Confessions of a Kosher Organic Junkie

by | in Health

By Rachel Wizenfeld

organic

Melding my Berkeley organic roots with the realities of a pesticide-ridden kosher kitchen

Growing up, I didn’t even know what skim milk was. Or 2 percent, for that matter. We always drank full-fat, organic milk—straight from the farm it seemed. For a time, we had jars of milk delivered to our door every Sunday by a milk truck. It was my brother’s job to rinse the empty jars, once finished, and set them at the doorstep for next week’s collection.

Lettuce came straight from the farmer’s market: bright, green and leafy, with plenty of dirt scattered around the roots—and so many types! There was butter lettuce and bibb lettuce and radicchio and mesclun. Romaine was a favorite, but not clean romaine hearts; no, we went for the dirt-encrusted forest green bunches that had more nutrients. “The darker and leafier, the better,” my father would say with a gleam in his eye.

Bug checking was just starting to come into vogue for our small Jewish community in Berkeley, California (this was in the early 90s), and my mother dutifully soaked lettuce and fresh broccoli in salt water and rinsed them well. But checking for bugs under the light wasn’t yet on the books, or at least the books we were reading. We were more conscious of avoiding pesticides than bugs in our vegetables.

Organic wasn’t just for eating, either. We used organic shampoos, chemical-free toothpaste and cloth diapers. We even had our clothes handsewn by mom until we became picky preteens. We had a compost heap in the back where we deposited banana peels and other organic trash, then used the resulting dirt to fertilize our apple trees. We recycled, took public transportation and went to beach cleanups on the weekends. We were children of Berkeley in every sense of the word, except for two critical areas: how we voted (Republican) and how we practiced religion (Orthodox Judaism).

So it was not a shock that when my family mainstreamed—moving to Passaic, New Jersey, and switching us kids from public school to yeshivah day schools—we still clung to our green organic roots. And while my eating habits did deteriorate when I attended seminary in Israel and Touro College in Manhattan and began to fend for myself (at my lowest point I made cookie sandwiches for lunch, spreading chocolate chip cookies with peanut butter), I always favored green salads and whole wheat anything.

Things changed, though, once I had my own kids. Suddenly, organic was more than a familiar buzzword; it became something that could potentially affect my children’s health. I also moved to Los Angeles with my native LA husband, where health-conscious friends and the proliferation of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods helped feed my habit.

Within a short time, I became a kosher organic junkie. I joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm share, where for $30 we would get a weekly box of farm-fresh vegetables with the dirt still on them dropped off at our door. I bought nontoxic floor soap and clipped a list of the “dirty dozen”—the top twelve pesticide-ridden fruits and vegetables—to our refrigerator. I ditched sweets and ice cream (too many unnatural flavorings) and started shelling out more of my grocery budget for organic potatoes, peppers and lettuce.

But organic lettuce means lots of bugs. And hard-to-check, farm-fresh kale was often covered with bugs that clung to each leaf for dear life. I was frequently throwing out half of our CSA share produce because the organic broccoli, cilantro and other unidentifiable leafy greens were too intimidating to check. Once I had a real moment of fear when a head of lettuce, which I had soaked, checked and used in a salad the night before, suddenly revealed many bugs when I checked it in the daytime. I assumed that I had just missed the bugs in my fatigue the night before. So in the battle between eating organic and halachah, halachah unequivocally won out. I went back to using the clean, pristine, nonorganic romaine hearts from the supermarket. The kale had to go too. And I finally canceled our CSA membership.

We were children of Berkeley in every sense of the word, except for two critical areas: how we voted (Republican) and how we practiced religion (Orthodox Judaism).

It’s a tough life being a kosher organic junkie. You want to kasher your oven properly, but you hate using Easy-Off, which is on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) hall of shame list for its harsh chemicals. You want to buy organic eggs, but at least a third of them have blood spots. Your friends are making elegant Shabbat desserts which you’d love to replicate, but pareve whipped cream makes you shudder (many pareve whipped creams and ice creams are filled with chemicals). Even sprinkles for your child’s birthday cake have colorings like Red #40 and Yellow #6, food dyes that allegedly trigger ADHD in children and are up for a possible ban in the United Kingdom.

And then comes the old debate: We ate it and we’re okay. Most shuls have a designated “candy man” who gives out lollipops and candies to children—and I can guarantee you he isn’t giving out organic, naturally-colored candy! So why should I be so crazy?

And the truth is, I’m really not that crazy. I eat in other people’s homes and enjoy their food. I spent the summer in Monsey at my kollel brother’s house and ate their yogurts filled with colorings and additives. And in a pinch, I’ll use nonorganic apples and potatoes when cooking or baking—top offenders on the dirty dozen pesticide list—though I do think twice about taking seconds.

So I do what I can. I make more spinach salads than romaine, since triple-washed organic spinach is easy to check and doesn’t have the pesticides of nonorganic romaine lettuce. I use puff pastry no more than once a year and never use margarine. I cook dried beans from scratch to avoid cans and read labels on our food carefully—no artificial flavoring in anything is my goal. And I started buying organic milk.

Who’s to say we’ll be healthier in the long run? But at the very least, a Berkeley girl’s got to try . . .

Rachel Wizenfeld is the founder of PopWriter.net. She lives with her family in Los Angeles.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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