Pork taken off menus at federal prisons

Pork is officially off the menu at U.S. federal prisons.

With the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, the 206,000 inmates housed in 122 federal penitentiaries are no longer being served pork products.

Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, told The Washington Post on Friday that “pork has been the lowest-rated food by inmates for several years.” It also became increasingly expensive for the government to purchase pork products for the prisons, according to Ross, though specific numbers were not provided.

The National Pork Producers Council is working on a strategy to overturn the ruling. Pork products, including rinds and precooked bacon, are still available to inmates via the prison commissary provided they can pay.

Observant Muslims and Jews refrain from eating pork.

Vegetarian, kosher and halal options are supposed to be made available to inmates, though a number of lawsuits have cropped up in recent years over dietary accommodations in prison.

In May, a federal judge ordered that Florida prisoners who request kosher meals must receive them. The lawsuit was filed by the Justice Department against the Florida Department of Corrections on behalf of 13 inmates. Florida had canceled its kosher meal service in 2007, citing cost as the reason.  Some 250 inmates, including many Muslims, had been receiving the kosher meals.

Ross did not say whether there had been an uptick in Muslim and Jewish prisoners that could have influenced the decision.

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 Creusot-Infos.com: “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.”

Pork-eating Israeli soldier spared detention after secular outcry

An Israeli soldier was spared 11 days in detention for eating pork, a non-kosher food, the military said on Tuesday, after a public outcry.

Secular standards sometimes clash with conservative Jewish law in Israel.

Local media said the soldier, an American immigrant, was not aware that his ham sandwich, obtained off-base, was in breach of religious dietary restrictions enforced on military premises.

“Bottom line – we made a mistake,” armed forces spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz said on Facebook of the sentence.

“There are tensions in Israeli society, and there are varied positions and opinions. In the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) there is room for everyone,” he said.

Kit to check food for pork traces hits France

Worried that the food you thought was kosher, or at least kosher style, has some hidden pork?

Now, using a few test tubes, water and a small pregnancy test-like strip, you can find out in a few minutes whether your food contains pork traces.

HalalTest, a new product developed by two French entrepreneurs, does just this and already has sold 10,000 kits in France, according to Ynet. The kit is being marketed to France’s Muslim community but reportedly will be available online soon.

As Ynet notes, however, such a test seems to offer minimal practical value for most kosher-observant Jews, since pork is just one of many taboo ingredients and a range of other factors — like slaughter method, separation of meat and dairy, and so on — also affects a food’s kosher status.

Given that — and the hassle and expense factor (each test costs more than $8, according to Ynet) —  it’s hard to see do-it-yourself tests ever replacing kosher supervision and certification.

But who knows, perhaps one day those wishing to demonstrate the strictest level of observance may want to precede their kosher-certified meals with not just a blessing but with a HalalTest. Just to make sure.

EasyJet apologizes for pork sandwiches

EasyJet apologized to Jewish passengers who were offered ham melts and bacon baguettes.

The budget airline has featured kosher and vegetarian sandwiches since its London-Tel Aviv route was introduced late last year, a spokeswoman told media outlets Tuesday. It is also the airline’s policy not to have any pork products on board the planes on that route.

The kosher menu includes egg, mayonnaise and tomato sandwiches; smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels; mozzarella and tomato panini; and a muffin or chocolate orange mini cake.

The wrong food canisters were loaded on the plane for the 4.5-hour flight, according to the airline spokeswoman.

“We would like to apologize to the passengers and can confirm we have done everything we can to ensure that this does not happen again,” the spokeswoman said.

References to pork, Jesus lead to retrial

References to the trial of Jesus and a pork comment made by a defense lawyer for Cisco Systems during a federal trial have led a judge to grant a new trial.

Jurors in Marshall, Texas, last May awarded Commil USA more than $3.7 million in patent infringement damages, though the company asked for $57 million.

Commil charged in a motion for a new trial that the remarks and illusions to the trial of Jesus Christ prejudiced the jury in the case, The American Lawyer reported.

Judge Charles Everingham IV, who presided over the original trial, on Dec. 29 granted the motion for a new trial.

During the questioning of Commil’s owner Jonathan David, who is Jewish and lives in Israel, Cisco counsel Otis Carroll remarked “I bet not pork” after David said that he had dinner with patent inventors at a barbecue restaurant.

The judge rebuked Carroll in front of the jury and Carroll apologized to David, the jury and Commil’s lawyers for the remark.

During his closing remarks, Carroll invoked the trial of Jesus Christ, asking jurors to “remember the most important trial in history, which we all read about as kids, in the Bible.”

Commil’s request for a new trial cited the Jesus reference in the closing argument and the pork comment.

The judge also cited both in granting the new trial.

“This argument, when read in context with Cisco’s counsel’s comment regarding Mr. David and [patent co-inventor] Mr. Arazi’s religious heritage, impliedly aligns Cisco’s counsel’s religious preference with that of the jurors and employs an ‘us v. them’ mentality—i.e., ‘we are Christian and they are Jewish,’ ” Everingham said in his ruling.

Cisco’s motion opposing a new trial said that Carroll’s remarks were “off the cuff” and that Commil was using them to create “the illusion of some kind of anti-Jewish conspiracy by Cisco.”

‘The Longing’ documents crypto-Jews caught between two worlds

When Gabriela Böhm set out to create her documentary, “The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America,” several years ago, she hoped to profile an as-yet-undiscovered secret community of Crypto Jews — descendants of Jews forced to flee the Spanish Inquisition who continued practicing rituals covertly.

Perhaps the best known of such enclaves was found in Belmonte, Portugal in the last century: “But as I traveled, I realized that such secret communities do not exist anymore,” said Böhm, whose film will screen Nov. 13 at as part of the Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 9 through Nov. 16. “What remains are remnants of a Jewish past, or traditions, among families who may or may not know their origins.”

Eventually Böhm connected with Jacques Cukierkorn, a Reform rabbi in Kansas City, Mo., whose mission has been to guide so-called Crypto Jews living in isolated communities. In 2004, he invited Böhm to accompany him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he was to supervise the conversion of five such individuals. The conversos included a microbiologist who learned, at 15, that her great-grandfather was Sephardic, and who traced his lineage back to Portugal in the 1850s; and a mother and daughter who traveled 36 hours from Columbia to meet the rabbi. In Columbia, Böhm learned, all babies were required to be baptized until two decades ago.

Upon traveling to Ecuador, she said, she was disturbed to discover that her interviewees were still spurned by their Catholic neighbors — and by their Jewish communities as well. Even a Guayaquil resident who had been converted through Chabad of Massachusetts was banned from attending his area synagogue. “He so badly wanted to join the community, but they wanted nothing to do with him,” said Böhm, who was herself kicked out of the same shul when she tried to interview the leader of the community. “His level of desire and disappointment, along with the others’, became the drama and focus of my film. And this time, the Jewish community was doing the rejecting, like the Catholics before them.”

“This type of story has also played out in Lima, Santa Fe and other places, where people, many with Indian or mestizo [mixed] blood, have sought to rejoin what they consider their historical faith — only to find their motives questioned and their acceptance in the established Jewish community minimal at best,” Nextbook noted of the film.

Böhm said that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she strongly identified with her subjects’ feelings of communal rejection. Her Hungarian father survived Nazi and Russian labor camps, only to suffer from bipolar disorder after relocating to Buenos Aires, where he was unable to learn Spanish and committed suicide in 1981. “As a Jew growing up in Argentina, I absorbed my parents’ trauma, and felt I too was embroiled in a struggle to find where I belonged,” Böhm, 44, said. “But the sense of dual identity I felt is even more dramatic in the people who live in these isolated little communities in South America.”

“The Longing” does not reveal any kind of happy ending for the profiled Crypto Jews. “Rabbi Cukierkorn is a complicated figure,” she said. “He sees himself as a kind of savior figure, and of course the people he converted do feel more connected to their Jewish roots. But they are still in limbo. The question remains: Is it right for him to convert them if there is no community in which they can congregate? It’s a question I still debate; my hope is that they will be able to create their own community.”

“The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America” will screen on Nov. 13.

Balancing Acts of Faith and Pork

The question: How Jewish vs. how democratic should the Jewish State of Israel actually be?

That was really the question before Israel’s Supreme Court.

More than a legal question, it led to serious and heated debate. The answer would be a defining factor in the very nature of the state itself. It came to the fore as the court was asked to decide if three cities, Jerusalem included, could ban the selling of pork.

The ruling: That cities cannot outright forbid the sale of pork and should respect communities that are predominantly religious but may sell pork in other areas of the city.

Israel is unlike the United States when it comes to the separation of religion and state. In the United States, the separations are fiercely guarded. So much so that there are raging, obsession-driven debates even over the issues of the role of God in the Pledge of Allegiance — one of the holiest of holies for America’s citizens — and the inclusion of the word “God” on currency.

Things are simpler in Israel. There is a fluid boundary between religion and state. In Israel, the balance is not between religion and state, it is between religion and democracy.

The creation of a Jewish — democratic — state, with each element given equal weight (i.e., Israel) is best viewed as a laboratory experiment. The effort to blend the Jewish and the democratic into a state is a constant balancing act, a tug-of-war, a struggle between the more Jewishly inclined and the more democratically inclined elements of the society.

The Supreme Court ruling is certainly not the end of a long story, it is merely another chapter.

For those Israelis who are in favor of banning the sale of pork products, the argument is more about symbols than it is about religion. Historically, that was true and it is still true today.

The Romans, for example, threw pork into the Temple in order to desecrate it. During pogroms, Jews were held down as pork was forced into their mouths.

Playing the music of Wagner in Israel, as world renowned and acclaimed as it is, is another such example and subject of debate. The notes on the page do not resonate with music but with memories of Nazi Germany, Nazi culture, Nazi racism, the Nazi reign of terror.

As Western as Israel is and Israelis try to be, Israel is still Jewish. Saturday, not Sunday, is the Sabbath — the official, not just religious day of rest. Holidays are set by the religious, lunar calendar, not the solar or secular calendar. English is spoken and almost everything is translated into English (even more than in Arabic), but Hebrew is the official language.

All of these were choices — reasoned, thought out, deliberate choices made by the founding, primarily European-born, fathers of the state. The choices were made for a reason — to recreate a Jewish existence in the biblical, ancestral homeland of Israel.

The founding fathers of Israel were staunchly secular, and yet they understood and encouraged the role of religion for a Jewish state. They provided for deeply Jewish, religious and cultural trappings within the society. They realized that it was the Jewishness of the state that would frame its character and inform its democratic attitudes.

The founding fathers of the United States, in contrast, were staunchly religious. Yet, they were skeptical of the role of institutional religion, because they understood the role that religious culture would play in the formation of their state.

By examining the blend of religion and state in the democratic and cultural experiment called Israel, we can better understand worldwide developing democracies of today. Even more, the only chance for reforming and democratizing Arab states will be through a blend of religion and democracy, just as seen in Israel.

Remember, in Arabic, there is no language for even simple pleasantries that does not invoke the name of God, of Allah. A simple “how are you?” or “good morning” is always answered with “praise God” or “thank God.” Even the most secular of all Arabs respond that way, they have no alternative.

The West has high hopes for reforming Iraq and other countries of the Middle East. In order for those hopes to be realized, it is essential that Westerners realize that whatever is created, it will be a blend of each country’s religion alongside democracy.

Israel’s Supreme Court understood. Western lawmakers and leaders must understand, as well. Not to understand is to doom any and all reform to failure.

Micah D. Halpern is a political and social commentator and author of “What You Need to Know About: Terror.”

My Year with Pork

About a year and a half ago I found myself in need of employment. I scoured the papers in search of openings in my field, which is quality control of food products. One opening caught my eye — “QC Manager of a medium-size food processing plant, within commuting distance.” Just what I was looking for. The product? Deep-fried pork rinds.

I had never eaten a pork rind, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. Like many Jews of my generation, I grew up around old-world, kosher-keeping grandparents, at whose table you’d be as likely to find pork rinds as fresh vegetables or a garden salad. Even though habits changed over the generations, pork rinds never made it into our culinary canon. Still, a job was a job, and I needed one. I faxed over my resume and got the call to come in for an interview.

While waiting in the lobby I perused the sales literature. The company, I learned, was a family business — a Jewish family, in fact. The first person I met was the owner’s father, a 70-something accountant whose main function seemed to be entertaining the staff with Catskill-vintage wisecracks. He was the office tummler, the Henny Youngman of the pork rind business. This could turn out to be an interesting gig after all.

The interview went well, and a week later I got the call offering me the job. Could I start right away? It didn’t take long to make the decision. I knew there would be a downside though. Certainly my mother-in-law wouldn’t be kvelling to her friends in the sisterhood about “My son-in-law, the pork rind tester.” Still, better this than “That unemployed bum my daughter married.” In a way, I was following a family tradition of iconoclasm. My Litvak great-great-grandfather, according to family legend, earned money to bring over his wife and children by peddling pictures of Jesus door-to-door in New York. Hey, you’ve gotta give the people what they want, right? I decided to go for it.

Before long I was immersed in the minutiae of the industry. Pork rinds, I learned, are made from rendered bits of pig skin and fat. Deep-fried in 400-degree lard, they puff like popcorn as the water in the meat turns to steam. Sales of the product had gone through the roof in recent years, due in part to the popularity of Dr. Atkins’s diet (no carbohydrates, plenty of protein and fat), which heartily endorsed rind consumption. Latino immigration also played a part, as did exports to countries such as China and the Philippines, where pork rinds are a delicacy. Spicing up the product with salsa, oil and vinegar, and barbecue flavoring was also goosing sales. The rind business was better than ever, and our factory worked around the clock to meet the demand.

As quality control manager, one of my responsibilities was dealing with the rabbis from the Orthodox Union who inspected our plant. Yes, the pork rind factory was kosher certified. Not the rinds themselves, of course, but other products such as popcorn and cheese puffs that we made in pork-free areas of the factory. In addition to our regular inspections, we occasionally had visits by rabbis from the Union office in New York. Visiting rabbis were always fascinated by the pork rind operation, and I often gave plant tours, featuring my canned spiel (“The puffing of the rinds when immersed in hot oil is truly a marvel of nature”). During one tour, a smart-aleck line worker asked a rabbi what it would take to get kosher certification for the rinds. Unfazed, the rabbi shot back, “Well, for that, you’ll need a higher authority than the Orthodox Union.”

After a year on the job, it began to wear on me. The hours were long, the commute tough, and my wife was getting tired of the fried-pig smell that permeated my clothes and hair. I began fishing around, found another job, and said farewell to the pork rind business. I can’t say that I really miss the place, but I do have a greater appreciation of the effort and dedication it takes to make a good rind. Still, I have to admit that I don’t find the greasy, salty morsels particularly appetizing. Call it a cultural thing, but I prefer a good schmaltz-laden fried kishka to a pork rind any day.