A Question of Kosher
By Tom Fitzgerald - THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
Rabbi Bernard Levy strode into the room. He flung his arms wide, as if to encompass the whole world, and inhaled deeply. “This is horseradish,” he said.
He then turned to Wendell Christoff, president of C. J. Christoff and Sons Inc., and began peppering him with questions.
“Do you clean these vats out? Do you use oils in the horseradish? Where do you get your vinegar?”
Levy flew into Grand Rapids Wednesday from Brooklyn, N.Y., to inspect the products of the Lowell firm, which makes horseradish, sauces and salad dressings.
He was there to see if the firm’s products are kosher, that is, if they conform to the strict dietary laws observed by Orthodox Jews.
The inspection was tough.
The horseradish passed, earning the “circle K” seal of approval.
The sauces and salad dressings didn’t.
Judaic dietary law, derived from the Bible, fills volumes. Levy outlines the basics: Orthodox Jews may eat the meat of only those animals that chew a cud and have split hooves. They may eat the meat of only animals slaughtered according to prescribed dairy products — in cooking or eating.
Levy is a rabbi’s rabbi. “I’m almost as orthodox as anyone can be,” he said. “Forty of fifty years ago, Jews looked like I do.”
He wears a black suit and shiny black shoes. Although his thick white beard reaches down to his stomach, Levy said, most of it is knotted up and shoved into an unruly nest of hair.
The shortened beard seems to rest on his chest when he leans back in a chair. He covers his head with a black, stiff-brimmed had. When he doffs it to scratch his head, you can see his yarmulke (skullcap) underneath.
Levy runs OK Kosher Certification, a Brooklyn firm that helps enforce Judaism’s dietary laws on the manufacturing end. The rabbi travels the world, inspecting food factories. He confers or withholds the coveted “circle K” seal, a universally accepted symbol which means a product is kosher.
Levy moved quickly through the Christoff plant, stopping to bend over and peer at labels on boxes and drums of ingredients. He sometimes took off his glasses, squinting at the tiny printing on the labels.
Christoff’s vinegar, mixed with the pulp of horseradish roots and spices to form horseradish, passed muster.
“The only vinegar that’s not kosher is wine vinegar,” Levy said. “any wine products are sacramental. They have religious connotations and we’re not allowed to have them mixed in food.”
So, the horseradish can be branded with the “circle K.”
But Christoff’s salad dressings were tossed because the rabbi found that several ingredients used in these products aren’t kosher.
If an ingredient that goes into a product isn’t kosher, the product itself cannot be kosher, said Levy.
Levy determined that the emulsifiers that hold the salad dressing and sauces together came from the fat of an animal which hadn’t been slaughtered according to Judaic ritual.
He also said the eggs used in the salad dressings were not kosher because Christoff buys them from a New Jersey firm which sometimes puts fertilized eggs in with regular ones.
A fertilized chicken egg is an animal, according to Jewish law. If it is mixed with cream in a salad dressing, there is an illegal mixing of meat and milk.
Christoff’s bleu cheese dressing was rejected because the cheese is encased in a film taken from cows, and it is not permissible to mix dairy and meat products.
“In order for me to certify the rest of the plant,” Levy said, “he (Christoff) will have to change to kosher suppliers for these things.”
Levi said the law is not in place for hygienic reasons, as many have argued. “The Bible tells us we’re supposed to be holy people. Where the dietary laws are mentioned, the word ‘holiness’ is used. That’s an indication that this has nothing to do with physical, hygienic laws. It’s strictly a spiritual law.”
The law is complex, Levy said. It takes study to keep up with new applications of it.
“Outside of Hebrew law, the only thing I read is a newspaper,” said Levy. “I always have books of law with me. I’m always studying.”
The rabbi said when he was a schoolboy he studied Jewish law from 7 a.m. to midnight daily, with Friday afternoons off to prepare for the Sabbath. “sometimes I slept on a bench in school. I never went home; I’d get up in the morning and start studying again.
“If you’ve been brought up in that kind of work and you’re happy with it, you don’t want to look for anything else. I’m working for people, serving people and trying to make the world better place to live.”