I’ll admit it. I have an obsession with checking for hechshers on food products. Wherever I go, wherever I am, if I see anything consumable the first thing I do is look for that little symbol that lets me know that I, as a Jew who keeps kosher, can ingest it.
The hechsher certifies to me that the product meets the strict standards of kashrut that I demand of anything I eat or drink. It is a stamp of approval by a recognized religious authority but also a measure of comfort because it is to me as much a warm emblem of Judaism as a Star of David or a dreidel or a kippah.
And, to be totally honest, I not only inspect the packaging to see if the product is consumable but also to see if the company that makes it is food-friendly to the Jewish community by making products that can be purchased by Jews who observe kashrut.
Of course, my idea of culinary nirvana is being in a kosher supermarket where I don’t have to search for hechshers to make sure the food I bring into my kitchen is certified kosher. In these hallowed food emporia I can run my cart up and down the aisles and toss anything into it with nary a worry about whether this item or that is something I can bring home.
Unfortunately, those of us who don’t have the luxury of kosher supermarkets in our neighborhoods must shop in general convenience stores and supermarkets where we need to inspect the packaging of the products we buy. While I can understand that some find it laborious and time-consuming to pick up products off the shelves and examine them for the tiny desired identifying marks, I embrace this endeavor as a fun and welcome challenge.
Some hechshers are easy to spot and others take time – and for me, at least, the more elusive the mark the more gratifying it is to find it. I relish spinning a jar around, scrutinizing the small print, twisting it again, looking at the lid, all to find that missing inscription. But oh, when I finally find the missing figure, what nachas I get!
Indeed, my kosher-curiosity prompts me to examine any display of food. In offices and waiting rooms and lobbies I peer into vending machines to see if I can discern hechshers on the wrappers of chips and pretzels. At drug store counters I scrutinize the packaging of gum and mints for the diminutive notation. In movie theater food areas I stare through the glass case to see if the boxes of candy display the coveted kashrut seal of approval. I pry, I probe, I stick my nose wherever I go in search of that sacred symbol. And when it is absent from the goods I inspect I am sure my grimace and frown are not understood by those who happen to see me register my disappointment.
My search for hechshers has no geographical boundaries. If I am out of town, the hechsher hunt takes on extra weight. If I enter a grocery store in a strange place and spot a hechsher, it is as comforting to me as finding a landsman in a foreign country. Suddenly, in an unfamiliar locale, in a town or city where all may be strangers, I feel genuinely buoyed because I have just spotted one of my own. Inanimate as a hechsher may be, spotting one is like being on the receiving end of a wink or friendly handshake from a fellow Jew.
Searching for hechshers is not something I have to make a conscious effort to do; rather, like a sneeze or a blink, it is an automatic reflex. If I am in a store that is not all kosher, my eyes cannot help but scan the packaging as I walk down the aisles. I move slowly, eyes shifting up and down and across the shelves. Cereal, bread, cookies, milk, eggs, tuna fish, pasta, crackers, cake, ketchup, mayonnaise, grape juice, butter – you name it, I’m checking it out. Like a detective sniffing for evidence, my kosher quest always puts me in a good mood when I score a hit.
It’s not that I scan a product for a hechsher because I necessarily wish to buy it. As alluded to above, my euphoria upon finding a hechsher comes not just because the product is kosher but because it is gratifying to know that there are so many manufacturers that cater to the dietary needs of observant Jews.
As one who loves keeping kosher, who takes pride in abiding by the laws of kashrut, those symbols mean a lot to me. They signify that a food item or a drink was made in accordance with religious standards that are intrinsic to Judaism. They are an extension of belief in and devotion to Torah. They are a reflection of the practice of the Jewish religion.
And the fulfillment that comes from keeping kosher becomes all the sweeter when I find a hechsher in the most unlikeliest of venues and on the most unexpected of products.