The Kosher Conundrum: When Another Diet Clashes with Gluten-Free

The Kosher Conundrum: When Another Diet Clashes with Gluten-Free
By Andrea Neusner, Delight Contributor

They say you are what you eat, but we all know you are also what you don’t eat. For example, vegetarians don’t eat meat. Observant Jews don’t eat pork or shellfish. And people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance don’t eat gluten. But when you are more than one of those things—a kosher-keeping celiac—your food choices shrink enormously. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, that was my problem. I saw a future for myself, a kosher-keeping Jew and healthy mom living with celiac disease, wasting away on a diet of “no thank you” and water.

The word “kosher” literally means “proper” or “fit” to eat. But making something kosher is far more complex than getting a rabbi to bless the food (a common misapprehension). There are kosher laws regarding the fit-ness of different animals—pork and shellfish being the most well known offenders. There are also kosher laws regarding the way animals must be raised and slaughtered. There are kosher laws forbidding the mixing of meat and dairy products together, which means that in a kosher kitchen, cooks use separate “milk” and “meat” utensils, dishes, and pots and pans.

But unlike following a gluten-free diet, keeping kosher isn’t exactly a one-size-fits-all system. Many kosher Jews bend the rules, one way or another. There is often the same number of different ways of keeping kosher as there are Jews in the room. There might even be more than one way of keeping kosher for every person. After all, there is how kosher we are at home. How kosher we are when we eat out. How kosher we are when nobody’s looking. How kosher we are in front of our in-laws!

I have cycled through many stages of keeping kosher. I grew up in a kosher home but we ate “kosher style” out of the house, meaning no mixing milk with meat, no shellfish, and no pork products. In college, I was an omnivore in the most literal sense. I tried everything. When I got married, I established a kosher home. Later, I decided to stop eating all non-kosher meat out, and also eliminated shellfish and pork. No mixing meat and dairy products, even when no one was looking. Eating out for me was pizza or pasta, tuna salad sandwiches, and maybe an occasional piece of fish.

Keeping kosher taught me to be mindful of everything I eat and to be grateful for those foods that are “fit” for me. It meant thinking of food as more than fuel but as a blessing. It meant thinking of my identity every time I sat down to eat. Modern American life can be an endless gluttonous feast, and being kosher reminded me that just because cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza are available around the clock, eating without thinking is not fit or proper. It was a three-times-a-day (or let’s face it, usually more) check-in with myself as well as an affirmation of my identity.

And so, when I got the diagnosis of celiac disease in my thirties, I was ready for more of the same. Not only was I used to thinking about what I ate, but I was used to reading labels and checking ingredients.

One of the tips I got was to have two sets of dishes, one for gluten-containing foods and one for gluten-free foods. That’s great advice for most, but I already had two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy. I had no desire (or cabinet space) for four sets. I wasn’t going to give up having a kosher home—my husband and I were still committed to raising our children in a kosher home and we wanted our friends and relatives who keep kosher to continue to be able to eat in our house. So in the house, we kept things as before, while adding some new “rules” to keep out kitchen safe for gluten-free eaters: no double-dipping, hand-washing after any gluten contact, no cross-contamination, and so on.

However, I still had the problem of what to do outside of the house. I struggled with wanting to do the right thing. The trouble was figuring out what that might be. Almost all of my fallback options on restaurant menus were now prohibited. I talked to my rabbi, hoping there was some sort of Jewish law permitting the eating of non-kosher food because of allergy or illness. There was not. I talked to orthodox Jews with celiac disease, seeking advice—and perhaps a miracle diet. Turns out they didn’t eat out much. And while my kosher-keeping husband and I have managed to share some delicious kosher-friendly, gluten-free meals in restaurants, those experiences are rare. We are the highest-maintenance of diners. Sometimes, the angst isn’t worth it.

In the end, I had to make a choice. I could not imagine myself living the rest of my life eating only at home, without restaurants. I could not possibly loosen up on my gluten-free rules—they were absolutely necessary for maintaining my newly good health. In trying to balance my two competing food identities, one had to win. And so I decided that outside of my house, I would not limit myself to kosher food only. I will order beef, chicken and other items not produced by kosher standards, and the entire time, I worry less about my soul and just pray that my restaurant meal isn’t going to make me sick.

I still am grateful for my kosher-keeping upbringing. It was an excellent preparation for what it means to be gluten-free. I still must pause and consider every time I eat whether or not the food on my plate is fit for me. It has taught me to be grateful for every specially made gluten-free meal. It has taught me that food is more than how we fuel ourselves. In the end, however, I had to listen to more than my soul’s wishes. I had to listen to my gut.

6 comments (Add your own)

1. sachin wrote:
just found out i have this , my mother got colon cecanr because of untreated celiacs disease , it is no joke , but i am glad i know i have it , i was depressed and did not have a normal bowel movement for a year , then i started to feel like i would vomit after each time i ate , in two days of not eating gulten i was almost back to normal , thank god i found out , hope this helps

Thu, March 22, 2012 @ 8:00 PM

2. Julie wrote:
I categorically do not agree that a kosher and coeliac diet are incompatible, infact, because of Passover, there is a much better understanding among Jews/Israelis of what gluten is, which makes it easier to eat in restaurants. I think that being coeliac as a whole can take the pleasure out of eating in a restaurant because you can't be sure that they are using a fresh pan for cooking or fresh oil for frying and only find out when you have consumed the food, regardless of whether a 'regular' or 'kosher' establishment. You also have to be able to trust that friends are taking care not to 'poison' you in the same way you would need to trust that their food was kosher. In America more so than in the UK where I live, you have the luxury of limitless products which are certified as kosher and gluten free, infact, I am lucky that a local store imports many of these and the quality is often better than that which is made by some British supermarkets. Our Kashrut authority has also looked into gluten free staples which are available on prescription to certify them for coeliacs, making the life of coeliacs easier every day. They are also willing to investigate new products on the request of their audience as well as the manufacturers. In summary, in the 21st Century, keeping kosher and gluten free are absolutely compatible and it's misleading to claim they are not.

Wed, July 18, 2012 @ 1:48 PM

3. janet wrote:
Although I don't have a diagnosis of celiacs I am very gluten, rice and animal protein sensitive. My main staples are salads, beans and vegetables. I do eatcorn and vegetable chips in moderation. Processed soy uses wheat or rice or rice as a binder so veggie burgers are out too. We eat out almost anywhere. I will get a salad or hard shell bean tacos because they are usually corn. I know before I'm halfway through a meal if it has something it shouldn't.
I limit dairy to once a day if I must have it. This is all still new to me so Thanksgiving is going to be interesting. Bottom line is I haven't felt this good since..well, ever. No more pain, is better than any food. Good luck and God Bless.

Mon, April 29, 2013 @ 8:26 AM

4. Hamza AK wrote:
I have the same condition as you with almost the same timelines as well. I am 26 and was diagnosed as celiac last year. I am also a Muslim and only eat Halal, which has almost the same rules as Kosher.

However, when I am faced with a choice, I give up on the gluten free choices rather than giving up on Halal.

Thu, February 5, 2015 @ 5:20 PM

5. Margaret Clegg wrote:
Is see God as a God of grace and mercy. David ate the holy bread when he was on the run, and he was called the man after God's own heart. Admittedly, i am not Jewish, but I think what you are doing is fine. After all, who are we to judge another man's servant, especially if that person is a servant of the Lord.
This is the view of God that I hold, taken from the Old Testament (Message Translation) -
Psalm 103
God makes everything come out right;
he puts victims back on their feet.
He showed Moses how he went about his work,
opened up his plans to all Israel.
God is sheer mercy and grace;
not easily angered, he’s rich in love.
He doesn’t endlessly nag and scold,
nor hold grudges forever.
He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve,
nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.
As high as heaven is over the earth,
so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrise is from sunset,
he has separated us from our sins.
As parents feel for their children,
God feels for those who fear him.

May the grace and mercy of God comfort your heart and may all of your meals be safe and gluten free.

Thu, February 5, 2015 @ 8:37 PM

6. BHD wrote:
I had the same dilemma. I was a committed Kosher keeping Jew, but then had to undergo several surgeries and was told I was allergic to gluten, cane sugar, brewers yeast, coffee and chocolate. I have Kosher food in abundance in my neighborhood, but alas, it is too much and much harder to avoid my allergens and keep Kosher, so I had to give it up keeping Kosher in part. I still don't eat shell fish or pork but I have to eat some non Kosher protein or I would starve, it is that simple. The hardest thing is avoiding cane sugar by the way, which is in everything from gluten free bread, to ketchup and mayonnaise and nearly all salad dressings. I was very sick just yesterday and I attributed it to being at a Kosher event, with Kosher deli, and I had the potato salad and turkey and roast beef with mustard and mayo, but no bread of course. The next day, sick, sick and sick, and I think it is most likely the sugar in the mayonnaise and maybe in the cured meats. I kicked myself for eating it, but I was hungry. I go through this often. To top it off, I suggested to my Shul that when they have food out they have the caterer label allergens, such as contains soy, wheat, sugar peanuts, etc. Just the most common allergens, but was told it would be too difficult. So I empathize with you. By the way, Kosher foods are getting better at labeling, so it is easier, but it is still very hard to avoid all sugar, and gluten and brewers yeast (which means no even gluten free soy sauce.

Mon, August 31, 2015 @ 7:36 PM

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