The Kosher Traveler: A Personal Perspective on Food, Faith, and Tradition
What it means to “keep kosher” and how to be resourceful while traveling ✈
As a person of the Jewish faith, “keeping kosher” or “kashrut” is a part of my everyday life. It is not simply a set of dietary rules but a spiritual practice that connects me to my religion, my community, and centuries of Jewish history. To many people, this might sound a bit complex, but it's my mission today to demystify this topic and share what it means to keep kosher at home and abroad. Part of the joy and challenge of keeping kosher comes into play when traveling. Before I delve into that, let’s explain exactly what kosher food is.
“The essence of keeping kosher, for me, goes beyond the food itself. It is about the shared heritage and the sense of belonging that comes from observing these traditions, no matter where in the world I may be.”
What is Kosher?
In essence, “keeping kosher” is following a set of dietary laws derived from the Torah, the central religious text in Judaism. These laws have been interpreted and clarified by generations of rabbis, scholars, and communities over thousands of years, resulting in a rich and nuanced system.
It all started around 3,500 years ago, when the laws of kashrut were laid out in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Torah. However, it wasn't simply about distinguishing between what's edible and what's not. Rather, it was an attempt to align our daily habits with our spiritual beliefs. As the centuries rolled by, these laws were studied, discussed, and expounded upon by Jewish sages, resulting in the elaborate rules we follow today.
Kashrut laws encompass a broad spectrum, from the type of foods we consume, how these foods are prepared, to even the dishes and utensils we use.
Some of the Fundamentals:
1. Permitted and Forbidden Animals: Not all animals are deemed kosher. For instance, only animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves, like cows and sheep, are considered kosher. Pigs, despite having cloven hooves, do not chew their cud and are therefore not kosher. In the realm of birds, species like chicken, turkey, and duck are permissible. However, predatory and scavenger birds are not. All fruits, vegetables, and grains are inherently kosher, although they must be checked for bugs, which are not kosher.
2. Separation of Meat and Dairy: This is a major principle in kashrut. The Torah explicitly states, "Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk," which has been interpreted to mean that we must not mix meat and dairy in any form. Therefore, in a kosher kitchen, meat and dairy products are stored separately, prepared with different sets of utensils, and even eaten at different times.
3. Shechita (Ritual Slaughter): Kosher laws dictate how an animal should be slaughtered to minimize suffering. A trained individual, known as a shochet, swiftly cuts the animal's throat with a razor-sharp knife, causing instantaneous death. The blood is then fully drained, as consuming blood is not kosher.
4. Pareve: This term refers to "neutral" foods that are neither meat nor dairy, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and eggs. These foods can be eaten with either category.
5. Passover: During this week-long festival, additional dietary rules come into play. We avoid chametz, or leavened products such as bread, and instead eat matzah, unleavened bread.
To many outside observers, keeping kosher might seem like a burden or a limitation. But, for me, it represents a constant, daily connection to my faith. Each meal becomes a reminder of my heritage and my commitment to living a life in accordance with Jewish laws and values.
Moreover, kashrut isn't solely about personal observance; it fosters a sense of community. Shared dietary practices mean shared meals during Shabbat and Jewish holidays, strengthening the bond among community members.
To those considering this path or merely curious, remember, the journey into kashrut is a personal one, and it does not have to be taken all at once. Like all profound things in life, it is a journey filled with learning, adaptation, and growth.
Keeping Kosher While Traveling
Each new travel destination brings its unique set of experiences and requires careful navigation when it comes to food. For me, this is a significant part of my journey and a testament to my dedication to kashrut.
In places like New York City, with its large Jewish population, finding kosher food is like a walk in Central Park. The city is a treasure trove of kosher delights, from bagel shops to upscale eateries. It's heartwarming to see my dietary practices reflected in the rich, diverse food culture of the Big Apple. There's a shared sense of community when I sit down in a kosher restaurant, knowing that the person across the table understands my choices without a need for explanation.
However, not every travel experience is brimming with kosher options. Traveling to places with a less pronounced Jewish presence often means fewer kosher-certified restaurants or none at all. It is in such situations that I've had to be resourceful and adaptive.
Thankfully, my understanding of kosher laws and symbols comes in handy during these times. On my supermarket trips, I religiously scan food packaging for kosher symbols, known as hechsherim. These symbols vary, depending on the certifying organization and country. Some familiar ones include the OU (Orthodox Union), OK (Organized Kashrus), and the Star-K. These symbols assure me that the food product has been prepared under strict kosher supervision.
For the uninitiated, identifying kosher symbols might seem daunting, but with time and experience, it becomes second nature. My routine visit to a supermarket transforms into a sort of treasure hunt, with each kosher symbol found representing a small victory.
Another asset for kosher travelers like me is the international Chabad-Lubavitch organization. Their branches are spread worldwide, even in some of the most unexpected locations. When kosher options are scarce, Chabad houses often provide meals – either free or for a fee – and they have proven to be a lifeline on numerous occasions. More than just a meal, it's a chance to connect with fellow Jewish travelers and locals, fostering a sense of community and home away from home.
For instance, during a trip to Puerto Rico, where kosher food is commonplace in supermarkets, but kosher restaurants are far and few to be found, the local Chabad house became my haven. I was not only able to enjoy delicious kosher meals, but they also delivered the food straight to my hotel.
In my exploration of kashrut, I've found that it is not simply a matter of following rules. It is about imbuing everyday activities, like eating, with a sense of the divine. It connects me to my ancestors, shapes my identity, and instills my daily life with meaning. Through this practice, every meal is transformed from a mundane act to a mindful, spiritual experience.
Traveling while keeping kosher certainly adds an extra layer of complexity to my journeys. Yet, these very experiences have taught me resilience and adaptability. They've made me a part of global Jewish communities I never knew existed, enabled me to connect with fellow Jews around the world, and have turned seemingly ordinary meals into cherished memories.
The essence of keeping kosher, for me, goes beyond the food itself. It is about the shared heritage and the sense of belonging that comes from observing these traditions, no matter where in the world I may be. Each journey is a reminder that my commitment to kashrut connects me to a rich tapestry of Jewish life, extending from my home kitchen to the farthest corners of the globe.