Navigating Kashrut Without Road Signs 

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We love to eat. By ‘we’ I mean Jews. Napoleon may have said that an army moves on its stomach, but my memory of the 50’s was that everything we did was based on our stomachs. The first question about any events was. ‘What are they serving?’  Back in those days, many Jews described their non-observant life style ‘But I’m a Jew in my heart.’ This led to many sermons about ‘Cardiac Jewry’. However, in my house, we lived ‘Gastronomic Judaism’. That didn’t mean that we kept Kosher (We didn’t). It meant that the kinds of foods we ate identified us as Jews. Just one example: My father avoided white bread at all costs. It epitomized ‘goyish’. We ate rye bread or pumpernickel. So, it’s eminently logical that we must discuss adventures of discovery for Jews trying to keep Kosher in the aisles of that most American of institutions: the supermarket.

The supermarket defined America in the 1950’s. The first supermarket was Astor Market, on the corner of 95th and Broadway, NYC. It opened in 1915. Others have claimed that it was King Kullen Market (August 4, 1930) in Queens, NY. However, as Wikipedia points out: Supermarkets proliferated across Canada and the United States with the growth of automobile ownership and suburban development after WW2. And that’s what we’re discussing.

For my research into Orthodox Judaism in the 50’s and 60’s, I’ve conducted, so far, over 40 interviews so far, about 30 with rabbis and about ten interesting ones, no, I mean about ten with academics.

Almost all the rabbis talked about how in those days before men wore kipot in public , before women covered their hair and when, basically, everyone dressed modestly, the way to recognize an Orthodox Jew was to see them reading ingredients in the supermarket. It was almost like a PA announcement: Kindred spirit in aisle 5!

This was the period’s attempt to keep Kosher.

It didn’t always work. One of my interviewers was with my friend and wonderful human being, Phil Chernofsky:

Of course, in those days at the supermarket we read labels.  Later I was on the kashrut committee of SOY (Student Organization of the Yeshiva, connected to RIETS at YU). We had been using products that said 100% vegetable oil, but I wrote a letter to the FDA (Federal Department of Agriculture), and they told me that if a package read 100% vegetable oil, it only had to be 98% vegetable oil. That exploded that myth. I remember when Rabbi Milton Polin was a rabbi in the south (R. Polin was rabbi in Louisville, KY, 1956-66, then was in St Louis MO, 1966-74, eventually moved to Brooklyn until he died in 2018, aged 89). He wrote a letter to the Reynold’s Aluminum Co, about their aluminum foil. They told him that because of the great heat and the thinness of the product that it’s necessary to bathe the foil in oil, so it will move along the conveyor belt without tearing. They used whale oil.

The problem was that Hashgacha (or as we called it then: Hechsher) was still in its infancy.  In those days, ‘hechsher’ meant OU. When I later started keeping Kosher, my mother always was looking for letters in circles, and often brought home products with an R in an O, which meant registered trademark, but she was trying.

Anyway, the OU started in 1923, and the first product supervised was Heinz vegetarian beans. However, the first product with the iconic OU symbol was Sunshine biscuits a year later. But we’re interested in a later period. It’s easy to track the OU in the 50’s and 60’s because on their website they inform us:

When Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg took charge of it (1950), the division employed about forty mashgichim to certify 184 products for thirty-seven companies. By the end of Rabbi Rosenberg’s tenure (1972), the OU employed more than 750 mashgichim to certify more than 2,500 products for 475 companies.

And today? The OU boasts over a million products worth over 12 billion dollars. That’s almost 70% of the Kosher food worldwide.

However, they’re no longer alone. Today, on the website (funny the site is ‘kashrut’ but the list of symbols is called ‘kashrus agencies’, I guess the IT staff is more modern than the research staff), lists 109 Orthodox hashgachot in the US, alone. Plus, there are non-Orthodox hashgachot as well.

Well, we’ve come a long way, baby! By the 60’s, keeping Kosher was already a ‘thing’, and included non-Jews. Many of us remember the ubiquitous posters featuring many ethnicities, proclaiming: You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s. Actually, it might have been preferable if you weren’t, because for much of that ad campaign they didn’t have any hashgacha.

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Before we end this first installment about kashrut (much more to come in future blogs), we can’t ignore the most famous Kosher ad campaign in history beginning in 1965, Hebrew National Hot Dogs proclaimed: We Answer to a Higher Authority. But, of course, by then many of us were eating only glatt kosher, and, so, no more Hebrew National for us.

Sunday: Please, Fence Me In!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.