Some Millennial Jews Taking Different Approach to Eating Kosher


Bacon may be a popular cultural meme among millennials, but a certain subset are forgoing the pork and focusing on ancient dietary laws: Kashrut, a set of Jewish dietary restrictions originating in the Old Testament. Kashrut, or keeping kosher, means that one cannot mix “a calf in its mother’s milk” or eat meat and dairy together (no cheeseburgers or chicken parm), fish must have gills and fins (no shrimp, lobster or oysters on the half shell), livestock must chew their cud and have split hooves (no pigs) and must be slaughtered according to ritual. Pre-packaged kosher foods must also be supervised by a masgiach, who adds a seal of approval (like the popular OU found on everything from Oreos to Tom’s of Maine toothpast) to confirm the kosherness of any edible product. Sound like a lot of rules? There are so many more. So why is this notoriously rule-breaking generation headed back to 1000-year-old laws?

According to an October 2013 study from the Pew Jewish Center, 27% of American Millennial Jews (those born after 1980) are keeping kosher, which is almost twice the rate as that of their Baby Boomer parents. If it’s not parents pressuring their offspring to stay away from coconut shrimp at young professional networking events, what’s leading all these progressive young people to keeping ancient traditions?

While 27% of Jews between 18-29 years old reported not believing in God, only 20% of 50-64 year old reported having the same belief. Animal rights, and perhaps a greater connection to socially conscious eating practices may be related to the new resurgence of Kashrut.  Further in the survey, 55% of Millennial Jews reported “working for justice” as an essential quality of Jewish identity and 65% reported that “leading an ethical life” was also essential. 

A September 2014 article from The Atlantic entitled “Kosher Meets Hipster” proposed that perhaps “ancient laws fit well with contemporary concerns about sustainability.” As a generation of Jewish people who did not grow up Kosher learns more about the world outside their home kitchens, their eating decisions may morph to represent prior generations, who, like food writer Michael Pollan suggests, had healthier and more sustainable eating habits  -- “Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food,” Pollan argues in his book Food Rules.

Michelle Bentsman, a 24-year-old artist who lives in New York, began keeping kosher as a freshman at University of Chicago, after becoming interested in Judaic practice and studying with a rabbi. “He described a mystical idea of why milk and meat must necessarily be separated: milk has life-giving attributes while meat is a remnant of a dead thing; the generative and destructive qualities should be regarded separately,” Bentsman recalls. “At the time it struck me as very lovely. I found that living out this separation made me a lot more conscious about where my food was coming from, especially in regard to animal products. I felt that I was eating deliberately, and that the composition of my diet had a resonance beyond satiating hunger.”

As part for her new kosher lifestyle, Benstman met a shochet (a kosher animal slaughterer) and started only eating kosher meat. “The way he described the process was really inspiring, from the requisite sharpness of the blade -–it cuts through flesh like butter-- to the clarity of intention required to kill each creature.” Bentsman, who admittedly does not each much meat, prefers this process to other slaughter methods, because she thinks it feels more intimate with the animal. 

I grew up in a kosher home—we had separate dishes for meat and dairy and as much as my younger brother and I begged for shrimp with cashew nuts from our local Chinese takeout place, we were very much forbidden from enjoying traif (unkosher food). As I became a bat mitzvah and an adult, attending Jewish camps and Hebrew school, keeping kosher was an essential part of my life. It was only after ending a six-year streak of vegetarianism that I started indulging in novel dishes like lobster rolls and pork buns. I earned a Bachelor’s in Jewish Studies and don’t consider myself any less Jewish than I was growing up, but my values have changed and my diet and lifestyle have changed to reflect that.

And while animals play the most central role in kosher practices, vegetarians and vegans have their own set of restrictions. My friend Anna Pestine, whose family also kept kosher growing up, became a vegetarian at age six and full vegan in the past few years, but even though she is not eating anything unkosher, she does not identify as kosher any longer. “If someone asked me if I kept kosher I would tell them that I don’t.  [Kashrut] is outdated and I’d rather set my own criteria for how I eat. If I did eat meat animal products, it would be more important to me that the food was produced ethically from my own moral perspective rather than a Jewish one.”

While kashrut is one method of making informed eating choices, it seems that Millennials are thinking more about what they consume, for ethical and sustainable reasons, and perhaps ancient tradition is just one way to help progressively-minded eaters moderate the endless food options in today’s edible world.

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