Saturday, September 4, 2021

So, You Think You Know Kosher by S. Lee Manning

I write a series that features a rare kind of protagonist - a Russian Jewish immigrant who works for an American spy agency. Kolya Petrov may be Jewish, very smart, and a capable secret agent, but frankly, he's clueless when it comes to the extensive and sometimes confusing kosher rules followed by his fiancĂ©e’s orthodox family. In one of the early scenes of my soon to be released novel, Nerve Attack, he's digging through frozen kosher cookies in the freezer to find the vodka - and speculating about whether to use a glass for milk or plate for meat.

He's not the only one confused. Despite the recent portraits of orthodox or ultra-orthodox Jewish life on Netflix (by the way, the majority of Jews are either reform or secular), I'm betting that most non-Jews (and even some Jews) are equally clueless and wondering - what's this about milk glasses or meat plates?


So as a public service, I offer the following guide. Disclaimer: I am reform and don't keep kosher, although I have orthodox family, so I may get a few things wrong. Also, some things will be omitted because of space and time - there are literally volumes on kosher laws. And I will be offering side and sometimes snarky commentary, because - well, just because...


Permitted land animals: Most people know this. Kosher red meat only comes from mammals that chew the cud and have cloven hooves: cows, goats, and sheep are allowed. Almost any bird is allowed, except birds of prey.


Not allowed: Pigs (everyone knows this one), rabbits, snakes, frogs, snails, horses. (I'm okay with most of this. Bacon is tasty, but pigs are smart, affectionate animals - and I don't like to eat animals that respond to their names. Rabbits, not as smart, but cute. Horses, not that smart either, but I'm not eating Black Beauty. Snakes and frogs - yuck. Snails sound pretty nasty, until you have them as escargot in a French restaurant and then yum.)


Any meat, even from a permitted animal, must be prepared in a kosher manner from slaughter to table. I'm not going into the rules about kosher slaughter - because I don't want to. Once the meat is at the butcher shop, all the blood must be eliminated - by soaking in water multiple times. That’s why you will never get a rare steak at a kosher restaurant.


Permitted fish: Fins and scales required. Salmon, trout, flounder, cod, etc.


Not allowed: Dolphins, whales (See above on not eating smart animals.) Alligators, turtles. (Don't want to eat either.) Oysters, shrimp, lobster, clam, crabs. (I love shellfish - one reason I don't keep kosher. Other reasons are too complex for this blog. Another time.)


Alcohol: If made from sugar or grains and has no contact with any possible non-kosher ingredient (will get to that in a minute), most alcohol is fine. Whiskey, vodka (Kolya's favorite), gin, except during Passover when grains aren't allowed. Anything made from grapes or having any grape ingredients has to be kosher. How do you make wine kosher? Observant Jews must watch or personally handle the process from crushing the grapes to bottling the wine.


Milk and meat: Eating them together is forbidden. No cheeseburgers. No ice cream after a chicken dinner. No cheese on meat spaghetti sauce. Six hours must pass between eating meat and eating milk. Not as much time the other way unless you eat hard cheese. Cakes and pastries are dairy - or pareve - which can be eaten with either dairy or meat because pareve foods contain neither. Dairy tends to taste better. Just saying. But wait six hours to eat it after a hamburger.


Dishes: Observant Jews have four sets of dishes and four sets of silverware, four sets of pots and pans, because you can't eat meat from a plate that's had dairy or vice versa. Some strict orthodox have separate sets of glasses for milk and meat. It doesn't matter if you run dishes through the dishwasher in between. The spiritual aura of milk or meat clings to the plates. Don't ask. So, you do ask, why four sets? Because of Passover. (Below.)


Passover: The eight-day holiday in the spring when Jews remember the Exodus from Egypt. You probably know that bread is forbidden. So is cereal. In some communities, corn and beans, out. Crackers. Cake. Cookies. No. No. No. (Unless, made out of matzo meal and specifically kosher for Passover) Wine has to be kosher for Passover. So does Coke. So does EVERYTHING. Actually, if you keep kosher, you can't eat ANY foods that aren't specifically kosher for Passover.  You also scrub the house for any hint of breadcrumbs, store away the pots and pans and dishes from the rest of the year, and then bring out the stuff that's only used for Passover.


How do you know if something is kosher? For food to be kosher requires not only that kosher ingredients be used, but to ensure no cheating, the preparation of kosher food must be overseen by an orthodox rabbi. Packaged foods are marked to indicate whether they are kosher - with a K or a U inside an O. There are other symbols, including a Hebrew K - look them up. Foods that are pareve or dairy are marked, usually, and again pareve means that a food item can be eaten with meat or dairy. Fish are considered pareve. So are eggs. Don't ask.


Okay, so what have I left out? A lot. This was just meant as a rough guide. If you're interested in more in-depth knowledge, there are a lot of resources out there. Or contact me. I might not be able to answer your questions, but we can have a nice chat.


S. Lee Manning, a reformed attorney whose legal career spanned from Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a first tier New York law firm, to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, to her own practice, now lives in Vermont and writes full time. In Nerve Attack, sequel to the award-winning Trojan Horse, former American intelligence operative Kolya Petrov, still struggling with the aftereffects of kidnapping and torture, is drawn back into the game when Dmitri, his childhood best friend, holds the key to stopping an attack by terrorists armed with a deadly nerve poison.


Nerve Attack is available for preorder on Amazon and through independent bookstores everywhere. The first chapter is available on her website.



Kait said...

Congratulations on your upcoming release!

This is a fascinating subject. I remember when I first began working on Miami Beach in the late 1970s I would often see women washing dishes at one area in Biscayne Bay. I commented on it to a friend who happened to be Jewish and was told that washing dishes in free flowing water was a means to kosher them before use. Don't know if it's true - but the concept fascinated me.

KM Rockwood said...

Always fascinating to explore the details of a specific culture, especially in the context of a good story.

Ann Bennett said...

I love the premise of "fish out of water" for this book. I know there will be some hilarity with trying to keep the family kosher and being content himself. One episode of Stisel and we are all experts. lol

Best wishes for your book's success. It is on my TBR list.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

congrats on the new book.. looking forward to reading it and chuckling at some of the fish out of water parts of it

Shari Randall said...

Fascinating! Congratulations on your new book!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations on your new book!

cousin said...

Sandy Cute a fairly accurate description. One major correction "kashering" meat requires not just soaking the meat but also salting it with coarse salt popularly known as Kosher salt to remove the blood.
PS most of the delicacies that you describe that arent kosher have been duplicated in a kosher version (Im told they taste pretty darn close too)