Natalia Schwartz’s mother told great stories about the Golem of Prague. She fed me about once every other day — I was a bit of a regular at her house during the first grade — and she shared both her food and her knowledge freely. I remember that her kitchen was pristine, framed by two long counters, each of which ran along a wall. On each counter rested a set of utensils, and Natalia’s mother never used one set to prepare food that sat on the opposite counter. I remember asking countless questions about the Golem’s creator; I remember asking none about the mysterious double-counter practice. My questions about Rabbi Loew were answered expertly and immediately; my unspoken question about the food preparation was only answered years later.
Natalia’s family is kosher. As a child I ignorantly believed that kosher was a type of food — I often imagined that one day I’d be walking down the street only to find an ‘Ari’s Kosher-Style Home Cooking’ next to a ‘Wang’s Cantonese’ — and so never connected the utensil separation with the Schwartz’s religious practices. ‘Kosher,’ of course, refers to all food that meets the standards outlined in the Kashrut, the body of Jewish law that deals with food and food preparation. ‘Kashrut’ comes from the Hebrew ‘Kaf-Shin-Resh,’ meaning proper or correct. The word ‘kosher’ stems from the same root.
Food is, for the most part, considered kosher if it follows a few basic guidelines. If the animal being consumed is a land animal, it must both have cloven hooves and chew its cud; if it is an aquatic animal, it must have fins and scales. Most domestic fowl can be eaten; amphibians and reptiles, along with insects, should not be consumed. All animals being eaten must be slaughtered in accordance to Jewish law by a shochet — the word stems from the Hebrew root ‘Shin-Chet-Tav,’ meaning to kill or destroy. The method of slaughter is usually a deep slash across the throat, which is painless and drains the blood completely. This is important because the Torah prohibits the consumption of blood.
A large part of meeting kosher standards is ensuring that certain types of food remain separate. An observant Jew may not “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” — meat and dairy products may not be eaten together. More conservative Jews choose not only to refrain from eating these products in combination but not to use the same utensils, dishes, plates, or counters, for the preparation and eating of the two. Food containing meat is described by the Yiddish word fleishig, food with dairy by the Yiddish word milchig. Food that has neither is categorized as pareve, or neutral.
In the US, products that have kashrut certification are stamped with a hekhser mark that identifies the producer and certifies that the food is kosher. The United States has a thriving kosher food industry: in 2000, a study set the number of regular kosher consumers at nine million and the amount of money spent on kosher products at $40 billion. Furthermore, in the 1994-99 period, the kosher industry experienced 15 percent growth each year.
For their part, Jewish Yale students obtain kosher food from the Slifka Center, the home of Jewish life at Yale. The center not only serves kosher meals but also provides education about Jewish culture at Yale.
Alexandra Bicks ’07 estimated that she eats at Slifka at least three times a week, and sometimes four or five times.
“It’s just easier for me to eat there, because I’m kosher,” Bicks said. “Other dining halls, well, Berkeley is good, but a lot of times everything’s made with ham. Slifka also has a really comfortable family atmosphere. Whenever you walk in, there’s someone there that you can talk to. A lot of us even know the staff by name.”
Yale students who are kosher find that it’s easiest to eat at Slifka because, as Madeline Kerner ’07 said, she’s “so used to kosher meat that meat that they serve at other dining halls — well, who knows what’s in it? It’s potentially sketchy.”
However, while most kosher students at Yale seem to agree that Slifka is the most convenient place to eat if you are observant, not all of them agree with Bicks’ evaluation that Slifka’s “family atmosphere” is a good thing. Elana Bildner ’06 said that it can be “hard to become a part of the ‘Slifka crowd,'” and that, while most people who dine at the center are brought together by their eating habits, the different degrees to which they are involved in Slifka life often divides them.
Bildner is a copy staffer and staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.
“Sometimes people get totally sucked into it. It becomes their main arena for everything at Yale,” Kerner said. “It feels almost hard to infiltrate. You have to be there all the time, and it seems hard to be a ‘sometimes’ Slifka person.”
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