A few weeks before we moved to Senegal, Bina and I were shopping in the Machane Yehuda market when we ran in to a friend’s mother. She was very excited to see us before our trip, and quickly told us what was on her mind: “I am not scared for your safety or anything like that,” she told us “I am just worried what you guys are going to eat! Are you going to go hungry over there?”
This week’s parsha, parshat Shemini introduces a number of the laws of kosher meat and fish. I want to take a break from Corona virus related writing to explain a bit about how we kept kosher during our time in Senegal. While keeping kosher is never particularly easy, it is of course more challenging when living in a West African country with no Jewish community. Like many American and Israeli Jews, we have lived most of our lives within a short walk or drive from a local supermarket where we had kosher food from around the world. From our estimation, the closest kosher supermarket to Dakar was in Casablanca, about 2000 miles away.
So, did we go hungry? Not at all! The truth of the matter is that we ate a more healthy and balanced diet in Dakar than we have done for the past few years living in America. This is because we always had to think about and plan our next meal. We could not rely on pre-made kugels from our local Shoprite or store-bought challah. For the five months that we lived there, everything that we and our children ate, we made ourselves.
So how did we do it? Well the first thing to realize is that Dakar is a truly cosmopolitan city. People from all over the world visit, vacation, and live in Dakar. These people bring with them some of their own foods as well. A few minutes from our house was a massive grocery store that was part of the French chain “Casino.” When my parents came to visit my mother was incredibly impressed by the size and selection of our grocery store. She commented to me that she even preferred our supermarket to her supermarket back home in New York City! Our supermarket stocked a lot of imported French and European foods, many of which had kosher certification, or were on the French kosher lists. We had Kellogs’ Corn Flakes and Rice Crispies galore.
We had access to an immense amount of delicious and fresh produce from all over West Africa and the world. Mangoes from Ghana, apples from Morocco, and bananas and coconuts that were picked from the trees on our block. Additionally, when my family visited from America, they brought with them about ten pounds of kosher meat and half a dozen bottles of kosher wine for us.
What was more challenging was everything else. How could we tell if tehina from Lebanon was kosher? The OU is yet to send a mashgiach to Beirut to check the factories, but what can be wrong with 100% tehina after all? When we walked to the beach to buy fish from the local fishermen, how could we know which fish to buy? For these questions and many others, we relied upon the indefatigable and amazing Tzohar Kosher Department, run by Rav Oren Duvdevani.
Rav Duvdevani is a world-wide expert on kosher food production and is the head of the Tzohar kosher department which provides kosher supervision to restaurants, hotels and factories across Israel. In his spare time, he runs a series of WhatsApp groups for Israelis travelling around the world who are trying to keep kosher. On any given day he answers dozens if not hundreds of questions about kosher food products that are not easy to identify.
I would frequently text him with all types of questions: ‘Can I eat this pasta from Italy?’ (Yes) ‘The man at the fish market is trying to sell my tuna, but it does not have any scales, can I trust him that it is actually tuna?’ (Yes, tuna apparently loses its scales out of water). ‘How about Oreos from Hungary, we haven’t had cookies in ages!’ (‘Sorry, not kosher). Thanks to his constant help we were able to keep a kosher kitchen and host many wonderful Shabbat meals for ourselves as well as for visiting friends and family throughout our time in Senegal.
Just a few short weeks ago the entire world seemed so interconnected and small. I would walk to my local grocery store in Dakar, find a box of cookies made in France and text Rav Duvdevani in Israel to find out if they were kosher. By the time I reached the checkout aisle I had an answer. Today, from our quarantine in America this feels so foreign and strange. I have not been inside a grocery store in weeks, and I know that when I do go shopping next week, there will be a plethora of easily identifiable kosher foods.
Strangely enough, in a time when going to a supermarket or a mall can be potentially harmful, it seems that there was something much healthier and more natural in the way that we bought and prepared food in Dakar. We never had catered food, never had anyone else cook for us, and knew exactly where our food came from. While we did go to the supermarket, much of our food came from fish and vegetable markets out in the open. We saw and we knew the people who sold us our food and developed relationships with them during our time there. This way of living and eating felt more natural and healthier to us than the prepared food and packaged items that we have been eating over Passover.
While keeping kosher was more challenging in Senegal than it is in America or Israel, there was something much more rewarding about it as well. We had to take full responsibility for everything we ate. We had to really know and understand the rules of kashrut. It helps that I have spent some years studying and teaching these rules. However, there were so many rules that I never thought that I would need to apply to my life, which became relevant daily. In this capacity, our time in Dakar really changed our relationship with food and with halacha, Jewish law. Our hope is that when life becomes more normal again, we can continue to be more self-reliant and connected to our food sources, just like we were in Senegal.