NY Jewish Culture Examiner: David Kraemer on the ultra-Orthodox kashrut hysteria of the 1980s

Posted on March 23, 2009

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NY Jewish Culture Examiner: David Kraemer on the ultra-Orthodox kashrut hysteria of the 1980s

In 1986 three ultra-Orthodax women in Boro Park, Brooklyn began spying on the neighborhood’s kosher butchers. Their surveillance occurred neither on the premises of the butcher shops nor during work hours; they did not take issue with how the butchers performed their jobs. The women observed the butchers’ homes on the Sabbath. When they were satisfied that a particular butcher consistently observed the Sabbath they painted the Hebrew words SHOMER SHABBAT (Sabbath observant) on the store owner’s window. Soon butcher shops lacking the designation lost their clientele and went out of business. Vendors of other foods got the message and started adding the designation themselves, and eventually shops that have nothing to do with food–even auto mechanics–began boasting of their sabbath observance. This is but one episode of mass hysteria (my word, not his) in the ulta-Orthodox community in the 1980s that Jewish Theological Seminary professor and library director David Kraemer related in a talk based on the last chapter of his book Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages at a seudat shlishit (the concluding meal just before the end of the Sabbath) Saturday evening in the Park Slope home of two Park Slope Jewish Center members.

Also in the 1980s the same community became preoccupied with insects in vegetables. Insects have always found their way into leafy and convoluted shaped vegetables, and the remedy has always been rinsing the vegetables in cold water. 95% of kosher laws concern animals. Vegetables are hardly discussed and until the 1980s have been universally regarded as kosher.  Starting in that decade the ultra-Orthodox community went into a panic about insects in vegetables and the need to inspect and remove them. One ultra-Orthodox rabbi went so far as to ban lettuce, asparagus, broccoli and brussel sprouts. This same rabbi said that cauliflower is permitted only if it is soaked in hot water for half an hour and then soaked in salt water for another half hour (but after such soaking who would want to eat it?). Green grocers in ultra-Orthdox neighborhoods started selling bodek (inspected) produce at much higher prices than non-inspected vegetables. Kraemer sees this and the display of a vendor’s Sabbath observance as displaced or indirect responses to what the ultra-Orthodox considered threats to Jewish identity at the time including: the Reform movement’s 1983 adoption of bilineal descent (that one is Jewish if either parent is Jewish and one is raised and/or declares oneself to be Jewish), the immigration to Israel of large numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union (many of whom were children of mixed marriages) and from Ethiopia (whose Jewishness the ultra-Orthodox doubted), and the “who is a Jew” controversy that ensued when an Israeli right-wing government accepted the demand of an ultra-Orthodox party that Israel’s Law of Return be amended to require a halachic (Orthodox rabbinic legal) definition of Jewishness for purposes of citizenship.

Kraemer pointed out that a kosher observant Jew today would not eat at the tables of such earlier sages as Akiba, Rashi, or Joseph Caro. Caro’s 16th century legal code Shulkhan Aruch states that a dairy dish can be washed in a meat pot as long as the water is scalding hot. Kosher kitchens today often have separate dairy and meat sinks. Kraemer sees the tendency toward ever stricter standards of what is kosher as laity driven. Jews who lack rabbinic expertise, especially women, tend to err on the side of stringency. I would add that in  former times the home (especially the kitchen) was the one area in which women exercised authority.  For many ultra-Orthodox women that is still the case.

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