For as long as most people of my generation can remember, certain foods were always considered non-kosher. I never consumed swordfish or sturgeon. They weren’t kosher and that was that!
Fish is kosher only if it has scales and fins. Swordfish have scales in infancy but lose the scales as they reach adulthood. Sturgeon have scales but they’re covered with a skin and cannot be removed without tearing the skin. So some rabbis are now saying they are kosher. While all of this is interesting, frankly, the only scale that matters to me is the one situated on the floor of my bathroom, which I step on to weigh myself.
In Europe, it was fairly common and accepted for Jews to eat sturgeon, and even in America, swordfish was considered a kosher fish by kashrus organizations in the 1930s. But American Orthodoxy has become stricter over time. Additionally, the chief rabbi of Israel also holds that swordfish is kosher.
We never ate sturgeon or swordfish and it is unlikely that we ever will. Speaking for myself, this has not been a sacrifice. Give me a good piece of my mother’s fried flounder and I’ll be a happy camper. But this actually was a sacrifice for my late husband, Arnold Berman.
Hubby, as I called him — or Arnie, as he was most often called—was in the smoked-fish business. He purchased many different types (species) of fish from smokehouses in Brooklyn and Queens. On a daily basis he would pack hundreds of pounds of fish into his van and then bring them home to our garage where he would repackage the fish before heading out to distribute it to his customers. He was often seen by people in the community driving through neighborhoods in his van. His customers were the owners, as well as the managers, of appetizing stores (a.k.a. bagel stores), supermarkets, diners, and catering halls.
Swordfish didn’t pose a problem because it was not one of the items that he carried and, with the possible exception of non-kosher diners, most of his customers didn’t carry it. At least they didn’t if they wanted to stay in business. But sturgeon was another matter, because many appetizing stores did carry this fish. Because Hubby was conscientious, there was a routine that he followed. Before he purchased anything from the smokehouse, he would lick one fish (of each variety) to determine whether or not it was too salty. If even one fish was overly salty, he would leave the entire batch behind. Since he would never lick sturgeon, he would pay one of the workers in the smokehouse to do it for him.
Despite the advancement of progressive thinking among some members of our tribe, I’m sure that Hubby would still say “no” to licking sturgeon. The workers in the smokehouse still miss him because licking a single piece of sturgeon had to be the easiest money they ever made.
Most of us know what we know about kosher food and have never given the topic much more thought. We were taught that humanely slaughtered and then properly salted and soaked animals were kosher and could be consumed. Perhaps our gastronomic world at the time might be considered very small by today’s standards since we thought only of eating chicken, turkey, beef, veal, and lamb. The only fish that most people of my generation ever ate was tuna, salmon, flounder, and the components used to make gefilte fish; carp, pike, and whitefish. That was it! And it was enough. But today things are vastly different.
There are groups of people dedicated to the consumption of all things kosher. This includes locusts, quail, and piranha. The very thought of putting any of those in my mouth is revolting. The only thing I know about locusts is not about how they taste but how they look as they lie dead on the sticky pads that I scatter around my basement to catch them. If I were a more enterprising soul, I could make a fortune selling those gross-looking things. But I am not enterprising, nor do I have a strong stomach. I hate even to look at locusts, much less to touch them. Eating them is out of the question!
It has only recently come to my attention that it isn’t just cows, lambs, bison, and poultry that are allowable for consumption by those who keep kosher. Fair game in the kosher world is giraffe and goats. Who knew? Personally, I would never eat any part of a giraffe because I have more than enough brown spots on my aging skin, and perhaps the brown spots on the giraffe would give me more. I am not willing to experiment to find out if this is true. I’m no risk-taker when it comes to my appearance.
What sparked my recent interest in which foods are now known to be kosher was a conversation with my son, Robby. He lives in Jerusalem but we converse several times a week, and in our most recent conversation he brought up the topic. Apparently, there is a woman (in New Jersey, I believe) who is hosting a party of sorts where many of the aforementioned foods will be served. The cost of attendance is $500, and my favorite son would love nothing more than for me to attend. Out of the goodness of his heart, Robby offered to treat me. “Ma, I’ll pay for you to go to that dinner.” Given the fact that we were communicating via FaceTime, I was able to give him my well-known look of incredulity. However, just in case he didn’t see my look, I punctuated my feeling of repulsion with a follow-up comment. “Robby, forget about the hundreds of dollars that you are willing to pay for me to attend. If you gave me a million dollars I would never think of going.”
Not one to be easily discouraged or disabused of an idea, “Sonny,” as I sometimes refer to him, assured me that I didn’t have to eat anything if I didn’t want to. “You should just go. It will be very interesting,” he said. Because I was becoming nauseated at the prospect of watching anyone pop locusts and the like into his or her mouth, I felt it best to terminate our conversation. It might not be a motherly thing to do, but my next words were, “Talk to you another time,” as I clicked off FaceTime. That’s just the way it was. And that’s the way it will be in the future if he brings up the topic again. n
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and gives private small-group lessons in mah-jongg and canasta. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-295-4435.