Arthur Barry of Swampscott can remember when there were kosher businesses all over the North Shore. “Years ago, there was a lot more kosher stuff to pick from. You could always buy kosher foods, pre-processed and packaged and a symbol on it – you could almost get it any place, even in a regular supermarket,” said Barry. “There was a butcher in Swampscott, the Cohen brothers, there was a place on Humphrey Street, a butchery type place in Lynn, but the area’s changed.”
Until the 1970s, kosher businesses abounded because many Jews kept kosher. These days, it’s a little different. “People tended to get away from that – they tend to assimilate, so there aren’t too many of us left who follow that tradition,” said Barry, a retired computer programmer.
Overall, not many American Jews keep kosher. According to a 2017 Pew study, 22 percent of U.S. Jews said that they keep kosher at home (far less than the 63 percent of Israeli Jews who said they did, according to the same study), and 57 percent of U.S. Jews said they eat pork, compared to just 16 percent of Israeli Jews.
Barry and his wife Brenda, along with a small group of other local Jews, follow the laws of kashrut as best as they can. There are the well-known basics: Barry only buys certified kosher foods, does not mix meat and dairy, and does not eat pork or shellfish (according to the rules of kashrut, an animal must have split hooves, chew its cud, and be slaughtered in a specific way in order to be kosher.) But there is more work involved. Barry has two sets of dishes and silverware for dairy and meat products, and the respective sets are kept completely separate. Meat dishes and silverware go in one set of drawers in the dishwasher, while dairy dishes are kept in another, and are washed by hand.
Dean Solomon, a nonprofit administrator who lives in Swampscott, took it a step further when he installed a second oven and dishwasher in his house. Solomon also has two microwaves. Ellen Levine, a violinist from Swampscott, does not have separate appliances like Solomon does, so she takes steps to keep milk and meat products as separate as possible. Dairy and meat products cannot be in the oven at the same time, and the oven must be self-cleaned in between cooking meat and dairy. After eating a dairy meal, Levine waits an hour to eat meat, and after a meat meal, she waits six hours before consuming dairy.
To the outside observer, this may seem like a lot of trouble, but for Levine, Solomon, and Barry, it is second nature. “I thought it was really easy – I never craved anything that were forbidden foods,” said Levine, who did not grow up kosher but began observing kashrut when she married Joel Levine, who is also an observant Jew. “You have a wide variety of choices, and you eat the things you want to eat, so it’s not like a deprivation … it’s just like you’ve chosen a diet, and that’s what you’ve decided to eat.”
The North Shore counts less than a handful of fully kosher establishments, but they offer wide selections that make staying kosher easy. One of the largest kosher businesses is Levine’s Kosher Meat Market in Peabody, which offers kosher meat, groceries, and a sit-down deli. Owner Todd Levine says that he has consciously tried to incorporate many options for the convenience of kosher shoppers. “A lot of places just have meat and deli, but when I got into the business, I expanded into cooked foods,” said Levine, who took over the business from his father Larry. “Today’s busy consumer wants a one-stop shop, where they can get everything from a reliable source. We’re broadening our options, because it’s not just your Bubbe and Zayde buying it,” said Levine.
Local kosher establishments go beyond delis and meat markets. Adea’s Mediterranean Kitchen in Salem offers every combination of hummus, pita, falafel, and healthy salads imaginable. In Peabody, Zucker’s Bakery indulges the kosher sweet tooth, and is especially known for its variety of hand-braided challahs.
Outside the North Shore, markets such as The Butcherie in Brookline and Zayde’s in Canton offer similar options to Levine’s.
Local supermarkets also carry a wide and increasing variety of kosher food. “There’s a kosher aisle now, so it’s pretty easy to get stuff in that,” said Solomon, referring to the entirely kosher aisle (number 7) in the Swampscott Stop & Shop that boasts everything from Manischewitz latkes mix, to Streit’s matzah ball mix, to Rokeach gefilte fish. On Passover, another aisle is allocated solely for Kosher for Passover products.
“Most of my shopping is Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, and Stop & Shop has a huge selection of kosher items,” said Levine. “I can shop for anything at Whole Foods except for meat and cheese. Everything that’s either grain or produce, tofu, pastas – you can get a lot of things at any supermarket … in the past 20 years, the kosher market has just been flooded with more and more specialty products, and gourmet products.”
While mainstream supermarket chains all over the country have significantly increased their kosher offerings in recent years, not many have full-blown kosher aisles the way the Vinnin Square Stop & Shop does. Such an aisle would not exist if the consumer demand were not there, and it indicates that although not many North Shore Jews keep kosher to the extent that Levine, Solomon, and Barry do, many do factor it into their decisions. “I know plenty of Jews who keep kosher to some extent,” said Levine.
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody pointed out that there’s a large and growing interest among his congregation in keeping kosher in some way, even if they don’t follow every rule.
“There’s quite a few who make some effort. We had at our Shabbat table last night five different families, and all of them keep some form of kosher,” said Schusterman, who provides kosher supervision of Zucker’s Bakery. “In one case it was that they had separate set of dishes and won’t mix them together. Another said they would never bring non-kosher meat into their house. In another case, they wouldn’t eat at a non-kosher restaurant. I feel that there’s a lot of interest in doing something.”
Schusterman feels that is something to celebrate, and the process is not as daunting as some think.
“People would be surprised how much easier it is to do than they thought. There’s so much available, it’s not nearly as expensive as it used to be, the obstructions are so much fewer than they used to be. Everyone can start somewhere,” he said.