Keeping Kosher in Europe

EnglishIn the following article of mine, which was published in the recent Jewish Press’ Kosher Food Supplement (but so far not available on their site), I explore some challenges of keeping kosher in Europe. It’s easier than ever, but you still need to explore some issues. This is written primarily for a North American adience, but there is a lot in it for Europeans, too.

Keeping kosher in Europe

Twenty-three years ago, I undertook a fifteen hundred mile road trip with a couple of friends. The three of us were Europeans and for the first time, we undertook such a long road trip without packing food rations for an army; we were traveling in the United States. Even though our trip would take us places where there was no significant Jewish community we knew of, we could rest assured that any supermarket would be generously stocked with thousands of products supervised by the leading American kashrus agencies. When we were left wanting for deserts, we ended up adding OU certified baby foods to our shopping carts. The stuff is actually edible and can taste just fine. It‘s better than the sugar overloaded stuff that passes for adult desserts.

Back in our home countries, we would never do that unless we wanted to become frutarians. Yours truly has repeatedly gone on vacation with two weeks‘ supplies of vacuum packed meat, canned tuna, odorous, pungent, delectable cheeses, hoards of

crackers and condiments, to be complemented at destination (or on the way) by such products one may buy without a hekhsher. Americans have much to be thankful for, both to the plethora of reliable kashrus agencies and to the myriads of companies that not only seek kosher supervision, but actually print the kosher symbols on their packaging. First honors go to Heinz (even though I abhor ketchup), for reaching out to the OU back in 1927 to create a discrete symbol that would not necessarily be noticed by non-kosher consumers.

In Europe, we find products with a hekhsher on the packaging, too. Kellogg‘s cereal, Heinz ketchups, Guylian pralines, Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen Dazs ice cream. But such products are few and far between. Instead, European kosher consumers who do not want to eschew all manufactured foods, are left with two options: do your purchases in kosher supermarkets and grocery stores, or walk around your local supermarket armed with your country’s kosher list.

All self respecting larger Jewish communities have increasingly nice kosher supermarkets. Whether you visit Paris, London or Antwerp, Lyon, Strasbourg or Vienna, you will find some kosher supermarkets.

You will also find there kosher butchers and restaurants, but beware, kashrut standards may be different. In the United States, for many years now, non-glatt meat has been synonymous with hardly kosher, borderline fraudulent. However, in Europe there are communities that have centuries-old traditions of allowing non-glatt meat, and they produce it under strict supervision. Thus, even when a hekhsher has a good name, the meat might be non glatt; if you want glatt, call ahead and ask for it. Your grandparents may recall a time when meat was sold before soaking and salting, which was done at home. Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find any reliably kosher butcher in North America selling not yet kashered meats, but in Paris, many still do. When in doubt, ask.

Even in the larger communities, the kosher supermarkets, butchers and restaurants might not be in your neighborhood. If you’re a visitor, you may not even know how to find them. It’s not like the Jewish neighborhood of Paris’ 19th arrondissement rings a bell as readily as Borough Park. Furthermore, if you visit a smaller community or are traveling where there is none, you’re out of luck. Which leads us to the kosher lists.

Many European rabbinates publish lists of manufactured foods that may be purchased on the general markets. These lists include kosher certified products that do not bear any kosher symbols in Europe, as well as products that were expressly checked for inclusion in the list.

The presence of the latter kind of products is a concession to the needs of kosher consumers. To supervise kashrus, one needs manpower, and if a manufacturer is merely “recruited” for featuring its products on a kosher list, the cost of supervision will have to be born by cash strapped communal institutions. The supervision schedule is thus necessarily less intense than for certified products. Furthermore, there may be a dearth of products that would meet a higher kashrus standard, such that kosher lists may allow leniencies, particularly in countries where there are less kosher consumers. For example, there is a disagreement among halakhic experts what kind of whey may be considered kosher. Whey is a by-product of cheese production, and insofar as it results from the production of non kosher hard cheeses, one may ask whether such whey can be kosher. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:17), basing himself on earlier poskim, ruled leniently, that the non kosher cheese only became non kosher (under the rubric of gevinas aku”m) upon being removed from the whey brine. Thus, even if the cheese had been cooked in the whey, the whey would not be affected by the later non-kosher status of the cheese. The reasoning is novel and it is not surprising that this is one of Rav Moshe’s leniencies that was less accepted. Even if you typically accept the permissibility of chalav stam, it may be totally reasonable to balk at accepting any or certain kinds of whey. Whether a kosher list allows any whey is a policy question that every rabbinate publishing such a list asks itself. Consumers, however, may at most notice that what’s considered kosher in one list isn’t listed in another.

Product recipes also vary from country to country even if the brand name is identical. Identically labeled mayonnaise is sweeter in Belgium than in the Netherlands. Such changes may or may not be relevant for kashrus. What’s kosher in one country is thus not necessarily kosher in another country.

Therefore, when traveling or vacationing in Europe, it is recommended that you consult with your rabbi or a recommended kashrus professional as to whether to rely on a kosher list. Locals often have little choice, but you may withstand the urge to buy chocolate spread for a grand two weeks of vacation. Or you may have nothing else to eat and it might be legitimate to be lenient; just ask a she’elah. At any rate, some lists – for example the Swiss kosher lists – are of top quality and are aiming for the same halakhic positions as the leading North American hekhsherim.

Upon deciding to utilize the local kosher list, you may face a hurdle: the lists and the product labels are typically in the local language. This is the time to brush up on your high school French or Spanish, if that’s where you’re heading.

Producing these lists is difficult, work intensive and because it is done without having a contractual relationship with the companies whose products are being listed, it can occasionally be error prone. One major kashrut expert set out to produce a revamped and expanded kosher list for a European country that until then had had a rather pitiful kosher list. He spared no effort. Knowing that kosher consumers would very much appreciate it, he searched far and wide for a company that could supply an acceptable palette of pickled cabbage, which meant finding a company that only processed kosher ingredients. Unfortunately, between the time the company was checked and the publication of the kosher list, several months elapsed, during which the company decided to launch a revamped product line, including cabbage with bacon bits. Embarrassingly, one week after publishing the list, they had to recall the cabbage from the list. The moral of the story is that rabbis need to choose the companies very carefully and consumers should double check ingredients whenever possible, because rabbis aren’t prophets. Flagging obviously problematic ingredients, like bacon or squid, shouldn’t be so hard – provided you understand the language in which the ingredients are listed.

Some products may be kosher without further ado, such as milk and pure natural yogurt in the EU. Most jams are kosher, provided they are made with just fruits, sugar, pectin and citric acid. But some jams are sweetened with (non kosher) grape juice or grape jelly, and some jams, such as that from quinces, fall under the prohibition of bishul nokhri, as it is a noble product that cannot be eaten raw. In some countries, certain breads may be kosher (pat nachtom), but you’d need to have mastery of the local language and customs – and of the kashrut guidelines for that product – to be able to check whether the neighborhood bakery’s baguettes are indeed kosher.

Finally, there is something new that can complement the kosher lists and the fresh foods. In recent years, kosher internet grocers have popped up, which will deliver anywhere within their home country and a ring of neighboring countries. When we lived in Germany, we’d regularly place orders with a Belgian kosher internet grocer to supplement what we could buy locally. This includes delicacies unknown to many US consumers, such as particularly pungent cheeses, flavorful specialty sausages and delectable baked goods reflecting the culinary traditions of Europe. If you go on vacation or for a business trip and have the exact address ahead of time, you may be able to order one day before arrival (check the delivery lead time), so that on the morrow of your arrival you’ll have a friendly delivery fellow tell you in whatever local language you do not understand, that there is a package for you.

Keeping kosher in Europe is harder than in the US, but it is easier than ever.

3 Responses to Keeping Kosher in Europe

  1. Anonymous says:

    You wrote:
    “In the United States, for many years now, non-glatt meat has been synonymous with hardly kosher, borderline fraudulent.” This obviously refers to Rabbi Ralbag and Triangle K and I have to say this is motzi shem ra. You should reformulate this sentence.

    • Arie Folger says:

      Chas veshalom that I should be interpreted as referring here either to the Triangle K or to Rav Ralbag. Rav Ralbag has done a great mitzvah by accepting the challenge to supervise a certain large American sausage producer. In the past, some such outfits have often had non Orthodox supervision, in taste cases even “supervision” from an already deceased rabbi. Meanwhile Rabbi Ralbag agreed to accept the challenge and provide real supervision. For that, he intentionally accepts a number of leniencies, thus making sure that in the furthest corners of the United States there is kosher meat.
      Rabbi Ralbag is a friend, by the way.
      None of which relates to my statement that with some rare exceptions, when considering non glatt meat, American Orthodox Jews recall a past era when glatt supervision was the only reliable thing in town, and generally look askance at non glatt.

  2. micha says:

    Actually, this was a problem in the US longer than R Ralbag Sr has been alive. Back in the early 20th century, the Mafia got involved in kosher meat. Literal organized crime. The Radvaz (the author of the commentary on the side of the Vilna ed. of the Yerushalmi) was locked into a meat freezer. He was released on Friday night, and he was so sure it was a life-and-death situation he got on a train that night, and his family rode out of Chicago on Shabbos!
    The rabbis didn’t get control of the industry again until after WWII, when the Hungarian wave of immigration came, and both refused to put up with the compromises made and, as an aside, also had the custom of only eating glatt meat.
    And so, two kosher meat industries emerged in the 1940s — the glatt slaughterhouses where the rabbi had full control, and the non-glatt slaughterhouses where the rabbi did all he could but wasn’t in charge.
    Except in Boston. R’ JB Soloveitchik invested a lot of effort regaining full control of the existing, non-glatt, slaughterhouses. But stories like that were the exception.
    And that is how “glatt” came to mean “more reliable” in American Judeo-English, despite the meaning of the original Yiddish. To the extent that the OU allows chickens to be packaged as “glatt”, even though the original term only applies to mammals. But as “more reliable”, it can be accurately applied to Empire chickens.

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