Eco-Kosher and the Evolution of Tradition

Kosher, meat

It’s no old family secret that the Jewish community has an incredibly rich and multifaceted relationship with food. For many Jews, following the Torah’s dietary laws is a rule of life that is not only tied to spiritual beliefs, but cultural traditions as well. In light of ethical controversies spurred by the modern food production system, a new tradition called “eco-kosher” is arising in the Jewish faith—and while it remains focused on rituals, it adds a new twist—a focus on sustainability.

Historically, kosher meat has had a reputation for being ethically produced and of high quality. However, that foundation has been challenged by the environmental and social irresponsibility fostered by commercial agriculture. In 2008 a scandal brought national attention to such ethical lapses: an undercover video produced by PETA spurred allegations that the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors, abused workers, animals and the environment. Since the scandal rocked the kosher community, many Jewish leaders and community organizers have taken steps to ensure ethical production and to protect the reputation of kosher food. For example, a group of Conservative rabbis designed an additional food certification known as Magen Tzedek, or shield of righteousness, that sets standards for protecting workers and the environment. The eco-kosher movement espoused by many conscientious Jews, however, has no specific certification program but alters the traditional kosher guidelines particularly where it pertains to meat. For example, the book of Leviticus says that in order for meat to be kosher it must come from animals that chew their cud and have split hooves. For those following eco-kosher guidelines, this law of the Torah only accounts for a portion of what they practice— it is also important that the meat be organic and locally raised.

The eco-kosher movement has been gaining steam in part thanks to conferences held across the country focused on using ethics to unite the issues of kosher and sustainability. In some cases these meetings are held by Jewish organizations (such as The Hazon Food Conference), and occasionally they are held by food vendors themselves in an effort to better understand the needs of their consumers. The response to these community gatherings has been overwhelming. A year and a half ago, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, the owners of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, California, decided to commit their traditional Jewish style deli to going sustainable. Well aware that their consumer base had become extremely attached to the food at Saul’s, Adelman and Levitt decided to host a referendum and invited a panel of sustainability experts, consultants, farmers and their customers to discuss whether a deli can successfully transition to sustainable practices. Interest in the event was so great that it was moved from its originally scheduled location at the deli to the JCC around the corner to accommodate a sold out audience of 250 attendees paying $10 each (With all of the proceeds going to benefit the Center for Ecoliteracy). The panel included all-star sustainable advocate Michael Pollan (who is also a Berkeley resident and pastrami eating patron of Saul’s), the owners themselves, eco-consultant Gil Friend, Farmer Willow Ronsenthal of West Oakland’s City Slicker Farm and moderator, restaurateur and KCRW Good Food radio host Evan Kleiman.

At the end of the discussion, Adelman addressed concerns that consumers will reject the idea of changes to so-called “traditional” Jewish deli food. The definition of a traditional deli is constantly being challenged and is sometimes diluted, and often, food production methods that contrast with the ethical aspects of kosher philosophy become the norm in Jewish delis. Many so-called traditional delis still use highly processed products from mainstream manufacturers, featuring hormone- and antibiotic-injected beef and other additives. The truth is that “authentic” Jewish cuisine is of the Diaspora—wherever Jews went, they altered their gastronomy based on the surrounding culture. For the success of the eco-kosher movement, is it essential that people understand that culture is never static, and thus, there would not be current day “traditional” kosher food without change. Adelman said that her ultimate vision of Jewish deli cuisine is one that reaches back to pre-war traditions while also reaching forward to more sustainable approaches.

Thanks in part to the aforementioned scandal and a community banding together in response to it, kosher Jews across the nation are beginning to work towards an ethically motivated hybrid of the terms “sustainable” and “kosher.” Sustainable Shabbats and Sedersare on the rise, and online communities and blogs (like The Jew and the Carrot) are gaining popularity as they work to spread the word about how to green the Jewish lifestyle. As delis follow Saul’s into the future of traditional, sustainable Jewish fare, and as the eco-kosher movement gains momentum, the Jewish community is helping to motivate not just Jews but all Americans to take back control of their food.