Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages - Review

I just finished reading Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages by Professor David Kraemer. The book traces the development of Jewish dietary laws from biblical times to the modern age.

The author provides theories for the development of increasingly stringent rules – from the very initial Torah prohibition on cooking a baby goat (kid) in its mother’s milk – to the very recent developments of families having two sets of absolutely everything – sometimes even two kitchens – all emanating from that original prohibition.

The book persuasively suggests that the rules have become more and more stringent in an effort by the highly observant Jews to build the walls of separation between themselves and other less observant Jews – or non-Jews. Kraemer touches on such topics as the development of the waiting period for eating dairy after meat, the development of rules separating meat from dairy dishes, the rules prohibiting Jews from eating certain breads and drinking non-kosher wines. I do believe that it is likely that keeping kosher has played a huge role in maintaining the Jewish community and fending off many assimilationist threats over the years.

Kraemer ties this all in by the end of the book to the very recent development of extreme rules barring observant Jews from eating various types of green vegetables for fear of insect or bug contamination. Kraemer suggests implicitly – that the bug rules have little to do with Kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). Rather they are either designed as an economic mechanism to support such companies as Bodek that are selling pre-washed and “checked” greens – or they are designed to simply raise the “fence” higher to separate very observant Jews from the less observant. He points out that the cafeteria at the Jewish Theological Seminary has opted to serve broccoli and cauliflower – despite the ban on these products by many Orthodox Kashrut councils – all since the early 90s.

Though some of the early parts of the book were a bit dry – and other parts were a bit puzzling (trying to justify the fact that so many New York Jews eat at non-kosher Chinese restaurants) – the overall explanation and theory that Kraemer provides for the development of these rules is compelling and persuasive. The question left unanswered is how to deal with and address these newer, increasingly stringent guidelines which are seemingly designed to make it harder and harder for Jews to keep kosher – and to give increased power and control over kosher food preparation to a group of increasingly powerful Rabbis running the largest certification boards.

The book provides a great deal of food for thought – though it is sure to upset some Orthodox readers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Air Canada Business Class - Tel-Aviv-Toronto

Flying a great deal between Tel-Aviv and Toronto, I have been writing some blogs assessing the various flight options – and comparing the services. After doing this for more than a year and a half – I am hard pressed to conclude that anyone can compete with Air Canada on this route.

Air Canada offers regular service between Toronto and Tel-Aviv and competes in that regard only with El Al, Israel’s national airline. Otherwise, you have to change planes in the U.S. or somewhere in Europe.

Starting with economy class, Air Canada comes out quite ahead. Each seat includes a personal screen, an electrical outlet and a USB connection. Although Air Canada does not currently offer internet service on its transatlantic flights (like Lufthansa) – the range of music, video and TV programming is extensive. Although I enjoy the Israeli music on El Al – the sound quality is horrible – and the selection is limited.

The main advantage of flying Air Canada is the Aeroplan program. For a flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv – you earn approximately 11,500 Aeroplan points. For 15,000 points, you can get a ticket between Toronto and other “short-haul” destinations – such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis (the boundary). For 25,000 points – you can get a ticket from Toronto to anywhere in North America (with payment of a range of ever increasing “fuel surcharges” and taxes).

But more significantly – for 35,000 points – just over 3 flights a year between Israel and Toronto – you can get “Elite” status – which entitles you to free upgrades to first class – subject to availability.

I have been upgraded on a number of occasions over the past year and a half or so – and I have to say – I have never been on better flights.

The seats fold down into completely horizontal beds. They have a mini-barrier – that is almost like a wall for privacy. You have an electrical outlet, a USB Port and your own personal movie and music entertainment system. Unlike Austrian Air – you do not have computer games (chess, space invaders etc.,) but I’ll take the trade-off.

The staff members are exceptional.

Though I ordered a kosher meal, I was prepared to enjoy the special business class dish of pacific salmon with wild rice and grilled zucchini and asparagus. It was preceded by a traditional salad. For dessert – I was given a choice of chocolate molten lava cake or mixed fruit (or both). I was also offered cognac – and a special California Cabernet Sauvignon – which I quite enjoyed.

The main flight attendant assisting me on my most recent flight – was quite friendly. He told me he was proficient in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, German and Italian – and was now learning Arabic. He could also serve passengers in Yiddish. He was quite polite and readily available – generally a pleasure to have such a competent steward.

The only drawback to Air Canada flights – and it is significant – is that the flights are scheduled as daytime flights from Israel to Toronto. It is a 12 ½ hour flight – leaving Israel at 12:30 p.m. and arriving in Toronto at 5:30 p.m. Toronto time. This kind of flight can really ruin your schedule.

I much prefer the El Al flight times – leaving at about 1 a.m. on Saturday night – and arriving in Toronto at about 6 a.m. El Al’s security is also formidable – as is the patriotic lure of supporting the Jewish State’s national airline. However – the “Matmid” – loyalty program – is terrible compared to Air Canada – and the airplane amenities are sorely lacking. On the positive note – you can sometimes get an El Al ticket for hundreds of dollars cheaper than Air Canada – so these are all considerations that have to be weighed). As mentioned above, I also enjoy the music selection on El Al and the general feeling of being “at home.”

However, for now – I need about 50,000 more points to achieve Air Canada’s “Super Elite” status – and it seems to be a worthy goal – even if I get there by flying cheaper partner airlines like Lufthansa, Austrian Air, US Air (via Philadelphia) or Continental (Via New Jersey). Using the Air Canada entertainment system, I listened to Rush’s Moving Pictures (what a great album! I probably hadn’t listened to it cover to cover in more than 20 years), Eric Clapton – Unplugged, Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. Together with some cognac – and extremely helpful staff – it is hard to imagine a better way to travel the 12 ½ hours back to Canada from Israel.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kosher restaurants - serving Meat AND Dairy products

I am fascinated with the process by which eating establishments are certified as “kosher,” particularly after I had some involvement in a Canadian lawsuit involving now defunct Levitts Meats – which was for many years, the quintessential purveyor of kosher Montreal smoked meats – for Montrealers and the Canadian Jewish community in general. Levitts failed in its bid to break into the monopolistic Toronto kosher market – and subsequently went bankrupt – much to the disappointment of smoked meat connoisseurs everywhere. The politics involved in Levitt’s battle to obtain kosher certification for its meat products in Toronto were simply astounding. This seems to be the case in many other areas as well.

Last year, before the huge fire that burned the place down, I visited the IKEA store in Netanya, Israel. IKEA had been newly purchased by an owner interested in ensuring that its Israeli operations were Kosher and Sabbath observant (i.e. closed from sundown Friday until after sundown Saturday night). I arrived at about 10:15 a.m. at the IKEA restaurant on a weekday morning. IKEA is, of course, famous for providing a variety of Swedish delicacies at very reasonable prices – including Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon (lox). At this IKEA location, all of the products had been certified as “Kosher” – so observant Jewish clientele could now eat Swedish meatballs – and other Swedish dishes.

The interesting thing – from my point of view – was that this location also included an espresso bar – adjacent to the main IKEA restaurant. Normally, kosher establishments offer either dairy products or meat products – but not both. This IKEA offered a regular coffee bar – with cappuccinos, lattes etc., made with milk products- right next to the meat restaurant.

I spoke with some employees – who explained to me the following: Between 7 a.m. or so (store opening) and 10 a.m. – the coffee bar used real milk and dairy products. At about 10:15 a.m. – the Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) would arrive and clean all of the equipment – including the mugs, dishwasher and espresso machines. At about 10:15 a.m. – the coffee bar would officially switch to “pareve” status – meaning non-dairy – and non- meat. They would use soy milk only for the rest of the day (but with the same mugs…).

In my humble view – this represented quite a liberal approach – since you cannot normally “kosher” ceramic mugs – but it was certified by two different authorities – both the local Netanya authority – and the Jerusalem Rabbinical authority. That has to be good enough for me! Alas, the IKEA burned down – in a fire that I have written about in another article – so it remains to be seen what will become of the kosher status of the IKEA restaurant in the newly renovated premises.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. The Aroma Coffee bar in Ra’anana has been newly renovated. Aroma is.a wonderful Israeli-owned coffee shop chain (which has expanded into some North American cities including Toronto and New York). The coffee is tastefully strong but not as bitter as Starbucks – the lattes and cappuccinos are terrific. Each coffee is served with a little chocolate square. (For now – they are all milk chocolate though I think they would be better off to offer a choice of milk or dark but I digress…).

Some of the Aroma Coffee shops in Israel are certified as kosher. These establishments have generally served only dairy products. The menu is diverse with a wide selection of healthy salads, sandwiches and soups. Picture a healthy Tim Hortons, with espresso products… For example, try a Portobello mushroom /pesto sandwich on whole wheat bread – or a quinoa/yam/mint salad. You can get a printed information sheet with the calorie count, fat content and other nutritional information for each item. Until recently, the location in Ra’anana, Israel was certified as kosher and served only dairy products. It seemed to me that the location was generally full and quite successful. Some other locations in Israel are open on Saturdays (Shabbat) and serve certain meat items (chicken etc.,) – which disqualifies them from kosher certification since they can’t mix dairy and meat – or so you would have thought…

Recently, the Ra’anana location underwent significant renovations. Aside from renovating the physical premises, the ownership decided to begin offering meat products together with dairy products – at the same location. Somehow – they obtained kosher certification for this enterprise. So you can now order a smoked meat sandwich – or a meat chilli dish – in the same restaurant in which you can order a Greek salad with Bulgarian cheese. Apparently, the products are prepared in different parts of the kitchen.

For anyone used to the traditional interpretation of kosher laws, this sounds crazy. How can a person order a meat sandwich and a latte in the same place (without violating Jewish dietary law)? By way of comparison, all of the kosher establishments in cities like Toronto are certified as either dairy or meat. Apparently, the Ra’anana Kosher authorities have agreed to licence the establishment as kosher – as long as it only serves the meat products as “take-out” and prepares everything with separate equipment. I am not sure if the staff are actively policing the policy – and asking meat eaters to leave the restaurant – but I am quite sceptical.

So we now have a restaurant in Ra’anana – certified as kosher – where you can go in and order a smoked meat sandwhich – together with a cafĂ© latte, made with milk – and the establishment is “kosher.”

The really strange thing – is that there are really only two or three meat items on the menu – so it seems like an awfully great hassle for a few small items. One wonders whether this is a trial balloon of some sort to determine whether to convert the restaurant into a non-kosher establishment.

Alternatively – the level of flexibility is astounding. The same Va’ad Harabonim (Rabbinical Council) that will reject romaine lettuce, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli, among other vegetables (for fear of insect contamination) – and will certainly reject any role for women in formal Jewish prayer ceremonies – is prepared to look the other way while an establishment serves dairy and meat products – at the same time – to the same customers.

I can only conclude that the Aroma in Ra’anana agreed to pay whatever exorbitant price was requested by the Ra’anana authorities. What else could explain this type of establishment? I have cynically concluded that for the right price – you can have a pig declared to be “kosher.”

Curiously enough, I found myself in a coffee bar in Tel-Aviv last week – that was certified “kosher – chalavi-basari” – meaning that it could serve both dairy and meat products. This was only a few days after I saw what was going on in the Aroma in Ra’anana. So, apparently there are quite a number of establishments in Israel that are now able to take advantage of these liberal rules.

I can’t say that I really oppose these “liberal” approaches to Jewish law. However, I can say that I would like to see these liberal principles applied to other areas of Jewish “law” and tradition – such as the role of women in the traditional prayer service.

These same Rabbis, sitting on the Kosher Council of Rabbis – willing to approve of this kind of establishment – continue to adamantly oppose the idea of women reading from the Torah, praying at the kotel (the Western Wall) or participating in a Jewish religious service as equals. Perhaps one day, they will apply the same “liberal” approach to gender issues that they apply to kosher issues.

In the meantime, as liberal as I am, I am becoming queasy about the idea of eating any food items in the Ra’anana Aroma…though I suppose it is the same as eating dairy (non-meat products) in any otherwise non-kosher establishment. However – it does not seem to have fazed Kippah (skullcap)-wearing Orthodox Jews, who continue to patronize to the location in droves.

Interesting to compare this to Ra’anana’s kosher McDonald’s – which is almost across the street –and which was forced to open a second “take out” bar location – (where ice cream and other dairy products are sold) to retain its kosher certification.

Ultimately, it seems to me that one part of the appropriate solution, both for Ra’anana and places like Toronto – is access to a range of Kosher certifying authorities. The range of options will create healthy competition and will eliminate the problems that are inevitably created by deferring to one centralized monopolistic establishment.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Yom Hazikaron - Israel Memorial and Remembrance Day 2011

This evening marked the start of Yom Hazikaron in Israel – Remembrance and Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

Across Israel, everything is closed for the evening. In cities across the country, major streets are closed – as tens of thousands of people attended ceremonies to remember cousins, friends, neighbours and family members who have fallen in Israel’s wars, in the course of national service and in terror attacks.

Yom Hazikaron is linked to Israel Independence Day – which follows one day later. The very intentional linkage reminds Israelis of the importance of the sacrifices made by so many to enable the creation and continued existence of the Jewish State.

In Ra’anana, thousands attended a very moving and extremely well planned memorial ceremony. Ra’anana’s Mayor, Nahum Hofri, a former Army commander himself, spoke about the loss of his brother in battle– and so many others. Ra'anana’s Chief Rabbi spoke along with a number of family members of fallen soldiers. The memorial evening included a number of well-known Israeli ballads sung hauntingly by individual singers as well as an adult and a children’s choir.

Residents of Ra’anana walked quietly to the centre of the city – Yad LaBanim – from many different areas - to pay silent homage over the course of the 90 minute commemoration.

These losses are so close to home to so many Israelis who have faced a very real existential struggle over the course of 63 years of statehood – which has included 6 major wars – and many terrorist attacks along with numerous other military operations and battles. Ceremonies are also held across the country – at schools, military ceremonies and other locations, marked by silence at 11 a.m. during the day of Yom Hazikaron itself.

Despite this history of tremendous loss, the ceremonies included an optimistic note. The nationally broadcast ceremony from Rabin Square in Tel Aviv – closed with “Lu Yehi” – If Only It Could Be – a prayer-like song yearning for peace. And Mayor Hofri – closed his speech in Ra’anana – quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more…”

Despite the many challenges Israel faces – the recent uprisings and governmental changes in neighbouring countries, the threats from Iran, Syria, Gaza, Lebanon and other enemies – and the misguided or simply anti-Semitic ostracization of Israel by so many of the world’s countries – the hope and belief that peace is possible continues to resonate with Israelis even as they remember those whose lives have been lost through so many years of struggle.