Truthiness and Kashruthiness

Stephen Colbert, of the late-night parody news show The Colbert Report, coined a new word, truthiness (to be technical, he put a new meaning to an old word), which was selected as Word of the Year in 2005 by the American Dialect Society. Truthiness is the quality of persisting in certain beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. It is a kind of essence of truth, after all the real truth has been squeezed out.

Like many people, I think a lot about what I eat. My personal choice is to follow to the extent that I can,and this will require some explanation,a kosher diet. But what I regard as kosher would be considered a travesty by a truly kosher person. I admit that. As everyone knows who knows, there are so many rules about what is kosher that a mere amateur like me would starve if he tried to follow them. My family was Jewish enough, but my mother did not keep a kosher household. I grew up nonchalantly eating pork chops, BLT sandwiches, and Virginia ham. Almost unconsciously we did follow certain habits of eating, just as the Chinese like to have their soup at the end of the meal. A block away from the building I grew up in there was a kosher delicatessen which dispensed meat sandwiches and wurst, and across the street from it was a dairy store which sold such wonderful, vanished things as tub butter, pot cheese and salt-cured lox. They stood opposite each other like the Scylla and Charybdis of Jewish cuisine. Jewish households like ours tended to observe the prohibition against mixing milk and meat and substituted sodas or fruit juice for the Norman Rockwell touch of a big glass of milk next to your ham sandwich. Shellfish, also not kosher, was not much of an issue. The only thing I can recall in that line was shrimp cocktail, a fifties restaurant favorite, which adults liked but I never tried. So far as forbidden fowl was concerned, eagles and vultures were rare in the skies of Brooklyn, and even rarer on the tables of Brooklyn.

Gradually, I gave up eating pork and began to favor kosher products. I liked the ecological aspect of restricting food intake, and I also thought kosher slaughter was more respectful of animals (many would disagree). I've been up and down on this, but I didn't know what to call my diet. One day Eve and I went into a cheesecake shop in Soho. On the wall was a reassuring certificate of "Kashruth," one possible spelling of the word that means adherence to kosher regulations. And then it came to me: Kashruthiness! (The saleswoman, by the way, was so rude we never went back, but that goes with the territory.)

Kashruthiness is the ability to imagine one is kosher when all evidence is to the contrary. Nonetheless, I would argue that kashruthiness has the potential to be a complete system. First of all, look for kosher symbols on packages and buy those preferentially. One of the anti-Semitic myths propagated by white racists is that the miniscule cost of certifying a product kosher is a tax, whereas in fact the economic advantage to the manufacturer through the increased sales of such a product, which can still be eaten by anyone, would more than offset any such cost. Thus any product which sports a kosher symbol is worthy of my patronage.

But it's not as simple as that! When I see a K on a package of Messermacher's bread from Germany, I feel a historical hurdle has been leapt over. There are some products, of course, that will never get a K no matter how much water goes under the bridge,Krakus and Atalanta Polish ham, for example,but those manufacturers who are already using nonproblematic ingredients and go that extra step, I feel deserve my business. They have extended the hand of friendship, and I grasp it,or rather I grasp the jar of Italian plum preserves which the Rabbi of Torino says is okay by him.

But it's not as simple as that! Then there are countries. On a world map drawn to kashruthiness scale Israel and the United States would have the same area. Canada and Europe would be much smaller and about the same size, and Japan and China, the combined Jewish population of which could barely fill a bus, would be covered by blurs of incomprehension, like those which used to obscure the private parts in nudist magazines. When I shop at Kalustyan's, the renowned food store, I examine the cans and jars and try to match them to the political events of the day. I like to buy products from Turkey, because I feel friendly toward Turkey. In addition, I do business with any Arab country. On the kashruthiness scale they rank pretty high. If Hezbollah were a country, I wouldn't buy anything from them, but that's about it. On the other hand, Europeans, especially Scandinavians, rank rather low. I have been boycotting Norway for years. They did something which I didn't like and got on the kashruthiness boycott list. I added Denmark for a while, but took it off after that cartoon business.

Now, as to restaurants. Amazingly there are hardly any kosher restaurants in New York and we like to eat out. Within English longbow-shot of our house are any number of ethnic restaurants: Japanese, Middle Eastern, Indian, Ethiopian, Chinese, Italian. I regard restaurants as extraterritorial, like embassies, and treat them accordingly. There are, by the way, no Scandinavian restaurants around here, which makes my life easier.

But it's not as simple as that! You also have to apply when appropriate the ethnic newspaper test, if possible in combination with the wall calendar test. Many of these restaurants have free newspapers for the native, so to speak, clientele. They can be in English or some other language. I can't read Urdu, which is probably just as well. I was somewhat disappointed once, for example, to find a pile of newspapers in a Polish restaurant I like (very good potato pancakes) with a front-page article blaming all of Poland's past and present troubles on the Jews. I like potato pancakes, but not that much. Fortunately, that was a one-time event.

But what, you ask, is the wall calendar test? That is only, I'm sorry to say, for the advanced student of kashruthiness.

But it's not as simple as that! I like to eat felafel. I suppose I eat it several times a week. I'm not exactly sure where our local purveyors of felafel come from,the first one to open was, I am pretty sure, Palestinian, another one I patronize is, I think, Egyptian. There are a couple of others on my circuit, depending on my mood. When the Second Lebanon War started, I stopped eating felafel altogether. It just got too hard to choose where to go.

What is the future of kashruthiness? I don't know. First of all, there are lots of competitors,the Vegetarians Who Also Eat Fish and Sometimes Chicken, Beer-Drinking Muslims, and so on. Naturally, I would like to be able to give my system to the world. But I don't think it will catch on. There are just too many rules.