Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Report

Muslims account for about a fifth of the kosher food sales in the United States. But while Jewish dietary laws are similar to Islamic halal – there are some obstacles to full-scale cooperation.

Sometime in 1997, the Muslim and Jewish chaplains Mt. Holyoke College had to deal with an emergency. The tiny kitchen in Eliot House, which served kosher meals to Jewish students and halal food for Muslims, was taxed beyond capacity.

The emergency took three years and one anonymous donor to solve, but on September 13, 2000, a new $250,000 dining hall serving certified kosher and halal meals opened at Mt. Holyoke, a liberal arts college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “We are all sitting and eating three meals a day together,” says Sister Shamshad Sheikh, the college’s Muslim chaplain. It involved mutual concessions: the Jews agreed avoid anything cooked in wine sauce, which would violate the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, and the Muslims accept what they call al-kitab meat, from animals slaughtered by “People of the Book,” which Islam permits, although their own ritual slaughter is preferred. The program serves as many as 200 students, including some who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, daily.

After the September 11 terror attacks and the subsequent wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, Sister Sheikh observes, “Jewish students were asking what they could do to help Muslim students and giving 100 percent support.” The joint dining program, says Melissa Simon, 19, of Brookline, Massachusetts, “opened a dialogue for theological discussions and explanations. Sometimes, though, we are just students wanting to eat.”

Another joint kosher-halal program, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, evolved out of the institution’s competition with MIT for the best and brightest engineering students. When the school was about to lose an extremely promising grad student because it had no kosher food, an admissions officer raced to the office of Prof. Barry Simon, the Orthodox Jewish head of the math department for advice. The result was a $70,000 kitchen, certified by the Rabbinical Council of California and the Islamic Center of Southern California, serving about a dozen students. One of its specialties is late-night suppers for Muslims who fast during daylight hours in the holy month of Ramadan.

Caltech and Mt. Holyoke represent part of a growing collaboration -and a parallel competition – between observers (and certifiers) of Jewish and Muslim dietary laws in the U.S. For one thing, Muslims account for 20 percent of all kosher food sales, paying $1.15 billion to do so, according to Menachem Lubinsky, who produces the highly successful annual KosherFest trade show. Kosher food is a $5.75 billion a- year market, growing by 15 percent year. The largest chunk comes from Jews, who spend $2.5 billion and account for 45 percent of sales. But according to a recent survey, only 16- 18 percent of America’s 5.7 million Jews say they keep kosher. So who else is buying kosher? Oreo eaters, kosher hot-dog lovers, vegetarians and the food allergic (a category that buys $570 million a year), Seventh-Day Adventists- and Muslims, to name a few.

Under Koranic halal law, Muslims are prohibited from consuming pork or pork products, also barred by kashrut, gelatins from pig bones, which may be a problem, and alcohol and alcohol derivatives.

“Kosher symbols are not enough,” says Muhammad Munir Chaudry, an Illinoisbased food scientist who in 1984 formed the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of North America. In a telephone interview, Chaudry told The Report that “some rabbis, including the California kashrut committees, accept pork gelatins.” California rabbinical groups say no kashrut supervisors in their area currently certify pork gelatin as kosher. But such a certification is not impossible under certain interpretations of the dietary laws, says Joe Regenstein, professor of food sciences at Cornell University. “The most liberal view,” he says, “holds that the gelatin, being made from bones and skin, is not from a food.” This view holds that in processing, gelatin goes through a stage where it is “not edible by man nor dog, and as such becomes a new entity,” says Regenstein.

Regenstein, whose column in Kashrus magazine states that he is a food scientist, not an authority on Jewish law, notes that rules on gelatin – which can also be derived from fish, beef bones or skin – may vary. That’s not surprising, given the existence of over 400 kashrut-supervising agencies and symbols worldwide. Despite his misgivings on the gelatin issue, notes Chaundry, “Most Muslims purchase some kosher products… Kosher is considered quality in the marketplace.” Of course, Chaudry would prefer that Muslims consume only halal foods.

Beyond the divergence on alcohol, kashrut and halal dietary laws are far from identical: Another major difference is the list of restricted animals: Jews and Muslims agree that pork is banned – treif for Jews and haram for Muslims; but Jews can only eat ruminants with split hooves while Muslims are permitted to eat a wider range of animals and sea creatures, including shellfish. Species acceptable (halal) for consumption include not only goats, beef, sheep, deer, all acceptable for Jews, but also rabbits and camels, which are treif. Excluded (haram) are beasts of prey which have talons and fangs, including lions, wolves and foxes, as well as cats and dogs – and the milk and eggs of prohibited species.

Each religion has its own method of slaughter: Jews must eat meat killed by a shohet who checks the halef (sharp knife) frequently to make sure the cutting edge is smooth. (Empire, a leading provider of kosher poultry, employs a “roving knife inspector” to check blades for nicks, which would make the slaughter unkosher.) The shohet also says a blessing asking forgiveness from God before the ritual killing. Meat must then be thoroughly checked for imperfections, then soaked and salted.

Under Muslim law, at the moment of slaughter, the tasmiyah and takbir blessings are said over each animal or bird by a trained, religiously observant Muslim slaughterer – and the name of Allah is uttered. Princeton University Islamic scholar Mark Cohen notes that “Sunni law took a permissive position on the eating of animals slaughtered by People of the Book. Even the Prophet Muhammad was said to have ‘eaten of their food.’” Law of Shi’ite Muslims, Cohen says, “was stricter, as non-Muslims, meaning Jews and Christians, are held to be impure.”

Chaudry accepts the Sunni view. “There is a provision in our religion that says if halal meat is not available, we can eat meat slaughtered by any God-fearing person. It can be a Jew or a Christian, but not a Communist,” he says. Theoretically then, Muslims could eat kosher meat. But Chaudry feels that this leniency clause no longer applies since halal meat is readily available throughout the U.S.

In fact, many U.S. Muslims are not so strict about halal. LeonWeiner, since 1947 owner of the American Kosher butcher shop in Mattapan, a Boston suburb, reports that “Muslims do buy a lot of kosher meat and have been loyal customers for years.” Ali Syed, a Bangladeshi cab driver who has lived in Brooklyn, New York for more than 20 years notes that he doesn’t look for halal certification on meat. He looks back fondly on life in his native country where people bought live chickens and slaughtered them themselves. “Here,” says Syed, “people are making money off other people.” What does following halal mean to Syed? “I buy meat and say the blessing myself in my house. If a product says ‘alcohol’ in big letters, I won’t buy it, but won’t go with a magnifying glass.” Right now, Chaudry says, there are about 60 halal certifying agencies in the U.S. alone – mostly dealing with products exported to Muslims in such countries as South Africa, Fiji, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan. “The domestic market,” says Chaudry, “is still in its infancy.” If Chaudry is correct, the number of Muslims buying kosher groceries and meat may go down in the near future as more halal- certified products appear on the shelves of U.S. stores. Kosher butcher Weiner will deal with decreased sales if and when that day comes. “For now,” he reports, “there is no one with halal certification in the Boston area.”

Mary Anne Jackson of Chicago stands at the confluence of kashrut and halal in North America. Her “My Own Meals” line of all-natural, refrigeration-free pre-packaged meals has both kosher (since 1991) and halal (since 1995) certification. Her products are consumed by Jewish businessmen in China, North American Jewish Boy Scout troops on camping trips, Jewish members of the U.S. armed forces and will soon be eaten by Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut on the Space Station.

Jackson recently convened an all-day meeting for Jewish and Muslim leaders in search of one agreed-upon standard of meat slaughter and processing. While this concept is theoretically possible, it is more difficult in practice due to differences about blessings, salting, etc. The always creative Regenstein suggests the use of “Muslim-supervised katabi meat,” where a Jew does the slaughter but a Muslim is present.” Katabi refers to non-Muslim “People of the Book,” a class to which Jews belong under Muslim law). “Even Rabbi Moshe Heinemann [of the super-strict Star-K Kosher Certification Agency in Baltimore] accepts Muslims present and saying (the tasmiyah and takbir) prayers,” says Regenstein. But if Jews might accept such solution, it’s not clear whether Muslims, interested in supporting local halal efforts, would take a similar stand.

Still, collaborations between Jews and Muslims in the food production and certification industry are not new. Avrom Pollack, president of Star-K, proudly describes the successful joint Jewish- Islamic campaign to get the steel industry in the United States to stop using a pork derivative as an industrial grease to coat the stainless steel from which food-storage cans are made.

And cooperation now appears to be extending beyond Mt. Holyoke and Caltech to other campuses. A Dartmouth College delegation led by Yousef Haque of Al-Nur, the Muslim student organization, and Jason Spitalnick of Hillel recently traveled from the school’s New Hampshire campus to see Mt.

Holyoke’s program, but has encountered difficulties raising the $300,000 needed to set up a kitchen that meets both Muslim and Jewish dietary needs. There’s also a joint kosher-halal kitchen at UCLA for dietary law-abiding students of both faiths. And Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, where Regenstein teaches Food 250, a course dealing with kosher and halal rules, says that its Multi-Cultural Kosher Food Program is designed “to meet the dietary needs of students who are kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, allergic, Hindu, Seventh-Day Adventist, alcohol avoidant, Catholic or simply curious.” Regenstein would like to take the cooperation at least one step farther. He feels kashrut-supervision agencies could add extra inspections to their certification process to deal with the needs of Muslims and other groups with special dietary needs. He’s even proposed a new symbol, “Hook-R,” which he says would “hook together” the needs of these consumers.

That revolutionary step does not seem to be on the cards quite yet, partly because of the skepticism present on both sides. Muslim certifiers want people to buy halal and support local Islamic marketers, while some hard-liners talk about “paying a Jewish tax” and supporting Jewish community institutions when they buy kosher food.

On the other hand, there are Jews who will, in private, speculate that scattered halal certifiers may be acting as fronts for radical Islamic groups, and kashrut organizations who quietly admit that their regular supporters would object to the idea of joint supervision. Despite the need in both camps to shy away from cooperative efforts, the evidence points to increasing culinary collaboration. If the trend continues, some day we may see the first joint halal and kashrut-certified McDonald’s – if not in Jerusalem, then perhaps in Brooklyn.

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Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva By Gery Albarelli Glad Day Books 104pp.; $10.95, Strange Bedfellows: An Italian-Catholic teacher finds his way into the hearts of his Satmar Hasid students.

I think it was Woody Allen who once turned Shaw’s quote on its head when he observed, “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Later critics added, “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” After surviving five years teaching in a hasidic yeshivah in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, Gerry Albarelli might offer a correction: “Those with unbelievable patience, creativity and a sense of humor teach English to Yiddish-speaking yeshivah boys.”

“Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva” is Albarelli’s sometimes amusing, sometimes obvious account of a non-Jew teaching in a world where English is not valued, non-hasidic teachers are seen as outsiders, and students are cooped up from 6 in the morning until 6:30 in the evening without a single recess.

Albarelli answered an ad: English teacher wanted – yeshivah – Brooklyn – call Rabbi Steiner. Based on his prior experience teaching English, and an overall shortage of teachers willing to work in such a school, Albarelli was hired after a five-minute interview. On his first day of work, he was greeted by fresh-faced third-grade boys throwing wet toilet paper bombs, walking on tables, fighting on the floor and sneaking to the bathroom for a game of cards. Keeping track of the class was difficult, given that most boys were named “Joel” and some even shared the surname “Teitelbaum, “ after the late Satmar grand rabbi, Joel Teitelbaum. Behavior management was a huge problem – until Rabbi Katz, the disciplinarian, came in the room, wooden stick in hand, to reassure Albarelli that he knew exactly what type of “different medicine” each boy needed, be it a tap on the head, an affectionate smack, or just a good scare.

The rosh yeshivah (school head) was nice enough to give some practical guidance (in broken English, of course). He said, “Think of it this way – you’re going to Mars,” and handed Albarelli a mimeographed copy of “Rules for English Teachers,” which included such gems as “No current events. No talk about Israel. No movies. No TV. No vulgar language. No talk about the human body.” One teacher was reprimanded for bringing a paper skeleton to class since “they shouldn’t know what’s inside of their bodies.” The most important rule, “No girls,” was enforced by censors who reviewed each English reader and textbook to make sure faces of females were blackened out. Too bad there was no rule mandating enough books, supplies or even a curriculum.

Though Albarelli is tempted to quit, he “sticks it out” and becomes something of a local hero – neighborhood families invite him to march in the Purim Parade, cops greet him, and local coffeeshop owners engage him in conversation about his students at the yeshivah. Yet the secret of Albarelli’s success is no secret at all. He uses “tricks” that are obvious to all good teachers: He starts where his students are, making no assumption about their knowledge of the world beyond their neighborhood, tries the unconventional, rolls with the punches and forgets every bit of “formal teaching wisdom” he learned while teaching more traditional high school and college English courses.

In Albarelli’s bag of tricks: He brings pictures from National Geographic and instructs the students to arrange them and make up a story. The students have a blast, but this works for only a few days. So he moves on to Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, asking the pupils to perform skits about slavery. In one lesson, Albarelli asks, “If you could be whatever you wanted for just one day, what would you be?” The answers include astronaut, captain of a ship and dope addict.

Albarelli clearly transports his students from the insular neighborhood of Williamsburg to a world they never knew existed. The subjects he exposes them to – social studies, math, civics and a dash of psychology – are no less important than the English he teaches them.

Albarelli has an eye for detail and nuance and captures the experience in a way that elicits pity for him and his colleagues and love for his young boys. The Italian-Catholic outsider, he gradually becomes something of an insider: Students share personal stories, rabbis invite him to holiday celebrations, and one parent secretly recruits him to tutor all eight of his kids. Even after he moves out of his Williamsburg apartment and has a long commute to school, he comes back each day – and not only to gather material for his first book.

Albarelli’s ability to tell stories respectfully, non- judgmentally, is both a strength of this rather short book and its major weakness. The reader is left wanting more “inside dirt” and critical analysis of a community that few know so intimately.

While reading “Teacha!” I was transported back to a lovely afternoon at the Bronx Zoo. It is the middle of Passover and the zoo is packed with hasidic families. I am struck by their long sleeves and black coats on an unseasonably hot day. I wonder if I have more in common with my fellow shorts-, T-shirt- and baseball cap- wearers, or with my matzah-toting brethren. Is my life more like Albarelli’s or his hasidim? Albarelli illustrates how knowing others comes not through distant observations and brief encounters, but through patient, open-minded interactions over time. His descriptions of everyday life allow us to get past our own judgments and stereotypes, and see the people behind the garb – if only for a brief moment

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Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

The stone-faced members of the U.S. Secret Service and of the Israeli Shin Bet’s VIP protection unit all boasted the wire dangling from one ear, close-cropped haircuts, dark suits and ties. But you could tell them apart, during the Shabbat service at Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, by their yarmulkes. The Secret Service men were having trouble keeping their flimsy black ones in place; the Israelis had brought their own: a white crocheted kippah here, another one complete with clips, and a blue suede third – something of a secrecy blooper, this, stamped in Hebrew with the words Misrad Habitahon, Defense Ministry.

The security was for Israeli President Moshe Katsav, visiting our community after talks with President Bush in Washington, and just hours after the horrific Tel Aviv nightclub suicide bombing.

The Secret Service had come around during the week to scout things out. Its list of demands included: no children’s services on the second floor, no use of the 68th Street entrance, no one in any of the lobbies during services, and metal-detector searches for all entering the building. (I had to remove my tallit from the bag, as there was some concern about my silver atarah, or crown).

The visit, and the poignancy of its timing, made for a unifying service. The Manhattan Sephardic Society, which usually holds services at the same time in another hall at the spacious 111-year- old Park East building, joined the Ashkenazi minyan, and cantorial duties were shared. Katsav was called for the 3rd aliyah, Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Yehudah Lancry chanted the haftarah, and New York Consul General Alon Pinkas held the Torah during the Prayer for the State of Israel. Katsav carried the Torah around the shul for all to kiss – with his security team walking in front of and behind him.

But most moving for me was watching Katsav’s mouth follow the words during the prayer for Israel. It was good to see that even the president turns to a higher authority.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Report

Putting a mezuzah on the doll’s house is just one of many ways to turn your home into ‘Jewish space’

Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, or even by its title, but that didn’t stop fellow riders on several Manhattan buses and subways from offering their comments about Anita Diamant’s new book, “How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life.” One passenger exclaimed, “My parents never had any book like that,” and proceeded to tell me how much he hated Hebrew school, but has found his way back to Judaism. Another speculated, “You must be a new parent.” (No, I have a few kids, thank you, but isn’t there still room to learn more about being a Jewish parent?) A 15-year- old boy asked, “Why do Jews need a special book about being a parent?” And perhaps the most innocent comment came from a 14-year- old student of mine who noted, “It seems rather simple. From what you taught me, don’t you just have to be Jewish and have children?” If only it were so easy!

But get past the title and you will find another informative handbook by the author of such useful titles as “The New Jewish Baby Book,” “Living a Jewish Life,” “Saying Kaddish” and the recent best- selling novel “The Red Tent.” In this collaboration with Karen Kushner, a family therapist, Diamant shares with parents and prospective parents the wide range of choices available in creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

It is this idea of “choices” that will give the book wide appeal, but at the same time make it difficult for some in the Jewish world to take certain parts seriously.

The person new to parenting or looking to reconnect with Judaism will love learning how to make his or her home a “Jewish space,” model Jewish behaviors in everyday interactions, and bring meaning to every holiday or other special day, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Hashoah. It is these “mitzvah as good deed” folks who will appreciate the book’s non-preachy approach and the flexibility Diamant’s brand of Judaism offers as they decide for themselves how and when to bring Judaism into their lives. This “liberal” Jew (defined by the authors as Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist – something sure to offend those Conservative Jews who do not like being called “liberal” and lumped together with the others) is the intended audience, the group “for whom Jewish law (halachah) is not the unifying arbiter of all Jewish life but a venerable authority and important source of values and standards.”

The more traditional “mitzvah as commandment” crowd will find the discussion of Jewish holidays and practices to be a useful albeit obvious review of basic Judaism. They may very well dismiss as hokey such suggestions as “make a mezuzah for the doll’s house”; they will cringe when they read that “some Jews avoid all forms of shopping [on Shabbat] but make an exception for a treat on Shabbat afternoon,” or that “some families forego synagogue observance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and… [s]urrounded by the quiet beauty of the natural world, parents and children read prayers and poems, talk about forgiveness, and discuss family goals and Jewish resolutions for the coming year.”

Finding a parenting book that speaks to all Jews is like finding a universally acceptable prayer book or synagogue. Some Orthodox Jews will find this book unacceptable. But the majority of Jewish readers will find it a delightful and helpful parenting guide that tackles obvious as well as difficult issues. We discover how to look for a synagogue, travel Jewish and feed fussy kids on Passover, while also learning how to deal with death, adoption and kids of mixed marriages, who ask questions like “Why can’t I go to church with Daddy?”

Diamant and Kushner speak mostly to American Jews. However, any Jew looking to bring Judaism into his or her family will appreciate page after page of helpful suggestions. Those who already “do” will feel good and strive to do more Jewishly; those who “don’t” but are searching can confidently find a point of entry. A book that lets us feel good about ourselves as Jews and as parents is an important contribution.


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