Kosher USA follows the fascinating journey of kosher food through the modern industrial food system. It recounts how iconic products such as Coca-Cola and Jell-O tried to become kosher; the contentious debates among rabbis over the incorporation of modern science into Jewish law; how Manischewitz wine became the first kosher product to win over non-Jewish consumers (principally African Americans); the techniques used by Orthodox rabbinical organizations to embed kosher requirements into food manufacturing; and the difficulties encountered by kosher meat and other kosher foods that fell outside the American culinary consensus.
Kosher USA is filled with big personalities, rare archival finds, and surprising influences: the Atlanta rabbi Tobias Geffen, who made Coke kosher; the lay chemist and kosher-certification pioneer Abraham Goldstein; the kosher-meat magnate Harry Kassel; and the animal-rights advocate Temple Grandin, a strong supporter of shechita, or Jewish slaughtering practice. By exploring the complex encounter between ancient religious principles and modern industrial methods, Kosher USA adds a significant chapter to the story of Judaism's interaction with non-Jewish cultures and the history of modern Jewish American life as well as American foodways.
Horowitz's engrossing, in-depth book explores how modern food manufacturers get their food labeled as kosher, which effectively allows observant Jews (and the growing number of shoppers distrustful of the quality of their nonkosher food) to eat it. He touches on themes of tradition, identity, and assimilation. With the greater reliance on mechanization in the 20th century, determining whether foods and drinks were kosher met a host of new challenges. Coca Cola, previously deemed kosher, was an early litmus test for the Jewish community when concerns arose in the 1930s about whether it was kosher for Passover, which requires a stricter standard. The old way of determining the matter (rabbinical conference) had to give way to the importance of scientific knowledge of the chemical processing utilized to manufacture Coke and the value of that data in reaching accurate, updated conclusions. Even more debates raged about Jell-O, because the key ingredient of gelatin, derived from animal bones, may not be kosher. These decades-long arguments took place between Orthodox and Conservative Jews, revealing deeper rifts and decidedly different ideas about what being Jewish meant to each. Although the subject matter might seem bizarre or needlessly complicated to outsiders, Horowitz provides a fascinating window into a rarefied world.