Passover brings Jews together — across generations, denominations and distances — as we travel to see parents, children, aunts, uncles and friends at our annual seders. Three-quarters of the Philadelphia-area's Jewish households will participate in a seder next week, according to a 2009 study sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Much of this holiday is about food — the shank bone, bitter herbs, matzah and other items that symbolize our escape from Egypt, and the large dinner where we retell of our Exodus, swap stories and exchange plans for the future.
Passover is also big business for kosher food. Industry insiders estimate that as much as 40 percent of kosher food sales take place during the Passover season, as families stock up for the holiday. Each year, dozens of new products hit the market just in time for Passover so that when families gather, there can be something new and interesting to eat.
Kosher food today is nothing like your mother's (or grandmother's) edibles. Today, there are more than 100,000 certified kosher consumer foods; almost 50 percent of the items in a typical supermarket bear a kosher symbol, according to the Mintel Research Organization. Go back one generation to 1985 and there were at most 10,000 kosher-certified items; go back another generation to 1960 and there were perhaps 2,000 products displaying kosher symbols, such as the Orthodox Union's "U" in a circle.
Yet for all the variety, no more than 15 percent of Philadelphia's Jewish families say that they maintain a kosher home, according to the population study. This is similar to national proportions. So why are food manufacturers pumping out so much kosher food to a market of fewer than 1 million Jews nationally?
To put it simply: It's good business. For one thing, food companies routinely seek out kosher certification because it opens doors to both Jewish and non-Jewish consumers. Muslims buy kosher processed food because they are confident that it does not contain pork. Vegetarians similarly can trust that dairy and pareve items do not contain meat, and lactose-intolerant customers rightly assume that the rabbis overseeing certification will put the dairy "D" label on a food that contains the slightest hint of milk products. Market researchers who follow these trends closely estimate that in 2009, nine out of every 10 consumers who looked for a kosher label were not Jewish.
The observant Jewish market, especially the Orthodox, also drives kosher food. Among Jews today, the Orthodox tend to be younger, have larger families and spend proportionately more on food. According to the 2009 Jewish population survey, Philadelphia-area Jews under the age of 39 also are more likely to keep a kosher home than older Jews. From the standpoint of the food industry, these observant families are perfect consumers — and food companies want to secure their loyalty so that these folks buy the same brands again and again.
So as we shop for our seders — and for the rest of the Passover week — it makes complete sense for the industry to make sure we have lots of selections. What seder would be complete without the special foods fashioned for this very special occasion? And even if many Jews having family seders are not kosher themselves, what sensible company would produce food for Passover use that is unacceptable to the Orthodox? Making more kosher-for-Passover food options available is simply good business in today's world.
The food that we share at the table, and can now purchase at the supermarket, indicates how our lives remain linked even across the differences that divide us. Whether we identify as Orthodox or Reform, Conservative or secular, when we fill Elijah's cup with a French kosher-for-Passover wine and use a whole-grain matzah for the afikomen, we celebrate both our impact on modern food today, as well as the ancient traditions that Passover keeps alive.
Roger Horowitz, a research fellow for the Chemical Heritage Foundation, is writing a book on the history of kosher food in America.