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Experts explore the evolving Jewish table
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Experts explore the evolving Jewish table

Since long before such terms as factory farming, genetically modified food, or veganism entered the lexicon, Jewish tradition has stressed thoughtful eating practices through the practice of kashrut.

And yet the kosher laws are still catching up with modern technology and conveniences, environmental concerns, and a growing sensitivity to the plight of animals prior to slaughter.

At an Oct. 8 program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, three experts on different aspects of Jews and food conducted a lively and at times provocative panel discussion on the intersection of Jewish tradition and contemporary concerns of modern American Jews.

Tackling what it means to be kosher in the 21st century and the ethics surrounding a host of food-related issues were Nigel Savage, executive director of the New York-based Hazon; Jennifer Berg, director of the graduate program in food studies and food management at New York University; and Jordan Rosenblum, author of the book Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism.

The program at the Douglass College Center was sponsored by Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and cosponsored by the university’s Center for Global Advancement and International Affairs.

Rosenblum, a professor in Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said kosher rules and eating traditions continually evolved over many centuries — but today’s practices would baffle the sages.

“If you were to bring one of those rabbinic figures to a kosher kitchen in the modern Jewish world, he would likely be screamed at for ‘treifing’ up their kitchen,” said Rosenblum.

Savage agreed, but said the bafflement goes in two directions. While Savage said he believed keeping kosher was important, he said his own refrigerator — with its almond milk, tofu, and wild-caught salmon — would be unrecognizable to his Jewish grandmother.

“Our grandkids will say I eat sushi like my grandparents did because that’s Jewish food,” he said.

And it’s not just the types of food that have changed, but Jews’ relationships with the food they buy and and eat. Hazon sponsors 66 community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, linking local farms with local consumers.

Savage said the Jewish community is “many years ahead” of other faiths in establishing CSAs through synagogues, JCCs, Hillels, and other institutions.

Berg, who specializes in the food traditions of American Jews, said she finds some of today’s choices, including kosher facsimiles of forbidden foods, to be perplexing because they seem to be “spiritually unkosher.”

She questioned how a package of bagels can be stamped “kosher for Passover” while a jar of raspberry jam, containing no ingredients forbidden on the holiday, shouldn’t be eaten because it lacks that stamp.

Berg said the 2008 federal raid on the kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, for immigration and labor law violations “got us into a conversation” that took kashrut beyond slaughter into tza’ar ba’alei chaim, kindness to animals, and the treatment of those who grow and process our food.

Berg said an animal that had been grass-fed and well treated during its life, but not slaughtered by a shohet, or kosher slaughterer, “seemed more kosher” to her than factory-raised animals slaughtered according to Jewish tradition.

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