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
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