It’s not kosher — it’s ‘Cal­i­for­nia kosher’

The rules of kashrut are the same world over — ex­cept, that is, in parts of Amer­ica where crus­tacea are of­ten spot­ted on a bar­mitz­vah menu. Judi Rose in­ves­ti­gates

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

IF AMER­ICA does it to­day, the rest of the world sup­pos­edly fol­lows to­mor­row. If that is the case, what goes on at a smart State­side bar­mitz­vah? The JC went to in­ves­ti­gate. The “do” in ques­tion took place in Or­ange, New Jer­sey. The shul — sorry, tem­ple — was taste­ful and con­tem­po­rary, the ser­vice quite lovely. And it was clear from the bar­mitz­vah boy’s droshe that both he and the rest of his fam­ily were deeply spir­i­tual and in­volved in syn­a­gogue life.

En­ter­ing the din­ing area at the lunch venue, my in­ter­est was at­tracted by a dra­matic or­ange cen­tre-piece crown­ing the buf­fet at the far side of the room.

From where I was stand­ing it bore a strik­ing re­sem­blance to the Trevi Fountain, with cas­cades of what I as­sumed to be art­fully ar­ranged smoked salmon. The lat­est Amer­i­can sim­chah tra­di­tion, no doubt. I ap­proached ea­gerly, plate in hand.

“May I serve you some­thing from the shrimp fountain, Ma’am?”

Had a s wat team from the L o n d o n B e t h Din dressed in full com­bat gear swooped in on a fly­ing tal­lit at this point, I doubt I would be have been any more stunned.

Af­ter dis­creet in­quiries, I was in­formed that the bar­mitz­vah boy’s fam­ily “keep Cal­i­for­nia kosher”. As our fel­low guest ex­plained, its ad­her­ents may eat prawns and lob­ster, but not squid or mus­sels; ba­con is a break­fast favourite, but they would never touch a pork chop.

“Cal­i­for­nia kosher, to me, is thoughtout de­lib­er­ate choices,” ex­plains An­drea Levine, a doc­tor from Ma­rina del Rey. “The idea is to study care­fully, and de­cide which laws have spir­i­tual mean­ing for you. Th­ese de­ci­sions aren’t made lightly.” This is dif­fer­ent to Re­form (the equiv­a­lent of UK Lib­eral), she adds, whose mem­bers typ­i­cally do not keep kosher at all.

Such in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sion-mak­ing some­times leads to mishaps. “I hired a lo­cal caterer to do a Cal­i­for­nia kosher lunch for my son’s bar­mitz­vah,” one mor­ti­fied mother in Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia re­cently re­vealed on a com­mu­nity web­site. “I was hor­ri­fied to find the sushi rolls had shrimp, eel and who knows what else!”

For other Cal­i­for­nia kosher fol­low­ers, pork and seafood are gen­er­ally off lim­its at home, but ba­con and Chi­nese take-away are fine “so long as you use pa­per plates”, one ad­her­ent ex­plained.

Ad­mit­tedly, most of us know peo­ple who are ge­o­graph­i­cally kosher — who never have treif in the house, but who some­times eat at non-kosher restau­rants, and do not just have the fish.

And then there are those who ap­ply dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria when there is a large body of wa­ter be­tween them and home (“Well, I’m on hol­i­day”). But those mak­ing th­ese op­por­tu­nis- tic lapses gen­er­ally seem to feel guilty about them, pre­fer­ring to in­dulge their taste for treif when no one is look­ing rather than mak­ing a public state­ment about it.

What makes the Cal­i­for­nia kosher ap­proach dif­fer­ent is that th­ese breaches of con­ven­tional kashrut are public, un­apolo­getic and quasi-in­sti­tu­tion­alised.

The Cal­i­for­nia kosher move­ment is evolv­ing or­gan­i­cally as a re­sponse to the pres­sures and temp­ta­tions of so­cial and culi­nary as­sim­i­la­tion in one of the most life­style-con­scious en­vi­ron­ments in the world.

It seems a grow­ing num­ber of US Jews who are nei­ther strictly Ortho­dox nor to­tally as­sim­i­lated are fol­low­ing a “third way”.

A gen­er­a­tion ago or so ago, you ei­ther kept kosher or you did not. To­day in Amer­ica, there is kosher — where every­one fol­lows the same dic­tates — and Cal­i­for­nia kosher, where you fol­low your in­di­vid­ual rules with pride.

So is the Cal­i­for­nia kosher trend, like sushi and pi­lates, likely to catch on in the UK?

“I’ve al­ways kept a strictly kosher home,” says Ali­son, a mother of two from Wat­ford. But, she con­fides, s h e r e c e n t l y bought some “ e mer­gency” chicken nuggets for the kids from M&S.

“They were so easy and de­li­cious that I’ve got them a f ew times now. But I would never serve non-kosher food at a sim­chah.” There are signs, how­ever, that a Bri­tish vari­ant of Cal­i­for­nia kosher is catch­ing on at some Lon­don sim­chahs. It is known as “in­of­fen­sive ca­ter­ing”. Ac­cord­ing to a sea­soned trend-watcher from North Lon­don, who prefers to re­main anony­mous, the term is used by an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple to mean: “We’re too cool to want even a stylish kosher caterer.” Or more of­ten it is: “We’re too poor (or mean) to spend the pre­mium charged by a kosher caterer.”

In­of­fen­sive ca­ter­ing, as its name sug­gests, is typ­i­cally fish- and dairy-based. That is the un­spo­ken rule for now. But can the shrimp fountain re­ally be far be­hind?

Lob­ster with lock­shen? It can and does hap­pen at bar­mitz­vahs and wed­dings in Cal­i­for­nia

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