“An army marches on its stomach.” This saying, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, is as true today as it was over 200 years ago. In the Israel Defense Forces, food is a top priority. The meals for the soldiers are designed by doctors and nutritionists to keep the soldiers strong and healthy.
For a Jewish soldier in the IDF, keeping kosher would seem to be quite simple. The Israeli army is kept strictly kosher and its kitchens are carefully color coded, with two full sets of dishes. Even new recruits who are not familiar with Hebrew, or those who are not kosher observant are able to understand where things go. Yet the question of kosher in the IDF isn’t as straightforward as one might think, and depending whom you speak to, you might receive a variety of answers.
When I interviewed former lone soldiers Zalmy and Josh, they told me that it is not hard to keep basic kosher in the Israeli army and all the dairy is Cholov Yisroel. However, if you have stricter standards, you may have a more difficult time. According to Rabbi Kalman Weinfeld, current Food Service director at OK Kosher, who served as a kitchen mashgiach in the IDF Air Force from 1992-1995, it’s not so simple. The equipment in the kitchens are not suitable for those who keep the highest standards of kashrus. While Rabbi Weinfeld oversaw the kitchens, he himself kept to a stricter standard of kosher and never once ate anything cooked while in the army. He had his own dishes and cutlery and made his own salads, due to shemittah concerns, and food. “I lived on bread and soft cheeses for 6 months while in basic training,” Weinfeld said. He explained that the year of Shemittah (1993-94) can also add complications to eating meals with your fellow soldiers. There is a “heter mechirah” in the country, a loophole announcing that “all land in Israel belongs to the non-Jews” which allows people to eat from the fruits and vegetables grown without being concerned about shemittah. However, many frum Jews don’t use the heter mechirah, which makes eating in the army challenging during that time period.
Corporal Zalmy, a lone soldier from New Jersey, who served for 2 years, had a handful of soldiers who were ultra-orthodox and kept to a stricter standard of kosher in his division. Their unit made sure to have special meat with an approved hechsher on hand that these soldiers could eat. If this wasn’t available, the soldiers would eat tuna or find another protein. He told me that it really depended who your commanding officer happened to be. Obviously, if your commanding officer is one who is more religious, they might make more of an effort to ensure their soldiers kashrus needs were met, though there were times when they could not accommodate the soldiers.
It also depends on the size and location of the army base. On the borders of Lebanon or Syria, it is rather difficult to set up a proper kitchen in the middle of the desert and they make do with makeshift tent kitchens. During the 6 Day War and the Yom Kippur War, thousands of soldiers on the border were fed from these small makeshift kitchens! In these types of scenarios, keeping a strictly kosher kitchen is quite difficult. While every base has different meals and menus, generally speaking, the larger the base, the likelihood that there will be a higher-ranking official such as a Lieutenant or Captain increases, which would mean access to a variety of better foods.
Every army base has a mashgiach who is responsible for the kosher status of the kitchen. They work together with the kitchen manager and the kitchen “jobniks” (non-combat soldiers). Combat Soldiers will also have kitchen duty (this applies to the US army as well), where they help prepare the meals and do clean up. The cooks in the kitchen are always Jewish but not always Shomer Shabbos, so they are not allowed to turn on any fires. The mashgiach and the more religious soldiers must pay attention to these details to ensure that it’s as kosher as possible.
While combining religion and the army is very difficult, many soldiers have figured out ways to make it happen. Even something as simple as davening could be complicated because every minute of the day is accounted for down to an exact schedule. While you can generally pray during morning chores, sometimes they need to get up at 4 am to daven shacharis!
Shabbos in the army, regardless of religious background is always a special and holy time for all the soldiers. Lavish meals are served, and attendance is mandatory. The rabbi on base makes kiddush for all the soldiers (no wine, only grape juice is served). Soldiers dressed in their army uniforms with guns in their lap join together to sing traditional Shabbos zemiros. The best food is served during this time, including beef and, sometimes, soda. Sergeant Josh from Kentucky related to me that in his experience there was no official Shabbos morning breakfast but chocolate milk was a special treat the soldiers received and the soldiers would literally hoard this drink because it was so special for them. For Shabbos lunch, a traditional pareve cholent is served, which the soldiers call “choont”. Josh told me that the first time he experienced “choont” he thought the egg in the cholent (as is traditional in a Sephardic cholent) was a potato and when he bit into it he got a nice surprise!
Josh explained that you will always know what kind of day it will be depending on the food you are served.
Shnitzel (or other protein) meant it was going to be a good or easier training day, while a carb-loading day meant it was going to be a difficult training day or a mission. A large dinner around 7 pm meant the soldiers would have a masa (journey) planned for early morning. This journey would generally include a very long hike, which could be up to 75 km (46 miles)! Every 10 km the soldiers would get a break, and the food would be very light, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Meat would be too heavy on the body, while dairy would cause vomiting. After the masa, a large meal would be served.
In Rabbi Weinfeld’s experience in the Air Force, he feels that food is more than just making sure the soldiers are fed in order to do their job.
Rabbi Weinfeld always tried to be the one who served the main course, ensuring that soldiers who were hungry received a second portion, even when the rule was only one portion per soldier. The Air Force also had a policy that there had to be a soup served at every meal. However, the soldiers generally didn’t like it and it was hardly eaten. Rabbi Weinfeld began a personal campaign to encourage the soldiers to eat the soup by singing a chant that was once popular on an Israeli children’s’ television show about eating healthy. “Tochal Marak, Tihiyeh Chazak” – If you eat soup, you will be strong. Rabbi Weinfeld sang this song with the soldiers and it turned into a joke throughout the entire base, but it worked and more and more soldiers ate the soup!
A soldier once asked Rabbi Weinfeld why he placed such importance on the soldiers eating. Why did he care so much? Rabbi Weinfeld explained that growing up, his mother always taught him that the many guests that would come for Shabbos meals weren’t guests, their family just got bigger for Shabbos. He explained that the soldiers are all like his family and he cared about them. He then taught the soldier the proper brocha for the soup.
The story continued three years later when Rabbi Weinfeld found himself lost on the way to Jerusalem for an official government meeting. Rabbi Weinfeld called Israel’s information line to find the exact location. After a few minutes on the phone with the operator discussing the address of where he needed to go, the male operator says, “Rabbi Kalman – before you hang up, Tochal Marak Tihiyeh Chazak!” It was the very same soldier who always made a brocha before eating soup after his encounter with Rabbi Weinfeld.
Rabbi Weinfeld imparted to me that being in the army while working in the kitchen was more than just the kashrus laws; it was also about connecting with people and each person he met was treated with respect.
Soldiers Josh and Zalmy have similar experiences. While our interviews were about keeping kosher in the IDF and what that entailed, something they were both enthusiastic about was how soldiers were treated and cared for through gifts of food. For example, Lone Soldiers are given care packages of food during holidays when the rest of the soldiers go home to family. There are special dinners and events to make sure the Lone Soldiers feel at home and are not lonely. Soldiers that work on the Iron Dome are often given gifts of food from nearby kibbutzim. For Shabbos, kibbutz members go to their local army base and bring food gifts to the soldiers. Lone Soldiers will often have an “adoptive mother” who help them get food and other supplies they need.
Josh was once posted at a dangerous outpost for a checkpoint. He fondly recalls how chareidi rabbis, along with their young children, would drive around giving out treats and donuts on Chanukah. Through music and dancing and talking with the soldiers, they made them feel part of their family and appreciated for their service.
The lessons I took away from my conversations were twofold. First, even while living in the Holy Land and serving in the IDF with a full kosher kitchen, it is still of upmost importance to pay attention to what you are being fed, from the hechsher, kind of food, or even time of year. Certainly, living in exile, care must be taken even in places that appear completely kosher. Secondly, the beauty and community of Am Yisrael, always sharing and helping a fellow Jew, caring and supporting each member of our extra-large family.