This post was developed in collaboration with Jay Stanton. Thank you Jay!
Happy Passover! Some of you may choose to eat rice for Passover – and if you, like me, are Ashkenazi, it may be your very first time. One requirement for many people on Passover is that all kitniyot – roughly, wheat-like foods – must be checked to ensure that they don’t contain chametz – one of the forbidden grains. Rice, with its small grains, is particularly hard to check.
My friend Jay Stanton was kind enough to teach me an efficient and fun way to check rice for chametz. Sharing is caring, so I will show you here. Many, many thanks to Jay Stanton for his assistance.
What you will need: a baking tray, parchment paper, an unopened package of rice, a place to store checked rice.
First, make sure that your space is well lit, and that you have a flat surface, and a comfortable place to sit. Your rice should be unopened for kashrut reasons. Make sure your hands are dry.
Choose a baking tray that has a lip. This will be helpful for making sure you do not lose rice.
Lay a layer of parchment paper over the baking tray.
Now, pour a handful of rice onto the parchment paper. Shake the tray so that the rice is in a layer that is one grain thick.
Scan the rice pile and start picking out anything that does not look like a grain of rice. In the United States, you are unlikely to find chametz, but you will find other things. For example, we found: some rice husks, some rice grains that had been damaged and discolored, and some tiny stones. If it does not look like rice, take it out and discard it. (Or feed it to a bird.) You
You may need to shake the tray a few times to spot everything.
Once you have taken everything you can see, use your finger to scan the edges to find any other impurities.
Once you are done with that, use the parchment paper and pour your rice into a sealable container or bag. Congrats! That is your first Passover rice.
Repeat the process until all rice is checked. This process also works for other small kitniyot.
A few notes:
Some people have the custom of checking a batch three separate times. You can decide whether or not to do this yourself.
If you keep a strictly kosher or kosher for Passover kitchen, you need to do this process before Passover.
Be mindful that where you live and the type of rice you buy will affect what ends up in your rice.
A lot is said about Jews who eat treyf. Most of this stuff is said by Jews who keep kosher, who claim that our bacon-eating brethren are somehow unengaged, or not Jewish enough, or somehow wrong. Yet there is not enough from Jews who eat treyf themselves. So as I read the stories of Jews, perfectly engaged and perfectly Jewish, who eat treyf, I wanted to find patterns. Some patterns were pretty easy to find. Location mattered. Treyf had its own traditions. Ham was controversial. And some were harder. I was excited to hear from so many people who had stopped keeping kosher, but was also overwhelmed. Each story was different enough that a pattern, of un-koshering, was not clear. I spent a few days, doodling in the margins of my work notebooks, trying to figure it out. The answer, which was there all along, was only noticed by me when I stopped.
The obvious truth is that there is no one reason people stop keeping kosher.
Grasping stories about kashrut ricochet through the Jewish community like schoolhouse rumors. They tend to rely on tired narratives of rebellion, assimilation, distance, and a lack of commitment. Like the rumors, these tales read at once too much and too little. Some Jews are rebellious, for sure. But is that any different from the ba’alei teshuvawho vex their parents by refusing, in their newfound Orthodoxy, to eat from their treyf kitchens? Perhaps some Jews want “assimilation.” But here’s the catch – there is no one that does not assimilate. Some people argue that Israel is a giant project in assimilation. A Jewish state, for sure, but one built along European lines, in a European framework. I am writing in English after study in a solitary fashion, not at a yeshiva or in a chavruta. Hence, assimilation can only be a small-scale explanation. Some Jews probably want to distance themselves from the community. Others find commitments in it too tiring. This idea seems too facile, especially given how many meals happen in the small confines of the home. In all these, where are the people?
Jews are individuals. Treyf eaters have their own reasons for eating treyf. Sometimes these are the reasons I outlined above. Folks leave a community that does not work for them, or want to be more like their neighbors, or cannot keep up. There should be no shame in those types of choices: coercion is not a mitzvah. Sometimes, though, the choices are deeply personal. Maybe a treyf food is something that lets one be closer to a partner, Jewish or not. A job may require one to eat treyf. If you do keep kosher, imagine yourself in this situation. If you are a restaurant short-order cook, you may not have choice in what you taste. If you are an archaeologist working on Classic Maya sites in Campeche, you are both way cooler than me, and hard-pressed not to eat pork. A few people told me about eating treyf to not offend a relative they adore, or a relative they would rather not cross. And then the most boring answer is sometimes the truth: now and again, someone just wants to eat a shrimp. I have come quite close to throwing my version of kashrut out the window for the orgasmic delights of linguini with clams.
Sure, there are common trends. These touch on many different experiences. Many Jews stop keeping kosher when they realize they cannot afford it. Like it or not, keeping kosher is way easier when you have wealth. A friend of mine did a calculation that, to keep a kitchen kosher enough according to some Orthodox authorities, one must spend $12,000 a year. For many people, that sum is impossible. Many people start eating treyf when their beliefs about halacha or what Jewishness is changes. My own form of kashrut became far more liberal when I realized that, frankly, the specifics of halacha are not important to my Judaism. Many converts resume eating treyf to make interactions with their family easier. That does not make them less Jewish, it makes them a Jew with a deeply Jewish experience. Born Jews have this experience too. There are those who begin eating treyf when they move to a new place, far from other Jews. These experiences seem common, but are always deeply personal, and different between people. Everyone eats treyf for their own reasons.
Really, the one big commonality is how much thought people have given to their Jewishness. This is no disconnected, unengaged group of unrepentant bacon eaters. Jews who eat treyf confront their contradiction with tradition every time they eat treyf, with every bite. As a result, what Jewishness means in practice to treyf eaters is something that requires a lot of work. How does one insert themselves into the tradition? What are the parts that make Jewishness Jewish for them? And how do they engage with the community, if they choose to do so? I received many answers, from treyf eaters who attend Orthodox synagogues to those with no communal involvement at all.
But not one has simply not thought about their Jewishness. Hand-wringing pessimists who spin tales of assimilation tragedy assume otherwise. These people claim that those who assimilate in any way do not give real thought to their Jewishness. I see this pattern with religious zealots jumpy as a Golden Retriever for the faith of the fathers. Secular Yiddishists mirror them, while speaking a stilted Yiddish few actually speak, and hacken a Tschainikfor all us “uneducated” yokels. Hipsters go with them, and seem to think adding elitist buzzwords reinvents a millennia-old practice. In every case, they are full of shit.
If a Jewish person does not do the “traditional” thing, it does not follow that they have not thought about their Judaism or are uneducated. In fact, the person doing the untraditional thing has often thought about their Judaism a great deal more than the person hawking tradition. In any case, no one is immune from assimilation, as I noted earlier. Your unassimilated Jew does not exist.
Besides, we cannot talk about Jewish cuisine without assimilation, or without treyf. Communities have always adapted the local cuisine to Jewish needs, and incorporated what was there. Other than kashrut, Jewish cuisine was not always that different – and sometimes, the kashrut was not there either. So many Jewish dishes, like cholent, p’tcha, and albondigas, derive from treyf ancestors. It is highly unlikely that those dishes were not developed partly by Jews who ate treyf. Jews encountered the food of the rest of the locale all the time. They saw these foods in their trading, in their farming, in their homes, when they went to the market, when they went to the court, and even, when they went to the brothel. Many communities said that treyf was unwelcome, yet willfully ignored that many members did, in fact, eat treyf from time to time. For itinerant traders, those far from other communities, or the very poor, it was probably unavoidable. We do not know it now, because our communities would rather us hear about the kitschy, suspect stories of the peddlers who brought their own pans and the maids who would rather die than eat pork with their employers. Those stories, like other lies, do not do much good for anyone.
There are all sorts of reasons people eat treyf. Maybe we should listen. We can learn a lot about the Jewish community, about foods, and about the people around us who we love. We can build a more inclusive Jewish community, one that is truly welcoming to all Jews and anyone who wants to join us. Kashrut can finally be a choice, and celebrated, and not something that is forced, mandatory, or insincere. And most of all – we can ask ourselves, “why do we do this?” The answer might not be what we expect, or what we want to hear. Maybe, under the religiosity we perform, we do not want to keep kosher. Maybe, under the secularism we preach, we do. Most likely, we are more in-between than we want to be. Which is okay: Judaism is often about the in-between. We eschew defined dogmas and boxes, and it makes us beautiful. If we can express and listen to each other’s in-betweens, we can make the in-between better, and a place for building.
You, dear readers, seriously provided for my first post on Jewish Treyf. Not only did you provide insight and stories from the heart, but you also shared with me your funniest stories about the intersection of treyf and Judaism. I “ugly laughed” my way through all your input. And, as we would say, sharing is caring. So, from Passover-friendly shrimp to pareve butter, here are a few of your tales.
All these stories are anonymous. The writing was touched up for grammar and spelling.
“One time, I checked to make sure that some cocktail sauce did not contain any chametz [‘leavened’ goods forbidden on Passover]. Once I made sure that it did not, I then proceeded to put it on the shrimp that I was eating.”
“So, apparently, my grandmother’s specialty was Veal Parmesan with matzoh meal on Passover.”
God Created the Pig Too
“In my nuclear family, I am the one who keeps kosher the most, actually. My parents and sister think I am a bit of a stick in the mud for refusing to eat pork, or meat if there is cream sauce or cheese involved. My dad always says, “God created the pig too!” To which I reply, “God created it, but not for us to eat!” We laugh about it, and he orders something with bacon.”
“When I was 5, we had to do a presentation at school about ourselves and our family. In making my poster board, one of the categories we were supposed to have was ‘favorite food.’ So, my mom, who was helping me make it, asked ‘Okay, so what’s your favorite food?’ I hesitated and said…pork. Not bacon. Not ham. Pork. The most brutal way to put it. We had pork regularly at home, and even though I have not eaten it in over a decade now, I still think of that moment. My mom reflects on how weird it was to talk about this, and my proud Jewishness, in the same presentation to a classroom full of non-Jewish kids. But yay! They were introduced to complex forms of Jewish authenticity at an early age.”
“My rabbi does not eat kosher either – he’s Reform. We were out for dinner with him, our shul’s student cantor, and his husband. The student cantor and I were both wearing kippot. Rabbi and I decided to split the ‘bacon-topped poutine.’ The poor waiter was like, looking back and forth from kippot to me and the rabbi, just like ‘um, you want like, all those ingredients? We have substitutes!’ My rabbi just turns to me and goes, ‘quick! Take off your yarmulke! They can’t know!’ We all just lose it while I try to explain to the poor waiter – who was just trying to be helpful! – that it is okay, thanks for his concern, we are not kosher. Please excuse my rabbi, he’s a menace to society…”
Tradition and Not-Tradition
“My mom likes to make pork loins for family gatherings, which are often Jewish ones. Nothing especially interesting or traditional about this, but I always thought it was funny. I was a little offended when my cousin wanted to make corn fritters instead of latkes one Hanukkah, though. I mean, how many times do you get to make latkes?!”
Jonathan’s note: latkes are a year-round food.
“I grew up with two sets of dishes et cetera, but we ate shellfish. We would not cook it except on the beach in the summer, and there was a designated set of a treyf pot and dishes. We also had treyf silverware for Chinese food – we would order non-kosher meat out. The logic behind the shellfish allowance? My dad loves it, and declared the ban a ‘Biblical typo.’”
“I have a hobby of shape note singing. I was road tripping through the south with a Jewish friend. We found ourselves staying with a family in Hoboken, GA who are big names in the shape note world, and very devout Primitive Baptists. They invited us to lunch, and we found out when we arrived that everything, including the veggies, was cooked in ham hocks. The two of us looked at the meal, looked at each other, then without a word served ourselves and ate it. We both decided that though neither of us ate pork, it was more important to make a genuine connection with people who we, two Northeastern Jews, would never had [encountered] outside this singing tradition. I’d do it again…[it’s] about the human connections.”
“[In Maine], the older kids (Grade 7 and up) would have religious school on Sunday nights, and we would have a dinner break. Usually, it was a cheese pizza, but sometimes the shul sprung for Chinese takeout from a treyf place. (Are you going to find a Kosher Chinese restaurant in Maine? LOL.) Anyway, they only ordered things with kosher animals – chicken dishes or vegetarian. But once, the restaurant made a mistake, and sent something with shrimp. The school director FREAKED OUT. It was kind of amazing because virtually none of the kids kept kosher in their home lives, but the synagogue couldn’t be seen furnishing little Jewish kids with treyf. It would be unthinkable!”
It’s Secretly Kosher
“At my parents’ wedding, on a kibbutz in the early 1960’s, two buffet tables were laid out: treyf and kosher. As the guests arrived, my mother welcomed them and showed them to the buffet tables. One friend exclaimed, on being shown the treyf table, ‘But there is schinko there, and that is kosher!’ My mother looked at her, and explained that schinko is ham, which is pork. The friend was horrified! I do not know whether said friend did or did not continue enjoying her ‘kosher’ schinko. But yes – schinko was a very commonly consumed pork meat [product] among Polish Jews.”
Jonathan’s note here: pork was widely consumed on many staunchly secular kibbutzim in Israel until quite recently.
“My Yekkishe [German] grandmother considered raw ham (Schinken) kosher, although she would not touch bacon or pork. Seafood of course is another matter…”
“We do have these lovely friends, with whom we enjoy Shabbat together. They are probably our most religious friends. We made this funny discovery about them many years ago – when I complimented the wife on something she baked for dessert. I asked her for the recipe, and when I received it, I noticed there was a stick of butter in the recipe. So, I went back to her unwittingly, and asked her what she used to substitute the butter when she served a meat dish for Shabbat like, she had that night. I did not expect the answer: that there is no substitution. Butter is always ‘Kosher for Shabbat’ in their house, because it is delicious!”
Thank you, everyone, for sharing your stories of Jewish treyf.
This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.
Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?
I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.
I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.
A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.
Here are a few patterns that emerged.
Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.
Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.
Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.
On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.
For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.
And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.
Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptchaand gefilte fish.
Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.
I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.
The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.
If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakomof the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:
Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.
A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.
Rabbi Jason Miller is the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, the world’s largest non-Orthodox kosher agency. He received his semichah (ordination) from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He and his colleagues supervise the kashrut of food, kitchen products, and ingredients that are produced not only in Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest, but across North America and even now in India. A number of years ago, he authored a popular article about the Orthodox domination of the kosher system and the “keeping up with the [frum] Joneses” culture around kashrut that it encourages. “Ending Kosher Nostra” is one of the best Jewish food articles I have read, and I strongly urge you to read it.
One of Rabbi Miller’s former students, Dr. Samuel Zerin, put me in touch with Rabbi Miller when I was soliciting stories for my pieces on institutional cooking. Rabbi Miller was very gracious with his time and allowed me to interview him by phone one recent evening. The transcript of the interview, slightly redacted for readability, is here.
A note to readers: there is a lot more Hebrew and Yiddish in this than in past pieces. Though normally I translate words into English, I kept the words here in my notes to preserve the integrity of the interview. I have provided or linked to definitions for all terms.
Katz: Tell us a bit about your background, and how Kosher Michigan got started.
Miller: I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2004 from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. While I was in rabbinical school, I served as a mashgiach in the cafeteria. In the course of rabbinical school, you have classes on hilchot kashrut [laws of keeping kosher], but you don’t learn how to be a mashgiach unless you’re a mashgiach in the cafeteria. At the time, Rabbi Joel Roth was in charge of the hashgacha [kosher certification], and he would lead seminars only for the mashgichim. So that’s where I learned to be a mashgiach.
In 2007, I was hired by one of the largest Jewish camps in the country, Tamarack Camps in Michigan. For many decades, it was under the [kosher] supervision of the Detroit Orthodox va’ad [rabbinical council], which was well known. Around that time, the camp made the decision to no longer be under the supervision of the va’ad, and that a Conservative rabbi would be hired year-round to be the mashgiach for the kitchen, which is the largest kosher kitchen in Michigan. So I was hired, and 50% of my job was to oversee the kitchen. I learned how to the handle the hashgacha for a year-round institution – there are camps, events, and programs all year, not just during the summer.
This made news in Michigan, that the va’ad was out and a Conservative rabbi was in. For many people it was the first time that they heard that a Conservative rabbi could be a mashgiach. The va’ad made a public statement that was in support of Tamarack’s decision, and that they felt I would uphold the standards of kashrut and support them. Besides, the va’ad did not want to continue sending Orthodox mashgichim to this liberal progressive camp.
Many local businesses read this news, and contacted me, saying “we are a bakery, or a bagel store, we want to be kosher, but we met with the va’ad and they said no, or it was too expensive. We read that you did this for Tamarack, can you do it for us?” Initially, I said no, because I didn’t want to get into supervision politics. But people in the community pressured me, because they felt it would be great for the community. So in Summer 2008, I agreed to give certification for a bagel store and a bakery. I kept the price low, and I did not want to do a shakedown. At the last minute, someone asked “what is your hechsher [kosher seal]?” So I got on the computer and made one with a K and an M. It felt too self-serving to make the M “Miller,” so I said it was “Michigan.” And that’s how Kosher Michigan was born.
Katz: Here in New York, the Orthodox va’adot [councils] are very particular about who they support regarding kashrut, and invariably it is other Orthodox rabbis. I find it really interesting, in a good way, that they support you.
Miller: Well the va’ad has not been 100% supportive, because in the past decade we’ve now become a major competitor. But at the time they were supportive because they didn’t want to deal with the camp. It was difficult to find Orthodox mashgichim to go to this progressive Jewish camp, with all this gender mixing, girls in swimwear at the beach – and Camp Tamarack is 45 minutes from Metro Detroit, which has the closest synagogues.
Katz: I have friends who grew up in Orthodox Jewish areas of Southfield, so I’m a bit familiar with the gender politics.
Miller: Yes. It was not a comfortable situation for them. So they were not interested in doing more. I would say they knew that a Conservative rabbi would uphold the standards they were used to. That was the promise I made to them and the community, and one I still keep now.
Katz: But that’s still really interesting that it was possible. As you know, in New York, we have a lot of people who have a “frummer (more religious) than thou” attitude to kashrut, where certain hechsherim (kosher seals) are and are not okay, and Conservative kashrut is not “good enough.” I’m personally of the opinion that it’s nonsense – kosher is kosher, despite the politics.
Miller: My own attitude has been similar to yours. I tell people that “I sleep very well at night” when I consider my approach to kashrut. When someone is “frummer than thou,” so frum that they won’t buy a Kosher Michigan-certified bagel, how does it affect me? Why does that person feel the need to say that? The person is most likely not doing that to other rabbis, just as I wouldn’t go to the owners of an Italian restaurant and tell them that I don’t buy Italian food. My response is dignified and respectful: “Thanks for letting me know.”
This, I think, gets to the heart of kishke Judaism. [Emotional Judaism] Why do you have that neurosis that you have to let me know that? I have written about this [in Kosher Nostra]. The same person will go into a non-kosher pizza shop and get a cheese pizza baked in the same oven as the pepperoni pizza, which is a lot more problematic for kashrut. It makes no sense.
Katz: There’s a performance to it.
Miller: People feel the need to say “I need you to know how frum I am.” A funny story from Tamarack: this Reform Jewish woman came up to me and said: “so now you’re in charge. Well congrats, but you should know my daughter is ba’alat teshuva [roughly, “born-again” Orthodox] so she won’t eat at the camp. She’s really frum, and she will only eat glatt pizza.” I responded, “well the cheese on our pizza is smooth!” After all, glatt refers the smoothness of the lungs on a cow – and thus only to the category of red meat.
But I don’t think it’s about people being ignorant, it’s something deeper – a spiritual, psychological meshugaas [nuttiness] that some people have.
Katz: It reminds me of the histrionics you see with adaptations in the liturgy and the crowing about matbe’ah shel tefillah[integrity of the prayer]- for example, people who get upset about adding the imahot/Matriarchs in the Shemoneh Esrei.
Miller: It’s this idea that “if it’s not the Judaism of my grandfathers, it doesn’t feel authentic.”
In ten years, I’ve seen and learned a lot because of my certification agency. And something that I’ve learned to do is to brush off the verbal attacks. The question “can a Conservative rabbi give a hechsher” is on the face of it a silly question. There’s no such thing as a Conservative hechsher, or an Orthodox one. There’s a trustworthy one.
It’s interesting. If someone is giving the certification, well, who is this person? Are they valid? Can they be trusted? Ask yourself these questions, but don’t ask where they went to school! It makes no sense when it comes to ne’emanut [trustworthiness].
Katz: I want to switch gears here to talk about being a mashgiach – what does your typical day look like?
Miller: So the agency has grown to the point now where I’m not actually the main mashgiach anymore – I have hired staff certifying all over the country, paid mashgichim. On a typical day, I’ll stop into several places, and I’ll be on the phone with the mashgichim elsewhere who supervise for my agency. It’s gone from mashgiach to a business of mashgichim.
I also answer a lot of phone calls and emails from business owners who want to become kosher. Sometimes it’s a long-standing business, like a jelly manufacturer seeking to expand outside of Michigan, and the food consultant tells them that becoming kosher will help them market the product better. And then there are the food product startups – the little old lady in Northern Michigan who make fudge and sells it out of her home, and people at church tell her to make it kosher, and she contacts me. And I tell her to go to a production facility – there are wholesale companies, co-packers, doing private label and producing and selling this kind of thing, and the shared facilities are much easier to make kosher.
Katz: I work for a New York City government agency writing information on basic safety and licensing regulations. (This is the non-accessibility part of my job.) A lot of the businesses we work with are food producers, and we’re trying to push them to shared kitchens. It’s very hard to have a home kitchen to the standard New York State requires for food manufacturers. Is it a big thing in Michigan? And how does that affect being a mashgiach?
Miller: Yeah, that’s interesting. In Michigan, back in 2008-2009 when the economy was in really bad shape, Governor Jennifer Granholm made a strong effort to spur more business. She made it much easier for folks to produce food out of home kitchens, but a home kitchen is impossible for me to certify as kosher, because then I would need access to their home. So I got them to go to shared kitchens and in relationships with co-packers. There are so many people here in Michigan though doing that sort of thing.
Katz: I imagine, given that you’re in Michigan, that there’s a lot of Michigan-specific things, like jam, candy, and fish.
Miller: Well in Michigan we have some specific challenges – grape jam has its issues, and strawberry jam of course brings up all sorts of questions with inspections. But we’re the cherry capital so a lot of our specific stuff is cherries. More of our business is outside of Michigan though! We have an office in Chicago, and a partner in London doing certifications in India –
Katz: India? How did that happen?
Miller: So we spread to India over the past three years, with food manufacturers and lots of different products like spice. It’s not sexy but it’s necessary.
It’s interesting. When Kosher Michigan began, we started off very basic with an Indian vegetarian restaurant, a kosher caterer, bakeries, et cetera. Then as the agency grew, we started certifying other things: meat dinners at Michigan State University at the residence halls, paper mills, chemical producers, so we’ve been moving more and more into that less sexy part of kashrut. There’s a whole industry of kosher certification for chemicals, vitamins, wax paper, and parchment paper – India is part of that.
Katz: It’s more of an exploration of food systems.
Miller: It’s the nitty-gritty of kashrut! No one at JTS taught me that or how to certify, say, a tractor-trailer. When we talk about kelim [food vessels], we don’t usually think of a tractor-trailer, but rather pots, pans, and so on. But if the beans are being hauled in a tractor-trailer that hasn’t been washed, that had pork in it, then that affects it.
Katz: A different sort of kelim.
Miller: Yes. The first time I got a call from a guy who wanted to certify a truck, I thought it was a prank call. But then I got on my computer and did some research. I didn’t realize that washing out a big tanker, so on, turns out to be a big part of the kosher industry. Same with two paper mills in Port Huron, Michigan, when dealing with paper and paraffin wax. So as a rabbi, I’m now wearing protective goggles, ear plugs, and a hairnet to check the kashrut of paper in industrial mills – I never thought rabbinical school would lead here.
Katz: this whole thing of food systems and industrial food is interesting to contrast with the standard conversation on ever-frummer kashrut – the strawberries, the lettuce, and so on.
Miller: Yes, it’s interesting. A comment I get often from people is that Conservative rabbis probably wouldn’t be punctilious enough to require lettuce to be washed three times. That’s their way of saying that they’re so frum they go to the extremes to ensure there’s no bugs in their lettuce. What they don’t consider is that no one wants to be eating little, disgusting bugs in their lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, and so on. That’s not only not kosher, but it’s gross.
Many thanks to Rabbi Jason Miller for his generosity of time and story-telling. Tizku le-mitzvot!