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Strictly Kosher

Keeping It Clean With Rabbi Yosef Birnbaum

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By Leah Eskin

Rabbi Yosef Birnbaum holds up a plump strawberry in the bright light of the pastry kitchen, examining it the way a jeweler inspects a diamond. His gaze--informed by a lifetime of Torah study and years of on-the-job experience--immediately picks out the flaw. Zeroing in on a single green seed, he prods, waits a beat, and watches as a tiny white dot wriggles across the red flesh. This berry, he announces, isn't kosher.

As a mashgiach, it's Birnbaum's job to segregate the kosher from the tref, the holy from the profane, the pristine from the bug flecked. "The reasons behind has not been given," Birnbaum explains. "We keep kosher laws because God said so." Among the 613 things God insists Jews do, about 50 cover what--and how--to eat. Following the rules--keeping kosher--calls for dedication, vigilance, and quite a bit of supervision by a trained professional, the mashgiach.

From his small, windowless office at the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Birnbaum pursues the mashgiach's metier, keeping kosher, well, kosher. One part obsessive food inspector, one part Torah enforcer, he makes sure observant Jews and those preparing their food follow the fine print. "When it comes to kosher it's black and white," he says. "You can't be a little bit kosher."

The day usually starts with a flurry of faxes--mostly hotels and caterers seeking early approval of menus. "The goal," says Birnbaum, "is not to have any crisis." He combs through the plans for banquets to come, ferreting out forbidden foods, forbidden combinations of foods, and foods that are just too damn much trouble. "If you wash fresh raspberries you come up with raspberry sauce."

Ordinary citizens call in to CRC's headquarters on West Peterson as well, seeking an A-OK on kosher Twinkies or some other unlikely product. "Just because something says kosher doesn't mean it's kosher," warns Birnbaum.

Knowing what's really kosher is an intricate--and somewhat subjective--business. Early on God handed down a directive not to cook a kid in its mother's milk. Generations of scholars have so fretted over that one that they've come up with a massive legal code to ensure milk and meat never mingle on the Jew's palate. But that's just the beginning. There are myriad no-nos, from fertilized eggs to pork, and dozens of picayune details. Consider the average hamburger. To enjoy said burger in good conscience, the observant Jew must quiz it relentlessly. Did the beast that gave its life for this patty have split hooves and chew its cud? Was it slaughtered with a sharp knife? Would it have died anyway within a year? Was the meat cut from the front half of the animal? To say nothing of the bun and condiment pedigrees. Kashruth--the laws of kosher--covers everything from slaughtering goats to purifying microwaves.

Modern food science, with its additives and preservatives and hidden ingredients, makes the whole business that much trickier. Keeping up requires scrupulous label reading, a subscription to Jewish Homemaker, and cutting-edge knowledge of the food industry. "One area I think I've contributed to the most is in the awareness and detection of several insects to be found in leafy vegetables," says Birnbaum with pride. Bugs are not kosher.

To simplify matters CRC--like 100 or so other organizations and individuals outside Israel--offers kosher certification. The group's 3 full-time and 25 part-time mashgiachim keep tabs on Keebler ice cream cones, the Dunkin' Donuts on Devon, and the products and services of some 250 other companies. Those that pass muster are awarded a triangular logo marked CRC, the observant Jew's Good Housekeeping seal.

Still, nothing beats the authority of a hands-on mashgiach. Today the big event is the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces eighth annual reception and dinner at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, a regular CRC client. It's Birnbaum's task to make sure 900 identical plates of chicken breast, wild rice, broccoli tops, and red pepper wedges not only look lovely ("I want people to know that's what kosher is all about"), but also meet the letter and spirit of the law.

Not all 900 guests are observant. In fact, CRC estimates that only 30,000 of the city's 250,000 Jews actually keep kosher. But the kosher market is booming. Muslims, who buy nearly 40 percent of all kosher products, find they meet the dictates of halal, their own dietary code. Plain-vanilla housewives calculate, correctly, that kosher goods meet a higher sanitary standard than those merely FDA approved. And plenty of events with a fraction of observant guests--like tonight's dinner--serve everyone kosher. Those meals give Birnbaum special satisfaction. "Every time a Jew eats kosher he gets some kind of medicine to build up his spiritual being."

Birnbaum's had a man at the Hilton around the clock for two days. He has to. The kosher kitchen can only be unlocked by a mashgiach, and, according to kashruth, which dictates that Jews eat food cooked by Jews, the stove must be lighted by a Jew (though pilot lights simplify matters). For the final countdown Birnbaum will drop in to oversee in person. He streaks down Lake Shore Drive ("they know me--I don't get tickets") and pops into the lobby. His neat dark suit, yarmulke, identifying badge, and beeper announce that the rabbi has arrived.

Birnbaum got into his line of work early, helping out in Tel Aviv's kosher bakeries during school holidays. He liked hanging around the kitchen, talking Torah, taste testing. As he taught he learned. "How can you stay and look all day at dough being cut down into cookies without giving a helping hand? I learned too many egg whites will blow up too much and you lose the taste."

Like his brother and grandfather before him, Birnbaum was preparing to become a rabbi. But he didn't see himself leading a congregation. So when he moved to his new wife's hometown in 1982, he signed on with CRC, working his way up from part-time line mashgiach to the position he holds today, chief supervisor.

The hotel's kosher kitchen, which handles only nondairy meals, is tucked away on the third floor, secluded behind the warning Restricted area: authorized employees only. Like all the hotel's backstage spaces, it's strictly business: red tile floor, white tile walls, massive stainless-steel vats and drums steaming into an overhead hood.

Associate chef Oliver Valenzuela rests one knee against a 50-gallon tub of mushroom sauce and endures a rabbinical quiz. What if you want a creamier sauce? "No dairy products," recites Valenzuela. "Coffee Rich." Valenzuela's been accommodating the idiosyncrasies of kosher cooking for years. "The first time I seen it I thought it was a stupid idea," he admits. "But it's good to learn different skills." The hotel supplies guidelines for new employees regarding preparacion segun la ley judia. Among other points, the handout explains that errors could affect the employment status of the careless.

Rabbi Jacob Shapiro, the line mashgiach on duty, bustles in to check on a kettle edging toward boil. Tonight's dinner requires serving platters, and not enough kosher ones are available. So Shapiro will kosherize them--transform them from impure to pure. As a first step the clean metal platters have been idled for 24 hours. Next Shapiro will immerse them in boiling water, and voila, kosher. (More porous materials, including wood, rubber, and china, can't be kosherized.)

Birnbaum gives Shapiro a few pointers, then hurries to the pastry kitchen down the hall. Pastry serves both the kosher and nonkosher kitchens, but because the food is cold, fewer regulations apply. Still, as a precaution, the tables are covered with white paper. Four sous-chefs are busy daubing nondairy topping onto spikes of chocolate cake, finishing each with the bottom point of a strawberry. Christmas carols tinkle from the radio.

Birnbaum peers into a trolley, 11 tiers of finished cake plates bound in plastic wrap. Plastic wrap, which can seal in kosher status, is big in the business. Birnbaum and pastry chef Andy Lofton shake hands. "We always give what you call respect," says Lofton. Birnbaum swivels the can of whipped topping base ("contains no milk or fat"), hunting for its kosher symbol, in this case a "U," the seal of the competing Orthodox Union in New York. Satisfied, he licks one whipped-toppinged finger.

Next the berries. Birnbaum selects one unwashed beauty and flushes out tiny thrips. "You eat one little one of those and you got four strikes against you," he says, ticking off four Talmudic prohibitions against eating insects. "This is not baseball. One strike and you're out." To guard against knowingly ingesting a whole bug (there're loopholes for not knowing and for mashed bugs), the leafy tops of the strawberries--camo to bugs--must be discarded and the bodies vigorously cleaned. He admonishes Lofton to scrub and rinse. "This is the essence of the mashgiach," says Birnbaum. "The buck stops here."

The two rabbis dash downstairs to deal with a dishwasher problem. The kosher kitchen's dishwasher is too small to handle tonight's crowd efficiently, so Shapiro has already taken the precaution of reserving one of the giant conveyor-belt washers in the hotel's main kitchen. But Birnbaum sees trouble--bits of nonkosher crud stuck below the dish rack. Not clean enough to kosherize.

Birnbaum leaves Shapiro to deal with the conundrum and dashes to the main kitchen, a drama of massive kettles and rumbling china carts, the air scented with roasting chicken and sour vegetables. It's one part KP, one part ER. In the garde-manger department sous-chefs are putting together salads, a parade of neatly arranged lettuce leaves on glass plates.

Birnbaum prepares his next demonstration. Now he moves from teacher, nitpick, noodge, to showman. He lays out two heads of lettuce, one romaine, one bib, and goes at his bug-stalking routine with the panache of a TV chef. He holds each bunch upside down under cold water and shakes it out. Then he rushes to the light box--his own contribution to the field of kosher cuisine--set up over a sanitary shield of tinfoil.

Iceberg, with its tightly wrapped layers, is nearly impervious to bugs, explains Birnbaum. Sloppier romaine and bib invite guests. And all varieties are at greater risk because farmers have cut down on pesticides. Ever alert to the peril, Birnbaum rarely eats out. "So many times I am about to take a bite," he says, mouth and eyes wide with pantomime horror. "It's like you took a bad medication. You feel bad." He pauses. "It might be a psychological effect more than physical."

A line mashgiach might spend an entire day holding up lettuce leaves to the nearest window or lamp. Birnbaum's light-box technique offers tabletop convenience (cutting down on neck strain), brighter light, and warmth, which induces chilled bugs to reveal their positions. As he peers at the delicate veins of a pale bit of bib, a tiny black speck begins to move. The enemy! Birnbaum rinses away the offending creature, then indulges in a bug-free snack.

Ed Chen, director of catering operations, stops by to schmooze. "We Chinese people eat anything," he says, laughing. "Even if it moves we eat it." But for a Chinese guy Chen is surprisingly fluent in kashruth. He picked it up catering in New York, Oklahoma City, and the big hotels here. But CRC, he says, is the toughest customer. "The goal is to try and be as strict as possible with ourselves, because the stricter you are, you open yourself up to a bigger market."

Last summer Chen catered a wedding in which both bride and groom were children of Orthodox rabbis. "Four rabbis in the kitchen!" he screams. "It was chaos!" But he managed a flawless celebration, following 12 pages of handwritten instructions from the father of the bride. "He said, "Ed, you're a mensch.' Of course, I didn't understand what he meant."

The toqued crowd has switched to arranging trays of appetizers for cocktail hour: mini mushroom quiche (sans butter), mini eggrolls (sans pork), little circles of smoked salmon topped with imitation cream cheese and capers. Chen surveys the trays with satisfaction. "Cheese, croutons--it sounds simple, but before we never had them." Increasingly sophisticated kosher customers are pressuring the industry to outgrow its overcooked brisket and sticky-wine phase. "People don't want the same Cornish hen they've gotten for 30 years," says Chen. "We don't want to serve it either." Figuring out how to concoct kosher Chinese, Japanese, and other ethnic cuisine is a mashgiach's hobby.

At 4 PM the second-shift mashgiachim show up, two fresh-faced real estate guys picking up pocket money by keeping an eye on the tail end of the evening. Second shift has to supervise cleanup and stay until everything is shipshape and locked down. Kosher areas are sealed with a coded strip of metal, which is to be broken only by a rabbinical hand.

With three other rabbis on hand Birnbaum ducks out, speeding to Skokie for his daily kitchen tour at the Lieberman Geriatric Health Centre. He brushes through the lobby, nodding greetings to the ladies loitering in wheelchairs, and pops into the office of dietary director Betty Burnie, who's working out a schedule of menus. The bookshelf behind her desk holds cookbooks featuring stews and soups, along with a can of Thick and Easy Pasta Puree for the Puree Diet.

The rabbi makes a prayer stop, then gets down to business. The nursing home maintains a spacious and spotless kitchen split down the center by an invisible milk-meat barrier. "How ya doin' rabbi?" shout a couple cooks in hair nets laboring over pots of spaghetti. Birnbaum strides the concrete floor, keeping a sharp eye out for the telltale flap of red tape that identifies cookware approved for meat dishes. He eagerly greets Sylvester Jackson, a tall man short on teeth who's been a dishwasher there for 18 years. Birnbaum considers Jackson his last line of defense against commingled meat and dairy utensils. Says the rabbi: "He's my main man."

Next the storeroom. A carton of Ritz crackers, lacking a kosher symbol, will have to be expelled. A box of Rold Gold pretzels in individual packets can stay. Hellmann's Dijonnaise gets the thumbs up, as do Kellogg's Complete Bran Flakes, Rubinstein's pink salmon, a case of kosher Sprite, and a bag of onions. Unadulterated fruits and vegetables are inherently kosher. In the corner a sealed garbage can holds quarantined items--a rack, a plate cover, and a few utensils contaminated by mix-up. When he gets a free moment Birnbaum will stop to kosherize them.

He vets the coolers, poking through the milk and eggs and cream cheese. Then he scans the counter where kosher Meals on Wheels are boxed and sent out under the CRC logo. He admonishes a pair of prep chefs to pay close attention to the romaine.

On the way back to the Hilton Birnbaum muses about the kosherizing process and its ability to make the contaminated clean. It's like conversion to Judaism, he says. Total and permanent.

At the Hilton zero hour approaches. The kosher kitchen is all but abandoned, its sterile platters and seasoned rice and spotless veggies having already rolled downstairs in a convoy of hot trucks. In the main kitchen a schedule pinned to the wall lists countdown from 5:30 drinks through 8:10 dessert. The guest list has dwindled to 715. A surgical team of four sous-chefs in see-through gloves work dish-out, arranging identical plates of rice and chicken and broccoli and peppers under the glare of the four-mashgiach detail.

Waiters assemble for roll call and a brief review of kosher etiquette. Each knows a horror story by heart--the guest who pulled out his own pat of butter (and had to be escorted out), the waiter who delivered a glass of milk (and "almost got killed"). "In trying to help you could commit a monumental blunder," says Chen.

The tables have been set with kosher china and flatware in the glittering Conrad International Ballroom North. Each sanctioned salad is in place. A printed card stands ready to assure diners the food is kosher and the butter fake. A singer practices the opening lines of the national anthem. Birnbaum, who moonlights as a cantor, joins in.

Show time. The lights go up in the Conrad International South, the first bottle is uncorked, and soon cocktails are in full swing. Guests in black mingle, sipping approved drinks. Birnbaum hovers at the margin of the party, an anxious chaperone. An especially cautious party-goer buttonholes the rabbi for the lowdown on the chicken supplier.

Birnbaum pauses to take in the scene: The wine is French but kosher, the glasses are kosher, the lemon twists and lime wedges and cherries are kosher. The hors d'oeuvres are kosher, and so are the trays. The evening is safe for entertainment. "I know I accomplished my mission," he says.

Backstage the second-shift guys lounge, ready for the first soiled plates to wend their way home. They'll make sure they stay kosher all the way to storage. Birnbaum has one more dishwasher crisis to solve--both the kosher and the nonkosher party in progress claim dibs--before he calls it a night. He's leaving for vacation in the morning, a road trip with the wife and all nine sons, ages 2 to 13. To make it all the way to New Jersey they've got to pack a lot of kosher meals.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Cynthia Howe.

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