Monday, March 29, 2010

I Wonder If Rabbi Wohlberg Knows (Whether Sturgeon is Kosher)?

When the late Abe Pollin yearned for the whitefish, kippered salmon, and corned beef of his childhood, he used to go to Krupin's Deli.

When Natan Sharansky, the famous Russian refusenik turned Israeli Knesset member, visits Washington, he holds his power lunches at the city's only strictly kosher restaurant, the Center City Cafe.

Former President Clinton's national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, is more reflective of the tastes of the 165,000 Jews living in Washington: When he craves a Jewish pick-me-up, he goes straight home for his wife Susan's chicken soup with matzo balls.

"For most Jews in Washington--especially those of us who follow the laws of kashrut--we find the best Jewish food in our own homes," says Jeffrey Wohlberg, senior rabbi at Adas Israel Hebrew Congregation in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. "This is not to say there isn't good Jewish food in restaurants here, but the home has been the center of Jewish life wherever Jews have lived, and food is an integral part of that tradition."

For all Jews, religious or not, cooking stems from kashrut, the dietary laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai and the rules governing foods found in the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

"For some Jews it is necessary to be scrupulous about every morsel they consume, while for others it's not a matter of whether the food is strictly kosher but whether it reflects their cultural heritage," says Rabbi Wohlberg.

Like the laws of kashrut, Judaism is rooted in the land of Israel. What is remarkable about Jewish food, as opposed to Italian or French cooking, which have evolved on one soil for thousands of years, is its journey after it left its homeland. With the destructions of the Temple and the uprooting of the Hebrew population, Jewish food habits have been scattered throughout history and across the world. Throughout millennia, carrying their Talmud and their Torah, Jews adapted the local cooking to their dietary laws whether they were living in Babylonia, Morocco, Turkey, Russia, Poland, or Germany.

Many Jewish Washingtonians eat the way most Americans eat during the week. Their only Jewish meal is made and served on Friday nights as families gather to welcome the sabbath by sharing challah (traditional egg bread often baked in a twisted form and usually slightly sweet), chicken soup, brisket, and kugels (puddings). Holiday meals, such as Rosh Hashanah and the Passover Seder with its special traditions, also evoke food-laden memories of family and friends.


Gary Freedman said...

Excerpted from "Jewish Cooking:
Not just chopped liver."

Published in The Washingtonian, February 1, 1999

By Joan Nathan

Gary Freedman said...

Rabbis can't agree on whether sturgeon is kosher.

The sturgeon, and related fish, are sometimes included among the ritually impure foods, as their surfaces are covered in scutes, which are bony armoured nodules; however, fish scutes are actually just hardened and enlarged scales. Scales has thus been traditionally interpreted along the lines of Nahmanides's proposal that qasqeseth (scales) must refer specifically to scales that can be detached, by hand or with a knife, without ripping the skin. In practice this excludes all but ctenoid and cycloid scales. A minor controversy arises from the fact that the appearance of the scales of sturgeon, swordfish, and catfish, is heavily affected by the ageing process - their young satisfy Nahmanides' rule, but when they reach adulthood they do not.

Traditionally fins has been interpreted as referring to translucent fins. The Mishnah claims that all fish with scales will also have fins, but that the reverse is not always true; for the latter case, the Talmud argues that ritually clean fish have a distinct spinal column and flatish face, while ritually unclean fish don't have spinal columns and have pointy heads, which would define the Shark and Sturgeon (and related fish) as ritually unclean. Nevertheless, Aaron Chorin, a prominent 19th-century rabbi and reformer, declared that the Sturgeon was actually ritually pure, and hence permissible to eat. Many Conservative rabbis now view these particular fish as being kosher, but most Orthodox rabbis do not. The question for sturgeon is particularly significant as most caviar consists of sturgeon eggs, and therefore cannot be kosher if the sturgeon itself is not.