Kosher Food Everywhere


Kosher Food Everywhere


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Kosher Everywhere

By Deborah Biskin Levine

What does it say about the resilience of the Jewish people when you can purchase kosher meat and freshly baked challah at the same place you can buy a pair of cowboy boots, a rod and reel and a pup tent--the Wal-Mart in Nashville, Tennessee? Volumes! In a city that is the buckle of the Bible Belt, otherwise known as the Protestant Vatican and cradle of the Ku Klux Klan, Jews maintain an identity and a presence.

The vast majority of the American Jewry is clustered in metropolitan areas. Many urban dwellers are provincial enough to believe that fellow Jews don't reside in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Elmira, New York or Provo, Utah and certainly not in southern cities like Nashville or Memphis. The famous New Yorker cover depicting a New Yorker's view of the world also captures the sentiments of how Jews living in metropolitan areas view Jews living elsewhere.

A local resident of Nashville, Ahron Lucas describes a little joke he plays every summer on Jewish kids who visit his city on teen tours. Inevitably, one of them will tell him that they never realized that there were any Jews in the South with the exception of Florida and Atlanta. Ahron feigns shock that they had not heard of the famous Jewish Civil War general from Nashville named Beauregard HaLevi and then instructs them to go home and reread their American history textbooks. The kids are fascinated as he regales them with tall tales about this "war hero's" exploits. Then, Ahron pulls a piece of "Civil War" memorabilia out of his pocket--a kippah decorated with tiny confederate flags around the border and with the general's Hebrew name, "Baruch Pesach" woven into the yarn. It's at that point that most of the kids realize that the joke is on them and that small town, southern folk can laugh at themselves.

How do Jews survive in "galut" outside of places like New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles? First of all, some venues may not be exactly as they seem. Nashville is home to the Grand Old Opry and fried catfish but it is also the host to Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and the state government. With a population of around seven or eight thousand Jews, the city boasts four synagogues and a fledgling Hebrew Day School. Each of these institutions is housed in beautiful buildings that don't have mortgages. You can buy kosher meat at Wal-Mart along with spaghetti sauce, challah and a huge variety of prepared foods. Tami Peiser, a local resident who complained about the dearth of kosher products at Wal-Mart was instrumental in getting the food into the store and now acts as a consultant to the chain. Heddy Bernstein has two big freezers in her house and sells frozen, kosher chicken and cheese to residents. According to Susan Lucas, another Nashvillian, "you won't starve keeping kosher in Nashville".

Residents participate in other types of mitzvot that are primarily handled by paid professionals in other places. For example, Dr. Kenneth Jacobs, a distinguished surgeon donates his services to perform all of the britot in town, Sylvia Ruskin takes it upon herself to call all newcomers on the telephone and welcomes them to her city. Ahron and Susan Lucas complete taharot for the local chevra kadisha, and since Nashville is such a small community, Ahron executed the tahara for his own father and Sylvia for her mother-in-law. It seems like everyone pitches in.

It might seem easier to let things fall by the wayside. If you didn't keep kosher in Nashville most people probably wouldn't blame you. After all, it is pretty difficult. You certainly can't walk out of your door and eat kosher Chinese, Japanese or Mexican food. This is not the Upper west side, Brookline or West Rogers Park. It's an effort and you have to plan ahead. The drive to Wal-Mart is a good distance from where most Jewish folks live and Heddy Bernstein doesn't get chicken every day. Before there was challah at Wal-Mart, people baked their own. But, sometimes these little voids help build community. Susan Lucas says, "if you run out of chicken, and you're having guests for Shabbat, you can always call on a neighbor and borrow some poultry because everyone understands."

Living successfully in galut means that sometimes necessity has to be the mother of invention. If you want a mitzvah to be performed and there is no one else to do it you just have to step up to the plate and take responsibility. In that sense, it may be easier to maintain a Jewish identity, to not allow yourself to get lost in the woodwork because your body counts for something.

It's an amazing thing to see centuries old Jewish traditions being carried out in places where logic would dictate that they would die. The take home message from the good people of Nashville? There are a few. Judaism and Jews are tough. They survive and bloom almost anywhere with a little nurturing and ingenuity. It's not the place that makes people Jewish, it's Judaism. And for those who can too easily get a good pastrami sandwich or a knish when the urge strikes the truth is that they are still living in galut even though they may occassionally forget that reality. In order to keep Jewish life vibrant in any community, each member needs to feel a sense of responsibility and jump into the fray of performing mitzvot.

Deborah Biskin Levine is a freelance writer living in Albany, New York. Her first book, Acts of Loving-Kindness (Jewish Publication Society) is due out in April of 2002.


from the August 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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