugs could be found on American produce, leading rabbinic authorities gave permission to kosher-observant American Orthodox Jews to “overlook” these laws.

Not anymore. In the last 20 years, Orthodox rabbis in general, and those involved in kosher certification in particular, have been working hard to introduce — reintroduce, they say — practices of checking fresh vegetables for bugs in observance of the laws of kashrut.

Blanket bans have been issued on the most bug-friendly and hardest-to-check produce: raspberries, blackberries, whole artichokes and more are entirely forbidden because they’re too complex and fragile in form (the berries) or too tightly closed (artichokes) to inspect. And the Web site of every major kosher certifying agency includes guidebooks, instructional pamphlets, even videos outlining a labor-intensive regimen designed to rid other vegetables of insects.

Such extreme cleaning and checking can seem unusual to an outsider.

“I was in Crown Heights last week doing a demonstration where these ladies were scrubbing the lettuce with soap,” I was told by Geila Hocherman, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef based in New York who co-wrote the cookbook “Kosher Revolution,” published last year.

But the insects they’re looking for are tiny — and seemingly everywhere. Arugula leaves and asparagus tips are potential hiding spots for thrips — 1-millimeter-long insects that can be seen with the naked eye but are easier to spot with a magnifying glass. Pinhead-sized aphids can lurk in and around the florets of broccoli and in bunches of fresh parsley. As for spider mites, which, despite their name, are not related to spiders, the minuscule creatures (less than 1 millimeter in diameter) can seem impossible to eliminate.

“When a spider mite gets into the lettuce, even if you wash it, it doesn’t let go,” Asyag said. “It’s like the leg gets in.”

This new vigilance has changed some observant people’s diets, too: Hocherman, who describes her own Jewish observance as “very Modern Orthodox,” included in “Kosher Revolution” a number of recipes that run afoul of the vegetable-related rules instituted by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment.

The main ingredient in Glazed Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts, for example, “should not be used,” according to the RCC, as the sprouts’ tight leaves could hide bugs. Broccoli florets, an important part of Hocherman’s recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles With Broccoli and Tofu, must be parboiled before they can be checked, according to the Orthodox Union (OU), and if three or more bugs are found, the whole head must be thrown away.

And consider the situation facing green asparagus. “What they’re asking us to do is to cut off the tips and shave the sides,” said Errol Fine, explaining why the vegetable is no longer on the menu at Pat’s, the upscale restaurant in the heart of Pico-Robertson he owns with his wife. Pat’s restaurant and catering business both are certified by Kehilla Kosher, a Los Angeles kosher certification agency run by Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, and Fine said he can’t remember when Pat’s last served asparagus.

“We should’ve had a farewell party,” he said, ruefully.

And it’s not just homemakers in predominantly Chasidic or “black-hat” neighborhoods who are washing their lettuce with soap, shaving and circumcising their asparagus spears and keeping their fruit platters free of raspberries and blackberries.

“I think by now the Orthodox Jewish community has been well educated that there is, or can be, an infestation problem, and that they need to check,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, a large Modern Orthodox synagogue, also in Pico-Robertson. Muskin was president of the RCC for five years in the 1990s, and he said that in those days people worried they might not be thorough enough in checking. Today, however, Muskin said his congregants are more comfortable with the task.

Kashrut and Mindfulness: Savoring Fresh, Local Fare at La Seine

This is a story about a dream afternoon I spent at La Seine, where chef Alex Reznik is cooking seasonal, farm-to-table, California-Asian … kosher food. The restaurant’s owner, Laurent Masliah, named La Seine for the river at the heart of his hometown, but I can’t help but think it’s intentional that the name also sounds somewhat like La Cienega, the boulevard on which the restaurant is located. Its building is long and low, and its wide, clear-glass front looks out onto the busy street. Guests can sit at the sushi bar to the left, at the traditional bar, in the lounge or, on the other side of two exposed brick divider walls, in the more formal dining area. That room’s palette is earthy and clean, crisp white, elegant but not too formal. Masliah — who, with his eager, open face,  greets his guests dressed in khakis and a dark shirt, kippah in place — clearly wants everyone to be comfortable here.

Evenings, the dining room is full of people celebrating — multigenerational family groups, office mates, lovers enjoying tender hanger steaks, lamb and more lamb (bone chop, belly confit) or the day’s fish on black Forbidden Rice. The dining room’s acoustics are terrific; a couple at a table for two can converse even though the large family at the table along the wall all seems to be talking at once. For a person lunching alone, the small patio area out front, screened by a ficus hedge, is perfect on a fall day in Los Angeles. Taking time to eat and time to think about what we are eating is as much a luxury these days as the more discussed “luxury” of good, nutritional food. And the food Reznik is making at La Seine takes time and deserves time.

Lunch begins with a cocktail, suggested by Reznik himself.

“It’s afternoon,” he urges, his eyes bright.

He is out on the floor often, checking in with diners, looking a little like a clever scientist, with his shaved head and short-sleeved white coat. He is full of energy, and he needs to be, as his workdays begin at 11 a.m. and go on well past midnight. On Wednesdays, he and his crew venture out even earlier to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. La Seine is closed on Shabbat, of course, but Reznik seems to struggle a little with the idea of rest. He sleeps in, he takes walks, but he’s happy to be back in the kitchen when the sun goes down on Saturday night.

The cocktail is delicious, as promised — a mix of refreshing plum, quince, Campari, gin and Prosecco to sip as the world hurries by on La Cienega. Plates begin to arrive. The deep, sweet and earthy-tasting heirloom beets with arugula have tiny cumin-spiced French lentils at their center instead of the typical glob of goat cheese. There is no dairy at La Seine, and it isn’t missed. (La Seine’s mashgiach studied cooking in Israel and also acts as a sous-chef.) Reznik, who is a “Top Chef” alum, takes the restrictions as a challenge, along with the issue of cooking “seasonally” in Southern California, where it is hot well into October and the sweet corn, tomatoes and English peas still attract.

Chef Alex Reznik. Photo by Peden + Munk

My salad is followed by a crudo, paper-thin white slices of snapper in fine salsa, with sweet pink grapefruit, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and a beautiful half-dozen pieces of sushi, which Reznik calls a playful take on fish tacos. Tiny slivers of ripe avocado and cilantro are tucked in the rice, topped with a bite of tempura halibut and a dollop of spicy aioli. The crispness of the fish and the richness of the aioli are perfect together. Because I am alone, I can eat slowly, taking notes, taking breaths, tasting each flavor, finishing each dish.

Reznik prefers the idea of sushi as an appetizer, followed by a more substantial meal. (One night at the bar, I saw a man happily polish off a yellowtail, spicy big-eye tuna, avocado and tempura roll, braised short ribs, extra fries and a lamb dish. One can eat heartily at La Seine, and it also offers a full kosher wine list watched over by friendly sommelier Adnan Mourani.) When the chef comes out to check on me again, he suggests I try something more … manly … for my next course.

It turns out to be his excellent version of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, bahn-mi, with heavenly thin, spicy potato chips. The bahn-mi roll is perfectly crusty on the outside, the beef short ribs that take the place of the traditional pork are rich and spicy, perfect with the lime, mint and spicy mayonnaise that softens the inside of the roll. The complexity of these tastes, adapted from the colonial French by Vietnamese cooks and brought to America and interpreted here by a Ukraine-born chef in a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, says just about everything I love about eating in Los Angeles. I finish my perfect, solitary meal with a lemon soufflé tart, the last refreshing sips of my cocktail and coffee.

The laws of kashrut can be understood as a kind of mindfulness practice: to take time to stop, notice the details — if you are lucky enough, as I was at the start of a new year, to be surrounded by such bounty — to pay attention to the gifts of the earth, the garden and the chef himself.

La Seine is now open for lunch as well as dinner, and, after Shabbat on Saturday nights, there is live entertainment in the lounge. 14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 358-0922.

Magen Tzedek seal engaging in a kashrut cover-up

There is something ironic, to put it politely, about an effort championing ethics that speaks from both sides of its mouth.

That would be the new certification seal for kosher food products, created by a Conservative rabbi and actively being promoted by his movement, that aims to “help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.”

Originally called Hekhsher Tzedek, the symbol’s name was later changed to Magen Tzedek. This was presumably done in response to objections raised by Agudath Israel of America and others who pointed out that kashrut, which the word “hekhsher” clearly references, is a well-defined halachic concept that has nothing to do with ethical considerations.

To be sure, Jewish ethical values in food production are no less important halachic concerns, and are indeed embodied in independent halachic mandates. But they are something distinct from kashrut. Implying otherwise, it was objected, subtly but unmistakably conflates two distinct realms and, in the process, attempts to “redefine” an important Jewish concept.

So the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission sought to unbake its cake and recast its initiative as not really a hekhsher (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), replacing the Hekhsher with Magen. It will be, in the commission’s words, “a supplemental mark … affixed only to foods bearing the symbol of a ritually certifying organization. It does not replace a traditional kosher symbol.”

It was strange that the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission itself nevertheless retained its own name, complete with its kashrut reference. But at least the renaming of the seal would skirt the kashrut issue. The certification, it now seemed, was essentially a “social justice/corporate integrity” stamp of approval. No problem. Indeed, a positive contribution, at least for consumers who for whatever reason do not trust the penalty-empowered governmental agencies that already oversee all those things.

Aye, but here’s the rub: At the same time the new seal was being touted as limiting itself to “bring[ing] the Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice directly into the marketplace”—in other words, to entirely non-kashrut-related concerns—Magen Tzedek still described itself as being the “gold standard of kashrut”  and as offering “kashrut for the 21st century.”

Something’s rotten, it would seem, in the state of definitions.

The decidedly non-kosher elephant in the room here is the fact that the Conservative movement does not really embrace halachah. Nor have its religious leaders ever made kashrut a priority or promoted it to their constituents.

Conservatism pledges allegiance to halachah in theory but has, time and again in a variety of contexts, sought to “accommodate” Jewish religious law to the mores and norms of contemporary American society. The “Whatever Tzedek” is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs. Its seal is a trained one, and its neat trick isn’t balancing a ball on its nose but leading people to confuse kashrut with contemporary social issues.

When Agudath Israel issued a statement recently pointing out the unmistakable redefinition of kashrut inherent in the Magen Tzedek endeavor, representatives of Magen Tzedek responded by erecting and shooting at a straw man, implying mendaciously that Agudath Israel discounts the importance of halachic requirements regarding workers, resource wastage and animals; and that we believe Jewish law in the realm of “between man and man” is less important than that “between man and God.” Needless to say, these charges are absurd.

Even as Magen Tzedek’s promoters fired wildly, though, they seemed to realize the blatant nature of their “now it’s a hekhsher, now it’s not” approach, replacing the words “Kashrut for the 21st Century,” which had appeared prominently at the top of its homepage after the words “Magen Tzedek,” with “An Ethical Certification for Kosher Food.”

The latest change of wording, however, was cosmetic, an attempt to keep the effort’s goal—still defined as to “improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns”—less “in the face” of visitors to its website. The “ethical seal,” it seems, is engaging in a cover-up.

But the obfuscation will fool only those predisposed to Magen Tzedek’s goals. Any Jew who recognizes the Divine nature of Torah and the sacrosanctity of halachah knows that the effort’s refusal to address head-on the central issue—the redefinition of kashrut—really says it all.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.)

Magen Tzedek encouraging, not replacing, kashrut

We appreciate Rabbi Shafran’s embrace of the importance of the work of Magen Tzedek when he states in his JTA Op-Ed, “to be sure Jewish ethical values in food production are no less important (than) halachic concerns, and are indeed embodied in independent halachic mandates. But they are distinct from kashrut.”

With that statement, Rabbi Shafran has conceded the very point that Magen Tzedek seeks to demonstrate for the Jewish community—Jewish ethical values are no less important than halachic concerns.

We also would like to reiterate a concession we already made. Our initial language regarding hekhsher and kashrut was confusing, and it was to distinguish between this certification and kashrut that we changed the name of the symbol, and subsequently the project, to Magen Tzedek. The outdated language on our website has been corrected.

Magen Tzedek is not a kashrut certification and has never sought to be a kashrut certification. Rather it is an ethical certification program that is only available for food products already bearing a recognized hekhsher.

Far from replacing kashrut, Magen Tzedek will encourage those concerned with Jewish ethical principles to purchase kosher products. Kosher consumers will be assured that kosher-certified foods are prepared in a manner consistent with Jewish ethical values. A clear indication of success for Magen Tzedek would be an increase in the number of Jews keeping kosher.

The Magen Tzedek Commission has labored quietly and diligently for 5 years. We are now in the final beta-testing stages in creating the world’s first and only comprehensive Jewish ethical certification for kosher food. Our seal will uphold the biblical and rabbinic mandates regarding fair treatment of workers, humane treatment of animals and care of the earth.

It is a testament to the wisdom of Torah, halachah and all Jewish tradition that these fundamental Jewish ethical precepts can be translated into measurable standards applicable to commercial food production. These standards were developed in collaboration with SAAS, an organization acknowledged worldwide for its expertise in ethical certification programs.

Judaism is a religion built upon ethical precepts. This conviction is shared by Jews who keep kosher as well as those who do not. What we in our rabbinate clearly see is that there are Jews who can be inspired through its ethical precepts to discover the wisdom of the halachic tradition.

Our invitation to Rabbi Shafran and others remains open: Join with us in strengthening the Jewish people through the promotion of the ethical production of kosher food and of kashrut observance itself. Let us work together to see that the maximum number of Jews in this and the coming generations embrace the totality of their “yerusha,” their inheritance. Together we can inspire even more Jews to embrace this tradition we all cherish.

(Rabbi Michael Siegel and Gerald Kobell are the Magen Tzedek co-chairs.)

L.A. Orthodox rabbis want business ethics to be kosher, too

Seeking to accentuate Jewish traditions that place a premium on ethical integrity, Los Angeles Orthodox rabbis are encouraging local businesses to sign up for a new seal of certification that ensures employers are treating workers fairly and humanely.

The move comes in response to allegations over the past year that the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, routinely violated the rights of its employees, many of them undocumented workers and many of them underage.

“We have always considered ourselves to be a light onto the nations — we’re the ones who are supposed to be a paradigm and example and role model for the rest of the world of what it means to be an ethical, moral, Godly person,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, leader of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park. “If the world or if the media is looking askance, for whatever reason, at the Orthodox community, then it behooves us to address the issues.”

Korobkin rallied his colleagues, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, to address the national crisis in kosher confidence by turning an eye toward businesses that serve the Jewish community on a local level.

They will offer, at no cost, a rabbinic seal of approval to any business or institution that volunteers to undergo scrutiny to verify that employees are being treated according to local, state and federal labor laws. The certificate will not be tied to kashrut in any way.

“We felt we had to do a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name], and the kiddush Hashem was to be really concerned about the employees and how they are being treated,” Muskin said. “It has nothing to do with kashrut — this goes way beyond kosher eateries and butcher shops and bakeries. We want to know our schools and shuls and businesses are treating employees correctly.”

The three rabbis, and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob, introduced the concept to their congregants in sermons during the High Holy Days. They have volunteered their own synagogues to be analyzed first and then within the next few months, hope to expand to other shuls, schools and businesses, starting mainly with the Pico-Robertson corridor and reaching out as the project grows.

A similar initiative in Israel, Bema’aglei Tzedek, was founded in 2004.

Last year, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism created Hekhsher Tzedek, a certification for kosher food processors that encompasses fair treatment of workers, corporate integrity and environmental responsibility.

The Los Angeles group is calling itself Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative, based on language from the verse in Leviticus 19 that prohibits an employer from withholding wages overnight from a worker.

“Whereas we are appropriately extraordinarily careful about the laws of kashrut, clearly we have an attitude that is less rigorous and perhaps even somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to this whole other vitally important area of Jewish law,” Kanefsky said. “A religious community has to be very concerned about kashrut, about education, about mikvah [ritual bath], and it has to be very concerned that the people we interact with on a regular basis are being treated in way that is halachically proper.”

Peulat Sachir will involve itself in six areas: minimum wage, overtime, rest and meal breaks, workers compensation, leave policies and anti-discrimination protections. A lay board of labor lawyers, businesspeople and others with expertise in the field will analyze business practices by looking at paperwork and talking with employees.

The board will not deal with the complex area of immigration status. Labor laws apply equally to documented and undocumented workers, explained Craig Ackermann, a labor lawyer and lay leader on the project.

Businesses will not have to pay for certificates, but the rabbis acknowledge that businesses may have to spend more to qualify for the certificate, if, for instance, they have to start paying for overtime, giving paid leave or making sure workers get appropriate breaks.

Whether businesses which are not now in compliance will risk having to pass those costs on to customers is an open question.

“As people committed to halacha (Jewish law), we pay what has to be paid so we can fulfill the halacha — we do it for kashrut, we do it to teach our children Torah. Should we not do it for the halacha of following the law of the land or of how we treat our employees?” Kanefsky asked.

The halachic concept of “dina demalchuta dina,” the law of the land is the halacha, makes legal adherence and Jewish law one and the same, he pointed out.

Ackermann guesses that the first businesses to respond positively will be those that are already in compliance with labor laws.

The rabbis are hoping that once consumers begin to ask for the certificate or more heavily patronize businesses that are certified, business owners will see the benefits, both moral and monetary, to being able to display a Peulat Sachir certificate in the window.

“We’re hoping this is something store owners won’t be able to dismiss easily,” Kanefsky said. “And frankly, the idealist in me believes that store owners will want to be a part of this mitzvah of raising awareness about this in our community.”

Over the next few weeks, the rabbis will continue to constitute the lay board and will reach out to businesses and different segments of the community. They are contacting leaders of the Iranian community, because a large percentage of the businesses on Pico Boulevard are Iranian owned. They are also reaching out to the right wing of the Orthodox community, which on a national level has been wary of similar projects.

That debate came into focus last month, when the right-wing Agudath Israel of America reacted tepidly to an announcement from the centrist Orthodox Rabbincal Council of America (RCA) that it is creating a guide to labor ethics to be distributed not only to kosher producers but to all businesses.

The RCA, which serves as the halachic adviser for the Orthodox Union (OU) kashrut certification agency, said it will write into kosher supervision contracts the need for companies to comply with all local and federal laws regarding labor and environmental issues. While the OU has long had a rule on the books that its certified companies must be in compliance with the law, this gives more teeth to the provision and raises awareness among kosher purveyors.

The RCA’s new guidelines will also delineate talmudic and biblical business ethics beyond American law, which it hopes businesses will voluntarily adopt.

Korobkin expects that the ethics initiative in Los Angeles will spread to other communities.

“I am hopeful that this will raise a greater level of awareness within various elements of the Orthodox community that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Korobkin said. “I think many times we in the Orthodox community want to know how to react to crisis, and sometimes the way we react is by having a tehillim [psalm reciting] rally, or we speak about the need to daven [pray] harder, or to do teshuvah [repentance]. We feel this is form of teshuvah, as well — this is a form of raising awareness in certain areas where there is room for improvement. We can act as a shining example to society at large and to other communities.”

For more information on the Ethical Labor Initiative, call (310) 276-9269.

Iowa files 9000 charges against Agriprocessors, OU threatens to remove Kosher cert

NEW YORK (JTA)—Following the filing of criminal charges against owners of the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Union says it will withdraw its kosher certification of the company within two weeks unless new management is hired.

“Within the coming days, or lets say a week or two, we will suspend our supervision unless there’s new management in place,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.‘s head of kosher supervision.

Genack’s comments came just hours after Iowa’s attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its owner, Aaron Rubashkin, for child-labor violations.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office charged Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa’s Child Labor law, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Former workers had alleged child labor violations at Agriprocessors almost immediately after a massive immigration raid at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The company has denied having knowingly hired underage workers.

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” said the affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”

The alleged violations, which date back to September 2007, are each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of between $65 and $625, the attorney general’s office said. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Agriprocessors has been under the gun since a raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 employees on illegal immigration charges. Following the raid, employees alleged they were shorted on pay, forced to work long hours and were the targets of sustained sexual harassment.

In May, the company announced that the Postville plant’s manager, Sholom Rubashkin, would be replaced. Months later, Rubashkin is still a regular presence at the plant and no replacement has been named.

The attorney general’s complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the company’s owner and senior management.

PETA says Agriprocessors misled rabbis about slaughter procedures [VIDEO]

Conservatives release guidelines for ethical kashrut certification

NEW YORK (JTA)—The Conservative movement released a

Agriprocessors raid fallout continues: Jewish liberals plan rally in Postville

NEW YORK (JTA)—An interfaith coalition is planning to demonstrate next week in Postville, Iowa, in support of justice for workers and comprehensive immigration reform.

Spearheaded by Jewish Community Action, a Minnesota social justice group, the rally comes in response to allegations of worker mistreatment at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States.

The rally, scheduled for July 27, will follow by one day a visit to Postville by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The group, led by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), will meet with the families of plant workers, as well as community organizers and local religious leaders.

“An immigration system that is predicated on fear tactics and piecemeal, deportation-only policies profoundly worsens our immigration crisis by creating broken homes and tearing the fabric of our society,” Gutierrez said. “It is my sincere hope that in bringing the stories of the parents, children and workers of Postville back to Congress, our lawmakers will see the very real consequences of punitive actions in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Both the congressional visit and the rally promise to keep the spotlight on Agriprocessors, whose Postville facility was the target of a massive immigration raid May 12.

In the wake of the raid, the plant’s workers claimed they were underpaid and made to suffer an atmosphere of rampant sexual harassment, among other allegations. Company officials have denied the charges.

Among the groups supporting the rally are the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Labor Committee and Workmen’s Circle. Funds for transportation were provided by Mazon, a Jewish hunger relief group.

“There are two targets here,” Jane Ramsey, the executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, told JTA. “One is a message to the government for comprehensive immigration reform on the one hand, and secondly to Agriprocessors for the permanent implementation of livable wages, health-care benefits and worker safety.”

The plant’s purchase in 1987 by the Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin injected a much-needed dose of economic vitality into Postville, which was a struggling farm community. With a workforce of approximately 1,000, Agriprocessors was said to be the largest employer in northern Iowa.

The arrest of nearly half its employees in the raid has significantly cut the plant’s production.

Agriprocessors is hardly alone. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, 4,940 workplace arrests were made in the 2007 fiscal year, up from 510 in 2002. As of May, the agency has made 3,750 arrests this year.

Critics say such arrests are devastating to workers and their families and can have crippling effects on communities. Jewish Community Action raised $10,000 for Postville familes, according to its executive director, Vic Rosenthal. Jewish Council on Urban Affairs has delivered another $5,000.

“We think that this was a very poorly conceived action by ICE that hurt people and didn’t bring any further safety to you and me,” Ramsey said. “Who did this help? They swept into a little town of 2,500 that has now been devastated, that has a just-opened playground and now there are no children for that playground.”

Steven Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Study and a leading critic of the mainstream Jewish position on immigration, says such stories are sad on a human level but are not a basis for making policy.

“I can’t get bleary-eyed about these people,” Steinlight said. “They’re here in violation of federal immigration law. You don’t know if these people are from Mexico or from al-Qaida. They have engaged in identity theft. They have engaged in felonies. These are not minor issues. I don’t consider the violation of America’s sovereignty to be a minor issue.”

While Steinlight defends the raid as a legitimate exercise in law enforcement, he shares the sense of outrage over allegations of worker mistreatment even as he opposes the call for a path to legalization for Postville workers.

“The reason they’re hired is because they are exploitable,” Steinlight said. “And if they were legalized, they wouldn’t be any better off.”

Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company is commited to abiding by all state and federal laws.

“Mr. Steinlight has apparently joined the chorus of those who accept the allegations and several newspaper accounts as fact,” Abrahams said. “Agriprocessors will have no further comment on those allegations, as they are part of an ongoing investigation. It merely urges all fair-minded people to reserve judgment until this investigation process has run its course.”

The demonstration is scheduled to begin with an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s, the Catholic church that has taken the lead in providing relief to immigrant families. It will be followed by a march through town to the plant and then back to the church for a rally. Organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend.

“We think that Jews as consumers of kosher food need to understand the importance of who is producing the food and how they get treated, how they get paid,” Rosenthal said. “We really want to energize the Jewish community to think much more clearly about the role they play as consumers.”

Meat packing raid stirs larger ethical and economic concerns

While some Los Angeles kosher supervisors and suppliers see the crackdown on illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, as a temporary setback, others are concerned with larger economic and ethical implications that reach beyond this particular case.

“They don’t have a lot of things,” said Albert Zadeh, owner of kosher supermarket Pico Glatt, of Agriprocessors. “If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases.” Chicken is a particular problem, he said.

Most customers — 80 percent, he said — are not aware of the problem, so their shopping habits have remained the same. Zadeh said he’s not planning to raise prices on meat and poultry.

“Prices are high enough,” he said.

Zadeh said that Kehilla, the kosher supervisory agency that oversees his market and receives meat from the Agriprocessors Postville plant, is addressing the issue of obtaining supply.

Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, believes the effects of the raid will be short term.

“As far as I understand, this is a temporary situation,” he said, noting that Agriprocessors is trying to address the labor issue. And while there are other kosher meat suppliers, “I don’t think anyone can ramp up production to cover the shortfall.”

But it’s not a crisis, he emphasized — especially at this time of year; “It’s the Omer [the period between Passover and Shavuot when many religious Jews do not eat meat], and generally after Pesach, there is a reduction in spending.”

Teichman stressed that this situation has nothing to do with kashrut (dietary law).

“This is an immigration, legal and labor issue — if they could not maintain the kashrut standard, they would not produce,” he said.

But what about the ethical issues pertaining to the use of illegal immigrants as a labor force at a kosher facility? Are kashrut supervisors concerned with issues of Jewish observance beyond the technicalities of the slaughtering process?

Teichman believes the company was not aware of the illegal immigrants who were using fraudulent paperwork.

“We support all legal activities,” he said of Kehilla.

Rabbi Yakov Vann agrees. “We do deal with ethical issues,” said Vann, director of kashrut services at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the other main kosher supervisory agency here. Although he would not comment on the Agriprocessors case or on immigration violation, he said the RCC is very concerned with “work practice issues and the way you treat your employees.”

Coincidentally, the RCC is about to begin importing meat from a new plant in Wichita, Kan., under the label California Delight.

“We have been working on this for a year and a half,” he said. The important thing for meat, he said, is “never to rely on one source.”

That’s what Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz does: use more than one source. “It’s not affecting me at all,” he said.

The ethical issues of “Mitzvot ben Adam L’Chaveiro” — commandments between human beings (as opposed to those between God and man) — has prompted some local Orthodox rabbis to consider taking action.

On Sunday, May 18, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City met to discuss creating a hechsher (kosher certification) for ethical issues.

Although the discussions are “way too premature” to know specifics, Muskin said that in general, “we want to make sure that kashrut is not only a ritual issue but a human issue — that the human interrelationship between proprietor and worker is also according to halacha, or Jewish law.”

In fact, he said, the issues of whether workers are being treated well, whether they are getting paid minimum wage, whether they are being paid on time — and for overtime — and if the work conditions are sufficient, these are all issues covered in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish law.

The rabbis don’t yet know how this new oversight would take place but know that “we have to be sensitive to these issues,” Muskin said. “If we haven’t been in the past, we must now be extra sensitive. This is part of halacha, and it can’t be ignored.”

Blood Brothers: How a gift of lifesaving bone marrow united two strangers

Although they live more than 12,000 miles apart, Yosef Eliezrie and Moshe Price have a lot in common. Eliezrie, 21, is a Los Angeles yeshiva student preparing to become rabbi, like his father. Price, 24, studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva. His father is also a rabbi. The two are not related, and until this year, they had never met. Yet the same blood runs through their veins.

In October 2006, Eliezrie received a bone marrow transplant provided by Price. It was his only hope for survival after a recurrence of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This month, Eliezrie got the chance to meet Price in person, thank him for his lifesaving gift and embark on a unique new friendship.

At the time of the transplant, however, neither man knew how much they had in common. Bone marrow registry protocols prevent donors and recipients from learning anything about one another beyond age and gender. After a year, the donor or recipient can request contact information, but the other must agree before any information is released.

After the prescribed period, both Eliezrie and Price independently contacted their registries to initiate contact. The two were united first by phone, then met face-to-face in a private gathering April 7.

“It was amazing,” Eliezrie said. “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

The following day, the pair visited the physicians and medical staff at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), where Eliezrie’s transplant had been performed.

“As staff, we get caught up in day-to-day demands,” said Dr. Steven Neudorf, one of Eliezrie’s principal physicians. “Seeing Yosef and his donor together puts things in perspective and reminds us of why we do this work.”

Dr. Leonard Sender, Eliezrie’s doctor and the medical director for both UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Cancer Institute at CHOC, showed Price where his bone marrow cells had been delivered and the small oncology intensive-care unit where Eliezrie spent almost a year.

“He’s someone who did something selfless in a selfish age,” Sender said.

After the hospital event, Price, Eliezrie, physicians, family and friends participated in a seudat hodaa, a meal of thanksgiving, hosted by Eliezrie’s parents, Stella and Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie. The senior Eliezrie is director of the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda.

“Judaism considers doctors to be agents of God,” Rabbi Eliezrie had said earlier at CHOC. “This hospital was an agent of God. May the bone marrow transplant team see tremendous success and have the fortitude to continue this lifesaving work.”

Yosef Eliezrie’s odyssey began in the summer of 2005. At the time a Yeshiva student in Morristown, N.J., he was anticipating a trip to Lithuania to assist with Chabad’s outreach to the Jewish community of Vilnius. Eliezrie had felt “fluish” for about a month prior to his departure and visited a doctor in New York just before leaving. The doctor said Eliezrie had bronchitis. So despite his fever, Eliezrie went ahead with his trip.

But he grew sicker and weaker with each day and soon went to a clinic, where doctors suspected — but couldn’t confirm — that he had leukemia. Eliezrie flew home and went straight from the airport to the UC Irvine Medical Center to see Sender, the pediatric hematologist/oncologist who had successfully treated his brother for cancer seven years earlier.

Within an hour, Sender had diagnosed Eliezrie with AML. Less then two days later, Eliezrie’s condition severely deteriorated, and he was put on a ventilator to control his breathing.

“He was extremely ill,” Sender said. “We weren’t sure if he would make it.”

Doctors eventually stabilized Eliezrie, and in the following months, he endured five rounds of chemotherapy and countless infections, but by Passover, Eliezrie was considered to be in remission.

During Eliezrie’s chemotherapy, Sender wanted to identify a potential bone marrow donor in the event that the cancer recurred. Family members have a 30 percent chance of being compatible donors, but neither Eliezrie’s parents nor any of his five siblings were a match.

Sender contacted the National Marrow Donor Program, but none of the program’s 7 million potential donors were compatible, either. However, through the program’s partnership with registries around the world, two possible donors were identified by Ezer Mizion, the national bone marrow registry of Israel: Moshe Price and his sister.

The largest Jewish bone marrow registry in the world, Ezer Mizion lists more than 338,000 potential donors. The organization’s registry has grown dramatically in recent years as a result of nationwide donor drives and voluntary testing routinely offered to new Israel Defense Forces recruits. However, only about 60 percent of those who contact the registry find a potential match, according to Ofra Konikoff, chief bone marrow transplant coordinator for Ezer Mizion, who traveled to the United States to facilitate Eliezrie and Price’s meeting.

Sender’s fear came to pass in August, when he discovered that Eliezrie’s cancer had recurred. Bone marrow transplantation was Eliezrie’s only option.

Ezer Mizion contacted Price, who underwent additional tests that confirmed his compatibility as a donor. Eliezrie then began 10 days of conditioning chemotherapy and radiation, a brutal regimen designed to destroy his bone marrow and prepare the body to receive foreign cells.

On Oct. 18, physicians extracted bone marrow from Price’s hip bone during a two-and-a half-hour surgery. The procedure can sometimes be done through the process of aphaeresis, where the donor’s blood is removed through a needle in one arm, passed through a machine that removes certain cells and is returned through the other arm. The donor first undergoes five daily injections of a drug that increases the production of blood-forming cells.

A courier took the package of Price’s cells directly to the airport and flew to California to deliver it to CHOC.

Eliezrie received the transplant on Oct. 19; he then he spent 55 days in isolation, where only a few family members could visit.

Certifying kosher food in China keeping rabbis busy

As the sun rises on a crisp March morning, a van from the Hebei Dongfang Green Tree Food Co. arrives at Rabbi Nosson Rodin’s home in Beijing.

During the four-hour journey to the company’s factory in Shenzhou, Rodin calls for a break to recite his morning prayers. He wraps his tefillin at a rest stop as curious truck drivers look on, then gets back into the vehicle.

For the Amidah prayer, the van pulls off the dusty road and Rodin consults the small green compass on his watchband. He needs to pray facing west, toward Jerusalem.

It’s all part of a routine day in China for Rodin, 24, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who does Jewish outreach in Beijing and also travels the countryside performing kosher inspections for U.S. companies.

With the kosher certification of more than 300 food factories in China, each producing multiple products, America’s largest kosher-certification company, the Orthodox Union (OU), has more than doubled the number of certifications it does in China just in the past two years.

The kosher food business in China has experienced tremendous growth. Half of China’s $2.5 billion in exports of food ingredients to the United States are kosher, up 150 percent from two years ago, according to Bloomberg News.

Green Tree first looked into kosher certification in 2005, about the same time the company began exporting its products.

“We met a Jewish customer who wore a small hat on his head,” recalled Lucy Zhang, Rodin’s interpreter from Green Tree. “He asked us if our food was kosher. He explained if it was kosher, then Jewish people could eat it.”

“The only way to explain kosher to a company here is to explain it’s for export,” said Rabbi David Markowitz of Shatz Kosher Services, a kosher certification label.

Kosher certification costs $3,000 to $5,000 a year on average, Markowitz said. In exchange for access to the $11.5 billion kosher food market in the United States, many Chinese companies are willing to pay the price.

Markowitz opened Shatz Kosher Services in China five years ago and recently added a location in Vietnam. The rabbi lives in Israel but spends about two weeks each month working in China.

Aside from its office near Hong Kong, Shatz also has one in China’s Shandong Province, where many fruits and vegetables are grown and processed. Canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are the most common kosher products from China, but many chemical additives and finished products like candy also are certified in the country.

Providing kosher supervision means paying strict attention to a product’s components. Instead of conducting scientific health tests, kosher inspectors check a company’s compliance with rules about its ingredients and preparation. Most factories have a few scheduled inspections each year. When sweeping changes are required to make a product kosher, kashrut services usually decline to certify.

During his visit to the Green Tree plant, Rodin is as interested in what lies behind closed doors as he is with what’s on the apple chip production line.

He insists on opening the doors, even inspecting a flattened cardboard box with an unfamiliar label that lies discarded in the corner. As possible evidence of unaccounted-for ingredients that could be non-kosher, the discarded box is suspect.

“Since they don’t really understand what I am looking for, they don’t know what to hide,” Rodin said.

Although kosher certification has been around for years in China, the landscape of food quality control in the country is undergoing drastic change.

Last September, following intense negative publicity in the United States and elsewhere about the discovery of tainted food products, Chinese regulators began requiring companies to use numbered codes on packaging to identify the plants of origin for products. This way, all ingredients could be traced to their sources.

The OU began using a similar oversight system in China as far back as 2001, a representative in China said. Most Chinese who work with kosher supervisors still know little about kosher laws, but no longer are ignorant about the practices of their Jewish colleagues.

Rabbi Amos Benjamin of the Baltimore-based Star-K kosher certification company has been certifying products in China as kosher since 1987.

“Ten years ago when you visited a factory here, they had generally no idea what kosher certification was,” he said. “Now, 10 years down the track, they understand more.”

Though the food companies under inspection provide English-speaking interpreters, some of the rabbis here have picked up basic Mandarin. Benjamin, who speaks several languages, said Chinese is the most difficult to learn. Perhaps it’s because his conversations in Chinese are so unusual.

“I don’t know the last time you sat around the coffee table discussing techniques of fermentation, but I can do that in Chinese,” he said.

Not everything runs smoothly in the kosher business in China. Markowitz recalled that five years ago, one of his most popular certified products, canned mushrooms, ran into trouble when insects were found in the mushrooms.

After the insect trouble, “that whole industry shut down,” he said. “One of the main things of kashrut is to keep no insects in the food.”

Yossi Gehardy, an Israeli living in China, is the general manager of the Solbar Ningbo Food Co., which produces soy proteins and regularly is inspected by the OU. Solbar is one of several kosher food companies in Ningbo.

“Kashrut should not be an obstacle to come to China to set up a plant,” Gehardy said.

For the rabbis that travel throughout China providing kosher supervision, the oft-asked question is what they themselves eat. Benjamin said it’s hard to explain kashrut to Chinese hosts who insist on treating the visiting rabbi to a banquet lunch: “Many afternoons I sat there with just water and an apple at a business lunch,” he said.

More often, rabbis travel with canned foods and stock up on kosher products at import markets in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. There is even a kosher restaurant in Beijing (

For his visit to Green Tree, Rodin packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. He came home with a box of apple chips for his family, and his wife, Miriam, made a spaghetti dinner with tomato paste from a factory Rodin himself had certified in Xinjiang Province.

The next morning, Rodin took an early flight to Guangzhou to do it all again.

Watching ritual slaughter generates strong emotions

I was torn between my professional responsibility to attend the most experiential learning moment of the this year’s Hazon conference and my personal squeamishness.

Certainly, it was noble that Hazon, a nonprofit dedicated to Jewish environmentalism and food sustainability, wanted to connect participants at their recent conference in Falls Village, Conn., to the food they eat and in doing so, to halachically slaughter organically, pasture-raised goats to feed the participants. But would I be able to watch the killing of not one but three goats?

Then I learned that, like me, the ritual slaughterer and the kashrut supervisor who had been brought in to kill the goats generally do not eat meat, except on Shabbat, when many say it is a mitzvah to do so. Although I am no longer officially a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat very much outside of Shabbat. I can’t even eat chicken on the bone, because it seems too close to a real animal to me.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Chemhoun, a prominent shochet (ritual slaughterer) of 27 years, and Rabbi Seth Mandel, the senior mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) at the Orthodox Union, made a revelation at a panel discussion the evening before the Dec. 7 ritual slaughter, or schechting. I was surprised to learn that these bearded, black-hatted, serious rabbis order the veggie option.

The organizers of the Hazon conference, Planting Seeds for the New Jewish Food Movement, made the session mandatory for anyone planning to attend the ritual slaughter the next morning.

Simon Feil, conference co-chair and creator of Kosher Conscience, an organization that provided Jews with kosher organic turkeys last Thanksgiving, said, “For those of us who eat meat, this is an opportunity to get more in touch with that. And if that’s uncomfortable for you, maybe that’s a good thing.”

Mandel said that Jews have eaten meat throughout history and are commanded to eat the pascal lamb on Passover. We can’t get away from that reality. This is where moderation comes in.

The participants challenged Mandel on the slaughterhouse system. He responded, “Maimonides said we should eat meat, at most, two times per week. Judaism is a religion of moderation. If people did that, we wouldn’t have to have slaughterhouses and could go back to pastures.”

While it was a huge step to engage the Orthodox Union in this discussion and shocking to hear its head mashgiach call the system of mass slaughter inhumane, many participants did not understand why the OU didn’t simply use its power to change the system.

Mandel explained the laws of what makes meat kosher and how studies have shown the animals do not feel pain. He said the current system may not satisfy the participants, but one cannot claim it isn’t kosher.

I decided I would attend the schechting in the morning. It was the least I could do as a sometimes carnivore.

I wasn’t prepared for how upset it made me feel simply watching the goat lifted into position on the wooden bench. A green tarp lay to the side. I turned away and only saw it after it was dead.

I looked back and saw them carry the green tarp to the tent off to the side. I heard banging and only later realized it was the goat hitting its hooves on the table after being slaughtered, as the rabbi had warned us in advance. But by the second shechting, I felt surprisingly at peace with the process.

Then I accidentally saw the first goat’s head peeking out from the side of the tent. Judging from the movement and angle, it must have been hanging. It looked like it was sleeping, but just with a few drops of blood on its face. Again, although I felt upset, I still thought the animal looked like it was sleeping peacefully and was not mistreated.

I didn’t eat the goats’ meat on Friday night or the chicken. The meat was placed on a platter in the center of the room, separate from the general buffet table. It was announced that there was a limited amount, so participants should ration what they take and note all the efforts that went into the few trays of meat.

At last year’s Hazon conference, Nigel Savage, the group’s founder, asked meat eaters if they would eat meat if they had to raise and kill the animal themselves. He also asked vegetarians if they would eat meat if they raised and killed the animal themselves. There were takers on both sides.

After Shabbat dinner this year, Savage said to the crowd, “Stand up if you do eat meat and didn’t eat the goat.” Then, “Stand up if you are a vegetarian and ate the goat.” The numbers appeared to be even.

Aaron Philmus, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, contrasted his experience here with an earlier shechting of lambs he had witnessed in Israel at a Lag B’Omer celebration. The earlier experience, he said, felt unholy to him. People were talking and taking pictures, children were watching. One of the lambs watched another being slaughtered.

At the Hazon event, cameras were forbidden, and each goat was protected from seeing the others. Philmus lauded the Hazon environment, compared to the modern slaughterhouse, which he called “the least holy place I can think of.”

He said, “I talked to the shochet about the levels of his holy intentions. It was clear to me he considered what he was doing God’s will, God’s work. It deepened my belief in and respect for the way Jews do this.”

While the conference included more than the schechting, it was clearly the most talked-about moment. The common theme of connecting to where your food comes from, eating and living seasonally and organically, and concern for public and private health was espoused from different angles by a series of high-profile speakers.

The wide spectrum of Jews here agreed that it is a very Jewish thing to want to know where our meat comes from and how the animal lived and died.

Moral Diet

The holidays are over, and I’m full.

I spent a week with family in Manhattan, eating.

And when I wasn’t eating, I was reading a landmark book — about food.

And when I wasn’t eating or reading about food, it was food that provided, literally, food for thought.

I was raised in a Reform household in Encino during the 1960s and ’70s. My family’s idea of fasting on Yom Kippur was waiting until the sermon ended before we went to Du-Par’s for pancakes and bacon.

Those were the days before Reform Jews started davening in Hebrew and wearing tallit and kippot in synagogue — you know, the days when Reform really stood for something.

To me, the laws of kashrut were beyond strict. Even as a child, good food was important to me. My kosher relatives, who willingly cut themselves off from fresh Dungeness crab, steamed clams and Tommyburgers, struck me as fanatical.

Then, in college, I met a man named Chuck Matthei. He had come to campus to speak against a proposed nuclear reactor nearby, and we became friends. Chuck’s brand of vegetarianism made my strict kosher relatives seem Rabelaisian. He didn’t eat milk or eggs. In fact, he eschewed all animal products, including honey. He didn’t believe any animal should live its life in servitude to any other, including human animals. For him, that ruled out bananas and coffee, which he said were the fruits of exploited labor. Also, each Friday, he fasted — to heighten his appreciation for the food he did eat.

I have a terrific memory for good meals I’ve eaten, and none of my dinners with Chuck come to mind. It was the late ’70s, and a lot of tofu and tamari had fallen into the wrong hands. Every home Chuck lived in smelled of popcorn sprinkled with brewers yeast — his favorite junk food.

Chuck died of cancer in 2002, at age 54. But you can wipe the smirk off your face: Chuck never pretended to follow his diet for health reasons. His regimen was purely an outgrowth of his moral code. He felt an affinity for his friends who kept kosher, since he believed at root these diets filled their followers with a sense of awareness of where one’s meal came from, a sense of moderation in consumption, and a sense of gratitude for the Provider.

One needn’t follow the Chuck Diet, or even keep kosher, to understand the logic of approaching our meals with awareness, moderation and gratitude. That was the thrust of the book I read this week, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press, 2006).

Pollan, a Jew who also likes good food, is a first-rate reporter and thinker. His descent into the food industry, with its reliance on animal cruelty, petroleum, chemicals and economic injustice, raises critical questions about the food choices we make. In other chapters, he experiences the contemporary alternatives to this madness, from sustainable farms to large-scale organics.

And while no solution is perfect, his ultimate argument is that not seeking alternatives is not just immoral, but deadly.

Many kosher-observant Jews would argue that kashrut is not about morality, but about obeying a set of divine but incomprehensible laws. That’s a fine line of reasoning for infants and automatons, but most of us who struggle with kashrut do it to elevate our souls — and you simply can’t do that while debasing the world.

Thankfully, the new year brings news of two very positive developments in the world of kashrut that are of a piece with Pollan’s conclusions.

Just before the holidays, leaders in the Conservative movement announced they would work to create a tzedek hechsher, a certification to complement Orthodox kashrut label that would mark food produced in socially just, environmentally sustainable way. “Tzedek” is Hebrew for justice. Animal products would receive a tzedek hechsher if the methods of husbandry and slaughter were found to be as humane as possible.

The label, which must still be approved at the Rabbinical Assembly’s April convention in Cambridge, Mass., would complement but not replace an Orthodox kosher hechsher.

“I believe most Jews who are serious about kashrut as a means for sanctifying the world in which we live are concerned about both the product and the means by which it is produced,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, one of the organizers.

Meanwhile, a cutting-edge Jewish organization in New York, Hazon, just announced it would expand its program linking synagogues with local, sustainable farms to five congregations across North America and one in Israel in 2007. Through Hazon’s Tuv Ha’aretz program, synagogue members buy shares in a local farm and receive a box of organic produce each week.

“In some locations,” JTA reports, “subscribers must work several days a year on the farm, ensuring that they have not only a direct connection with the farmer who grows their food but the place where the food grows.”

None of the congregations Hazon has signed on is in Los Angeles. I hope a large, local flagship synagogue (or two, or three) joins soon.

Moderation, gratitude and awareness. The more we can institutionalize those, the stronger we’ll make our connection to kashrut, and to a better world.To connect with Hazon and its Tuv Ha Aretz program, go to

To buy Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” click here.But Is It Kosher?

But Is It Kosher?

In September 2003, Whole Foods quietly removed one brand of kosher chicken from its shelves and replaced it with a different brand.

The switch received little notice — outside of a Jewish Journal article — but it caught my eye. A representative for Whole Foods claimed the previous chicken brand didn’t meet the chain’s standard; its feed was not organic, and the chickens weren’t raised and slaughtered in the most humane way possible.

Up until then I’d assumed that kosher meant, well, kosher. It surprised me that a company well-known for its concern for animal well-being and food safety would deem anything kosher treif, or unfit. Long before Whole Foods was even a glimmer in the eye of the Prius-tocracy, hadn’t we Jews been telling ourselves and others that we were practicing humane slaughter and thoughtful animal husbandry — embodied in the very laws of kashrut? What did Whole Foods know that I didn’t?

It turns out Whole Foods was on to something seriously wrong with the kosher food industry, and the industry is due for a change.

I grew up eating meat of all kinds. One afternoon during my sophomore year at college, I found myself on an idyllic Maine isle, plunging a live lobster into a pot of boiling water. By dusk I was a vegetarian, and I stayed that way for the next 14 years. I wasn’t squeamish: I’d fished my whole life, and even hunted. As a cook in various restaurants, I’d gutted shoals of fish, whacked through sides of beef and deconstructed flocks of poultry. But at that moment I figured, if I could survive without taking another life, so much the better.

Then I met my wife, Naomi Levy, rabbi and carnivore.

I loved the woman very much, so I had to come to terms with two of her seemingly contradictory traits: She loved meat, and she didn’t cook. I still love her; she still loves meat, and she still doesn’t cook.

The thought of cooking two entrees a night for the rest of our lives didn’t appeal to me. I compromised and began eating fish. Then came the first of many Friday night meals together. I put a piece of grilled salmon on the Sabbath table, and Naomi put on her best game face: What’s Sabbath without roasted chicken? So I started eating chicken. And then came her pregnancies, when she expressed numerous times that a) she would kill for a big juicy grilled steak and b) she was carrying our baby.

So there was the occasional steak.

All along, I rationalized the meat on our table by its kosher pedigree. In my mind, and in the minds of most Jews, the meaning of “kosher” had long swelled beyond its strict Levitical denotation of permitted and forbidden animals and their prescribed method of slaughter. I believed that “kosher” meant a higher concern for cleanliness, for the health and welfare of the animals, for the sanctity of Creation.

And it wasn’t just me. The dictionary definition of “kosher” includes “genuine and legitimate.” If I had to kill to eat, at least the meat was kosher.

But the alarm bell that Whole Food rang was soon followed by a cacophony of criticism and investigation.

In December 2004, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released an undercover video taken at the AgriProcessors Inc. plant, a kosher beef abattoir in Postville, Iowa. The plant supplies kosher beef for the Aaron’s Best/Rubashkin brand. The tape showed practices that were obviously cruel and created a firestorm of criticism and countercharges. The Orthodox Union, which overseas the kashrut of the plant, said the offending practices would be corrected — they have been — and accused PETA of launching an assault on the institution of shechitah (kosher slaughter) itself.

The made-for-media PETA fracas birthed a larger, more thoughtful crossdenominational concern over current kosher slaughter practices. Earlier this year, Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the best-selling novel “Everything Is Illuminated” (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) and last year’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Houghton Mifflin), released a PETA-produced video over the Internet that condemned modern kosher slaughter practices, calling them anathema to the spirit of the kosher laws.

The author’s calm, well-reasoned arguments are buttressed by on-camera interviews with Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, the Orthodox founder of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The video, titled “If This Is Kosher …,” is available for download at It interweaves Foer’s and the rabbis’ comments with footage from the AgriProccessors plant and from kosher egg and meat suppliers in Israel. In one scene, egg industry workers fill a plastic-lined, 55-gallon garbage can with live male chicks, superfluous to the process. In another shot, the bags are sealed and dumped.

“To be Jewish,” Foer says in the video, “is to strive to make the world less cruel and more just — not only for oneself and not only for one’s people but for everyone. One doesn’t have to consider animals as equal to humans — I don’t — to give them a place in this inspiring idea.”

Wolpe and Greenberg — both vegetarians — signed on to a letter, along with dozens of rabbis, calling on the Orthodox Union to do more to promote humane treatment of animals in the kosher facilities it oversees.

In the midst of these criticisms came the results of another investigation by The Forward newspaper last month charging the Rubashkin factory with unfair labor practices, unsafe working conditions and labor intimidation. “AgriProcessors’ final product — sold under the nationally popular Aaron’s Best brand — is priced significantly higher than standard meat,” reporter Nathaniel Popper wrote. “Its kosher seal gives it a seeming moral imprimatur in an industry known for harsh working conditions. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative knowledge of AgriProcessors and other plants — including local religious leaders, professors, and union organizers — say that AgriProcessors stands out for its poor treatment of workers.”

The manager of the plant, Sholom Rubashkin, denied the charges, but the plant has been subject to half the violations in all Iowa meatpacking plants so far this year, according to The Forward’s analysis of OSHA statistics.

“The bottom line here is that I’m not sure these devout Jews are using Jewish ethics to treat their workers,” one critic said.

I don’t know if Rubashkin is the exception or the rule in an industry that is increasingly concentrated in a few large hands, and whose imprimatur of kashrut comes from a handful of rabbinic authorities.

But I do know my definition of kosher is now much more narrow. In marketing terms, the brand has been tarnished. Kosher is not necessarily clean, or humane, or just. Long synonymous in our hearts and minds with good and pure, kosher is in danger of meaning just one small group’s interpretation of what’s legal.

What happened?

The purveyors of kosher goods became prey to the same market forces that have undermined the integrity of the entire American food chain. The food industry has fed America’s insatiable appetite by disregarding health concerns and riding roughshod over animal welfare and environmental welfare.

The demand for meat has led to the industrialization of farming, to feedlots holding up to 100,000 cattle, to the rapid and often sloppy dispatch of thousands of animals per day.

Kosher slaughterers piggyback — so to speak — on this industry by sending rabbis into nonkosher slaughterhouses to kill selected animals. Rubashkin itself noted that it slaughtered 18,000 cows in a seven-week period, which it said inevitably leads to error.

Kosher food, which we had always taken to stand apart from and above from the larger culture, has acquiesced to some of the industry’s worst practices.

Strictly speaking, the laws of kashrut do not address issues of responsible, ethical food production and healthful eating.

“The nature of kashrut is thus at once mysterious and obvious,” scholar Meir Soloveichik wrote in a penetrating essay in the journal Azure’s winter issue. “While God does not explain the importance of cud-chewing or leaping, of split hooves or scales, the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God.”

The exact meaning of these laws may remain obscure, but they are clearly meant to set us apart and elevate our souls.

For someone who loves both to pet animals and to eat them, the laws of kashrut speak to the tension between our higher and lower impulses, between the hunter Esau and the shepherd Jacob; between the carnivore wife and the conflicted husband.

Perhaps no religion better understands this eternal and inherent contradiction than Judaism. The laws of kashrut help us shuttle between our hungry selves and our compassionate ones, between the sanctity of all God’s creatures and their deliciousness.

If the kosher food industry is interested in retaining the deeper meaning of the label it bestows, its manufacturers and rabbis must figure out how to restore the spirit of kashrut to kashrut. The Jewish teaching of tza’ar ba’alei chayim — forbidding cruelty to animals because they are part of God’s creation — is the obvious place to start.

Kosher certifiers should cooperate with organizations like Animal Compassion Foundation, founded with a grant from Whole Foods, which are in the vanguard of conscientious animal husbandry and slaughter. The kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.


Wild Ride With Wildlife in Miami


Stretching along the popular beachfront area of Miami, approximately 650,000 Jewish residents support more than 100 synagogues, several Jewish community centers and abundant kosher restaurants, including authentic Thai food. The South Florida city even employs a full-time kashrut supervision department.

So on a recent trip to Miami, I indulged in Thai food and a few other favorites. Along with spotting baby alligators in the wild, viewing ancient art and other treasures, that meal was one of many memorable highlights.

We couldn’t skip the Everglades, one of the most well-known sites in Florida. Since we were on limited time over a long weekend, a friend and I opted for an airboat ride in the Everglades Alligator Farm.

With 10 other passengers, our craft launched from a canal filled with adult and adolescent alligators swimming just feet away. Their amphibious compadres, soft-shelled turtles, resemble snakes swimming with their heads above water.

As we took off, the boat’s engine roared so loudly that our driver instructed us to stuff our ears with complimentary cotton balls. We floated along as he pointed out the wildlife, alligator tracks and a breeding den. He spoke so loud, we could hear him even with the cotton.

When we neared an expansive glade he warned us to hold on. Suddenly, as if levitating on a flying carpet, we were airborne. The sensation was remarkable; the moment magical. We were weightless, skimming along gentle curves, skirting above the water and the abundant grasses. As far as the eye could see, there were only the Everglades: a clear blue sky, water and grasses spreading in every direction.

Then suddenly, the driver changed course, taking us in a 180-degree turn. He immediately accelerated again, then spun us in full circle. After a handful of more wild spins that created giant splashes and left us laughing for more, we headed back to an open stretch that led to the mainland.

There we took in a snake show, where we handled a magnificent albino python with striking yellow and white skin that was cool to the touch. We also toured the breeding ponds on a nature trail. Covered with a bright green moss, the alligators lay still, many of them just visible with their scales skimming the surface and their beady eyes staring above the water.

On our return trip, we dropped anchor at Robert Is Here, which specializes in exotic fruits. With delicacies such as monstera deliciosa, which looks like a giant green ear of corn but tastes like banana-pineapple pudding, you could easily say the blessing for tasting new fruits again and again. Mamey, atemoya, longan, canestel, anon, sapodilla, sapote and many other natural treats all qualify at this “Shehecheyanu store.”

Our next unique destination was Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a majestic bay-front villa established between 1914 and 1916 by American farm equipment manufacturer James Deering as his winter home. Designed in the style of Italian Renaissance villas, the estate originally spanned 180 acres and resembled a typical northern Italian village with a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, greenhouse, machine shop, paint and carpentry workshop and staff residences.

The fully restored mansion was made to look as if a family had lived in it for 400 years, adding its own period furnishings, neoclassical, rococo and much more. As a result, Vizcaya contains one of the finest collections of European decorative arts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Vizcaya was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1952 and now functions as an art house museum.

We capped off our Florida adventure at Thai Treat & Sushi, located just a few minutes drive from The Shul at Bal Harbour, where we spent Shabbat. Opened two years ago by a Thai and Indian couple, June and Naresh Choudhury, the kosher restaurant’s extensive menu features truly authentic Thai specialties.

We were sold on two superb dishes. Rich and flavorful Tom Kha Kai soup featured chicken in coconut milk, fresh mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice. The exceptional Thai Basil Special featured chicken (or tofu or beef) sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, chili paste and fresh herbs.

We were so taken by the captivating Thai flavors, we gave the sushi only a taste. The yummy vegetable combo, like all the sushi platters and bento boxes, was beautifully presented (and available with brown rice instead of white). We washed it all down with refreshing Thai iced tea.

The chef also recommended chicken and beef satay, montod — fries made from sweet potato and coconut — and spring rolls. We were far too stuffed for more. At least we know what we’ll try when we return — as if we really needed a reason.

Thai Treat & Sushi. Sans Souci Plaza, 2176 N.E. 123rd St., North Miami. (305) 892-1118.

The Everglades Alligator Farm. 40351 S.W. 192 Ave., Homestead. (305) 247-2628;

Robert Is Here. 19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead. (305) 246-1592;

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami. (305) 250-9133;