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For beginners, keeping kosher needn’t be ‘all or nothing’

Barbara Mannlein and her husband, Martin, use color-coded kitchen tools: red for meat, blue for dairy and green for pareve. (Martin Mannlein)

The Jewish dietary laws, termed kashrut, are many and complex. According to the Torah and the Talmud, Jews may not mix meat and dairy, and may eat only fish with scales and fins, and meat from ruminants with cloven hooves. Pareve — foods containing neither meat nor dairy, including fruits, vegetables and herbs — can be eaten with any dish. For some Jews, though, checking that their aluminum foil wasn’t processed with non-kosher oil, and using separate dishes for dairy, meat or pareve, is more than they feel able to deal with in a busy, modern world.

A 2013 Pew Research Center Study found that around 22 percent of American Jews keep kosher, including approximately 98 percent of Orthodox and 83 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews.

A complete kosher kitchen usually includes two of everything, with separate dishes and storage for pots and pans used for meat and dairy, and often two sinks and dishwashers. The Torah and Talmud are very clear that observing kashrut is central to Judaism, says Rabbi Israel Becker of the Orthodox Congregation Chofetz Chayim. But, he says, it’s not necessary to view keeping kosher as an “all or nothing” practice.

“All or nothing is not Judaism,” he emphasizes. “You look at the ‘all’ as the ideal and aspire to grow.”

Becker makes himself available on a one-on-one basis to anyone seeking step-by-step advice on how to create a kosher kitchen. He makes it abundantly clear that he’s not there to dictate in any way. “Your home is your own domain. The role of the rabbi is to teach, and help people observe Judaism.”

Shopping for kosher food

Large grocery stores carry a selection of kosher products, and Chofetz Chayim offers a kosher supermarket tour every year before Passover, open to anyone who wants to learn more about kosher products and how to identify them.

Phyllis Broad includes the kashrut laws in the conversion classes she teaches at Congregation Anshei Israel. “I teach the philosophy behind it. And I bring in food wrappers, and explain what the symbols mean, and how to tell it’s a kosher product.”

Hechshers, the symbols on grocery labels, identify foods as kosher, under the supervision of a rabbi known as a Rav Hamachshir or Kosher Supervision Organization. The most common symbols are OU or OK. Many others exist. A “K” on a product is not an indication of supervision or endorsement, but usually just means the company itself deems the product kosher.

Eli’s Deli, on E. 5th Street, sells all kosher products, and is Tucson’s only kosher butcher. At Nadine’s bakery in Tucson, everything is baked on the premises using certified kosher ingredients, says owner Sara Berkenpas. The store is supervised by Becker, who also endorses U-Swirl Yogurt.

Making the switch

Barbara and Martin Mannlein, members of Congregation Anshei Israel, first adopted a kosher lifestyle when they moved to Tucson 16 years ago. “I’d always wanted to do it,” Barbara says. “With a new house and a new kitchen, it seemed like a good time.”

She bought new pots, and color-coded them with nail polish: “Red for meat, blue for dairy and green for pareve.” She purchased new dishes — white for dairy and patterned for meat. “My beloved Tupperware had to go, because it was too easy to confuse. I bought differently colored sets for meat, dairy and pareve.”

“It was overwhelming at first, but you get used to it,” says Mannlein. She uses separate cutting boards, dish towels and wash cloths. She has a divided sink, and hand washes utensils used for meat in a plastic tub.

Eating out, privately or in restaurants, can present problems for those who keep kosher. Are the food and dishes kosher? Does this recipe contain meat and dairy?

“Most of our friends keep kosher,” says Mannlein. “And we often eat at Lovin’ Spoonfuls [vegetarian restaurant].” In other restaurants, she orders dishes like pasta, fish or salad, but doesn’t insist on kosher plates.

Would she ever go back to non-kosher eating? “No,” says Mannlein. “I just feel I’m doing what I should. You are what you eat.”

“Kosher is not just about food,” says Reform Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, of Congregation Chaverim. “I think a lot of it is about mindfulness, and what’s fit, or proper.” That’s the idea behind eco-kashrut, she says. For example, “Are you eating food not fit to eat? If it’s covered in pesticide, would it sustain your life? It’s not only what we’re eating, but what we’re wearing. Is it fit to wear a garment made in a third-world country by a 12-year-old child? It takes kosher to another level.”

A traditional kosher diet isn’t necessarily the healthiest, comments Sunny Holliday, owner of Lovin’ Spoonfuls, who was raised in a kosher home. “It tends to be high in fat, low in fiber and very rich in highly processed foods.” Animals slaughtered for kosher meat in large factories often suffer cruelty, she says. “Sometimes, in trying to keep to the letter of the law, it’s possible to miss the spirit of the law.”

“It is our tradition that the kosher laws are the most humane way to prepare an animal for consumption,” says Becker. “The kosher laws are important [for Jews] because they’re a constant reminder of their place in the world and connection to G-d. Eating is something we do constantly, many times every day. Every time you eat, you remember who you are.”

A mezuzah serves as a similar reminder, he says. It’s a symbol that “in this house we respect each other, open our house to the needy and connect to G-d in every aspect of our existence. In our table, the way we eat, everything in this house is sanctified.

“People need reminders; they’re human. Kosher laws are an exciting way to remind us of who we are.”

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.