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Jewish values have more people exploring what they eat and why

Wed., Dec. 13, 2006, midnight

When Hanukkah begins at sundown Friday, many Jewish families will celebrate with traditional foods like latkes or fried potato pancakes.

“We eat foods cooked in oil because the holiday is commemorating that the oil which was sufficient for one day lasted for eight days,” said Debra Kolodny, executive director of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Not to mention, she said, that latkes are “so yummy.”

Food is an integral part of many Jewish holiday celebrations, and this Hanukkah there is growing interest in organic foods and locally grown produce as more people consider how Jewish values inform their decisions about food.

That interest can be seen in increasing numbers of organic food companies asking for kosher certification, new programs that connect Jewish communities and organic farms, and a conference in Connecticut, “From Latkes to Lattes,” on food and contemporary Jewish life scheduled for the first days of Hanukkah.

“People are becoming much more aware of what they’re eating,” said Joan Nathan, author of several Jewish cookbooks. “There are a lot of people questioning, ‘How are the animals treated? How are they raised?’ “

Those discussions are just beginning to reach a wide audience, she said, but “I think there’s much more interest than ever before.”

The interest is not surprising, said Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Judaism at Brandeis University. “Food, both in Jewish law and even more in Jewish tradition, has long been deeply connected with the way Jews observe their faith,” he said.

One of the most well-known of those connections is keeping kosher. Kosher food is prepared according to Jewish dietary laws.

“Kosher is defined by the Bible, and by later works explaining kosher law,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division. “That can’t be changed as far as we’re concerned, but we welcome people adding different dimensions to their diet as long as they don’t contradict kosher law.”

In fact, he said, he’s seen more organic food producers inquiring about the process of how to obtain kosher certification.

“The OU has been very involved in the certification of organic products,” he said. “The companies that we certify have found that a lot of people who keep kosher also are looking for organic certified foods.”

For some, Jewish teachings about food involve more than the dietary laws governing what is kosher.

“We have a long tradition of thinking very deeply about what we as a community should be eating,” said Leah Koenig, coordinator of Tuv Ha’Aretz, an organization with sites on the East Coast, in Washington and Houston, which links synagogues and organic farms. “In many ways, we’re expanding on the idea of keeping kosher, not by any means to replace it, but to think about what does it really mean for food to be fit in the 21st century?”

One of the pioneers in the effort to consider Jewish teachings about food was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish renewal movement. In the 1970s, he created the concept of “eco-kosher,” Kolodny said.

“He began an inquiry about ethics around food, but really ethics about how we relate to the earth,” she said.

Today, other groups are also exploring that relationship by supporting organic farming or promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Through Tuv Ha’Aretz, families can sign up at their synagogues for weekly produce deliveries from a local organic farm. Launched in 2004, it expects to expand to 10 sites by the end of 2007, including its first site in Israel, Koenig said.

It’s a project of Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization that promotes health and sustainable living. Hazon, which is also sponsoring the Hanukkah food conference, will examine nutrition, agriculture and food justice at the conference.

The conference meets in Connecticut at a retreat center that is home to Adamah, a fellowship program that brings 20-something Jews to live and work on the property’s four-acre organic farm.

“There’s a primary connection between the way our ancestors understood agriculture and social justice,” said program director Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh. “Organic and sustainable agriculture is also about a responsibility to the community and that’s very close to what we’re trying to do with our biblical agricultural inheritance.”


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