Note: This is the first of two stories on kosher travel.
Whenever she travels, Rhoda Farbowitz of Staten Island always packs a fallback kosher “meal” — a pack of tuna, cheese, challah rolls. “You just never know,” said Farbowitz. “You always have to carry something in your pocketbook.”
I agree, and never leave home without a cheese sandwich. Emergency rations aside, however, eating kosher away from home no longer requires the time-honored suitcase full of tuna. That was the grateful consensus from Jewish Week readers, who responded to my kosher travel query with a wealth of tips and advice.
“Here’s my philosophy,” wrote B. Lamdanit, an Upper West Sider who has maintained halachic standards and a full belly while roughing the African bush: Kosher travel anywhere “can be done if you want it badly enough — and if you’re willing to go without the exact foods and customs that you have at home.” Indeed, if there was one dominant theme in reader responses, it was this: Traveling while kosher is best accomplished when cuisine is not the focus.
That leaves room for pleasant surprises, though, since kosher dining options have proliferated around the globe on a scale unimaginable just a few decades ago. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, who oversees the Kashruth Department at the Orthodox Union, confirmed the globalization of halachically correct fare and credited two major factors — the expansion of Chabad to far-flung corners of the world, and mass outsourcing of food processing to foreign factories.
“The food market is no different than the garment market,” said Rabbi Elefant. Today, he explained, most U.S.-sold clothes are manufactured overseas; the same thing goes for crackers and hot sauce and fish sticks, which is why the OU dispatches a team of 600 rabbinic field representatives to certify plants in 80-plus countries, including China and India.
Thirty years ago, such places “weren’t even on our radar,” said Rabbi Elefant. “But the world has changed; it’s become a village. Nearly half the new facilities we certify today are outside the U.S.” The ripple effect has been that “every supermarket in the world, and I use the word very literally, has OU food,” added the rabbi.
That’s great news for hungry travelers, who once had to subsist on local fruits and salads — a lethargy-inducing experience that Rabbi Elefant, who likes a good steak, recalls well. Nowadays, he advised, look for canned goods and popular brands like Heinz, Hershey, Pringles and Ritz crackers.
Other kosher staples, especially for those headed off the beaten path: cereal, peanut butter, granola bars, oatmeal packets, and instant noodles. Matzah — durable, versatile and symbolic — is a universal favorite. And everyone I spoke to mentioned the new lightweight tuna pouches and Coca-Cola (which, at least for JW readers, may well be the great American contribution to world cuisine).
In big cities, travelers rely on Chabad as a one-stop Jewish resource. Chabad centers maintain websites with up-to-date local kosher information, welcome visitors for Shabbat dinner and help arrange elevator-free, walking-distance accommodations. Simply Googling “Jewish community” together with a destination name is often helpful; many prominent synagogues abroad have kosher restaurants, and some of those (especially in Asia) qualify as cultural and culinary highlights.
Many readers praised the ease of dining on major cruise lines. Get to know your maître d’ and chef, they advised, and these obliging folks will prepare double-wrapped kosher meals, store Shabbat items in a refrigerator (and reheat on request), or invite guests to inspect the hechshers on kitchen items. They’ll also provide plastic silverware and paper plates and handle electricity issues on Shabbat.
Tipping up front is essential, readers emphasized — and well worth the investment. Cruise staff “are taught to honor all requests, no more how odd they seem,” wrote Batsheva Winnig of Manhattan, who has a bowl and pitcher delivered for ritual hand-washing, no questions asked, alongside sealed kosher meals.
At one such Shabbat on board, “I heard the people at the next table commenting that it looked like a Passover seder,” recalled Winnig, who added that another Jewish couple ventured over to greet them. Hers was a story common among readers — many of whom, while observing Shabbat somewhere conspicuously out of place, have attracted the attention of fellow Jews.
Cruise ships may be easy, but hotels in the Caribbean or overseas can be challenging, travelers reported. For difficult destinations — or just to ensure a hot Shabbat dinner — many families pack frozen meals to reheat on a Foreman grill or portable griddle-crockpot. Farbowitz recommended the insulated bags from California Club, which can keep a chicken dinner frozen solid for at least 29 hours. (That’s the amount of time her lost luggage once traveled before reaching her — still rock-hard.)
Such measures are largely unnecessary in 2016, Rabbi Elefant assured me. “People don’t actually have to pack cans of tuna fish anymore,” he said. “But they still do. My wife,” he added with an affectionate sigh. “Her attitude is, ‘How can you go on a trip without having food with you?’ And mine is, ‘Why would you pack extra?’”
“So when we go together, we pack food. And when I go by myself, I don’t.”