One of the pleasures of magazines is in an editor's creative matching of writer and subject. When the matchmaking defies obvious choices, the results can be especially satisfying, as in Patricia Marx's profile of two rabbis who inspect food factories in China for kosher compliance (abstract here; full article requires registration). Stories about melamine poisonings from Chinese sources appear with a distressing frequency these days, and this report could have easily become a book-length analysis by John McPhee. Instead, Marx -- a veteran comedy writer who also writes for The Huffington Post -- deals with the melamine angle briskly, and toward the end of her report:
Like an I.R.S. auditor, a mashgiah [kosher inspector] is there to make sure that nobody is cheating. A mashgiah does not bless food. Nor is it his job to vet anything for hygiene or safety. But that may be changing. Apparently, there are only so many cartons of toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, pet foods, and milk products that can be poisoned before the big machers in kashruth decide that they ought to tinker with an ancient tradition. Kosher-certifying organizations, including the [Orthodox Union], issued a statement saying that they will soon issue another statement saying that any Chinese company seeking their approval must comply with certain safety guidelines, which have yet to be specified. In the meantime, as [Rabbi David] Moskowitz put it, "Food scandals are always good for the kosher business."
The clearest moment of Judaism-meets-China is in this narrative by Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg:
"There are two religions in China," he said. "One is food. The other is money." He told a story about a time, a few years back, when he addressed a group of Chinese authorities whose approval he needed in order to continue working in China. Having been warned by a colleague not to bring up God during his presentation, he explained to his audience that a kosher-certified factory could potentially bring in an extra million dollars a year in revenue. "Their eyes lit up," he said. "Then one of them asked the big question: 'What is kosher law based on?' I asked him if he had ever heard of the Atkins diet. I said that Atkins wrote a diet book that's very popular in the United States. And that, similarly, Moses gave the Jews the kosher diet, with rules that are also codified. I said that, from the little I'd read about Confucius, he, too, would have done the same thing. The Chinese all smiled. And they said, 'Rabbi, even if what you're doing here is illegal, keep doing it! We're going to try to get the laws modified so you can do lots of business in China.'"
Grunberg's paraphrase of the Chinese officials' response sounds a bit rich, but his explaining the concept of kosher in modern terms certainly is rewarding.
Image of the Orthodox Union's kosher-certified logo used under a Wikimedia Commons license.