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The State of Things: Kosher Fest and the Jewish Community

This past Sunday, I attended Kosher Fest, the yearly gathering of kosher food and beverage purveyors and other food professionals (held in New York City, naturally). Kosher Fest is no informal synagogue social – it’s a two-day mega event that features the newest, best, and flashiest in kosher food. Page 11 of the 84-page Kosher Fest program guide displays some “impressive facts” including the dollar value of kosher produced goods in the US – $10,500,000,000. In other words, if you make kosher food you’re either at Kosher Fest, or you’re missing out.

Precisely because it’s the “see and be seen” event of the Jewish food year, Kosher Fest serves as an annual barometer of the kosher industry – its health, its growth, and its trends. More interestingly, as I ambled down the aisles of shiny displays, I began to notice how the state of kosher food uncannily mirrors the state of today’s Jewish community.

Sponsored by the OU, OK, Kof-K and Star K kosher certifiers (among others), the stands at Kosher Fest was anchored by the big guys – Kedem, Osem, Manischewitz, Agri Processors, and Rokeach. Of the lesser-known brands, the majority of products still fell into the “traditionally kosher” category – foods that feel ersatz, like most Pesach-friendly cookies and the snacks at the Golden Fluff booth, where I watched people dip spongy kosher marshmallows into a bubbling fountain of brown, plastic-like chocolate.

After wading a bit deeper into the stands of Pesach-friendly cookies and jugs of kosher, corn syrup-heavy BBQ sauce, however, it was possible to find some companies bucking the status quo with products that are:

-Organic (e.g Wise Kosher organic poultry, The Simple Kitchen Organic
fruit sparklers)
-Sustainable (e.g. Royal George cheese from grass fed cows)
-Vegan (including Sheese, a non-dairy cheese from Scotland which
unfortunately tasted a bit too much like Play Dough)

I even noticed signs of political resistance in the shape of Eye on Agri Processors literature, surreptitiously scattered about the tables and in the press room.

What could be more indicative of the state of the Jewish community than a stroll through Kosher Fest? Just like in the organizational Jewish world, the money and the influence in the kosher industry sit with the establishment, while inspired and creative ideas are generated by a smaller sub-set of innovative companies/organizations who are willing to try something new.

As someone who works for one of those innovative organizations (Hazon), I know how frustrating it can be to feel like the work we do is a tiny drop in the Jewish organizational bucket. Similarly, I imagine a lot of the smaller, alternative food companies wish the kosher market was more demanding of their products.

Still, the tide seems to be turning. It will not be the Manischewitz’s of the world, but the smaller, forward-thinking companies (and organizations) that redefine what it means to eat and be Jewish in the 21st century.

*While we’re discussing “the state of things,” here’s a fascinating post on Jewschool which highlights large gap between mainstream Jewish funding and the innovative ideas and organizations it hesitates to support.

–Leah Koenig.