Jewish Foodways and Religious Self-Governance in America: The Failure of Communal Kashrut Regulation and the Rise of Private Kosher Certification

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Jewish Quarterly Review

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More products in the typical American supermarket are labeled kosher than are labeled organic, natural, or premium. Generating more than $12 billion in annual retail sales, kosher food is big business. Surprisingly, of the estimated twelve million American kosher consumers — individuals who specifically seek out kosher-certified foods — only 8 percent are religious Jews who eat exclusively kosher food. Most choose kosher food for reasons related to health, food safety, taste, vegetarianism, and lactose intolerance or to satisfy non-Jewish religious requirements such as halal. The popularity of kosher food is part of a more general infiltration of traditional Jewish foodways into American culture, a phenomenon reflected in the successful marketing slogan ‘‘You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.’’

Kosher certification has been a medium for influence between Jewish and American culture in both directions. At the same time that kosher certification illustrates the infiltration of traditional Jewish foodways into the American mainstream, the turbulent history of kosher certification in the United States demonstrates how quintessentially American legal and economic institutions have shaped Jewish communal self-governance. Religious liberty and free markets in America undermined the thousand year-old kehilah model of kosher regulation, which was based on state supported centralized communal control over religious standards and economic activity. These same features of American liberalism nurtured the emergence of a highly successful system of private entrepreneurial kosher certification agencies.

Recommended Citation

Timothy D. Lytton, Jewish Foodways and Religious Self-Governance: The Failure of Communal Kashrut Regulation and the Rise of Private Kosher Certification, 104 Jewish Q. Rev. 39 (2014).







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