Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz got a desperate call at 5:55 in the morning recently from the food engineering directorate of the U.S. Army in Natick, Mass.
"It was an urgent request that chaplains in Saudi Arabia had made to the Pentagon asking for kosher food to be sent to the troops in the Persian Gulf that included not only Jews, but Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus and vegetarians," Eidlitz said.
The North Hollywood rabbi immediately sent a copy of his personal computerized list of 100,000 kosher products to the U.S. Army and put the military food specialists in touch with the suppliers of kosher foods all over the country. The approved products that were eventually shipped ranged from canned fish and dried meats to drinks of all varieties. The military was grateful.
"It was really a help to us, but it took me some time to find Rabbi Eidlitz. I looked all over the country for someone who could help us until someone in the Midwest referred me to Rabbi Eidlitz," said Harold Gorfein with the Army's food directorate.
Apparently, Gorfein's boss, acting director of the directorate, had seen a TV program two years earlier about a California rabbi who had a computerized list of kosher products. When the Gulf War broke out and some of the troops needed kosher food, the director assigned Gorfein to track him down.
"Rabbi Eidlitz's list was important because the U.S. armed forces are now developing multiethnic food rations for the field soldiers, with kosher products as an important component," Gorfein said.
Eidlitz has long handled questions about kosher products.
In 1977, when he was teaching a class to college-age women at a Jewish seminary in Santa Clara, he started getting questions about what was and wasn't kosher. He surveyed other national kosher experts and rabbis, but found that they often had no answers. He and his class began writing such major food manufacturers as Kraft, General Foods and Kellogg, asking how they were producing their foods, what ingredients they were using and how the kosher ingredients were certified. As the companies responded, he compiled the information manually. After moving to North Hollywood in 1986, he computerized his list.
This time of year, with the eight-day Jewish festival of Passover beginning Friday, Eidlitz is getting more than 100 calls a day from companies, supermarket chains, growers and individuals all over the United States about the kosher status of products.
Passover celebrates the deliverance of Jews from Egyptian bondage about 3,200 years ago. When the Jews were escaping from the Egyptians, they couldn't wait for dough to rise, so they had to eat unleavened bread, or matzo . In commemoration of that time, during Passover Jews are forbidden to eat hametz, or the five major grains: wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt.
Working from his cramped office at Emek Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox Jewish day school with campuses in North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, Eidlitz teaches elementary and junior high school religion classes and runs his Kashrut (Hebrew for kosher) Information Bureau, where he continues to compile the list of kosher food products.
The bureau, which he set up in 1986 at the academy, provides information through a telephone hot line--(818) 762-3197--and a booklet he publishes on kosher products and distributes free nationwide.
Recent calls to the hot line included one from a family in Alaska asking which medications were kosher for Passover. Eidlitz listed some approved products for them.
Another call came from a non-Jew in Georgia who wanted to know why the frozen vegetable products that he produces couldn't be used during Passover. It turned out the man was processing his vegetable dishes and pasta dishes on the same equipment, a practice that is forbidden during Passover, because pasta is made from grains that are not permitted during the holiday, the rabbi explained.
Eidlitz was ordained an Orthodox rabbi in 1971 after completing his studies at Ner Israel Rabbinical Yeshiva in Baltimore and did postgraduate work in food technology at Stanford University in 1977 and 1978. Today he is in demand on the lecture circuit, giving about 50 speeches a year on kosher products. He has just completed a manuscript for a book on this topic. But around Passover, the bulk of his time is spent answering questions on the status of kosher products and the ingredients used in these products. Some of these calls are more unusual than others.
"I received a call from Kal-Kan Pet Foods who asked me about the right ingredients for kosher food for dogs and cats during Passover and I was able to help them," he said.
"The kosher food market industry nationally is $30 billion and growing."
Menachem Lubinsky, owner of Lubicom in New York, a marketing firm that specializes in kosher and Jewish markets, has been tracking the industry for years. "The growth last year in the food industry in general was 5% and the kosher food industry grew by 15%," he said.
The increase in the sale of kosher products has even been seen in areas where there are no Jews, Lubinsky said. "I see a more quality-conscious consumer in the 1990s who views kosher food as healthier.
"In 1977, there were 1,000 kosher products on the market and the industry nationally was a $250-million industry. Today, there are 20,000 kosher products on the market and it's a $30-billion industry," Lubinsky said.
Eidlitz is an acknowledged expert in this field. "He is one of the primary sources of information regarding the kashrut of a product in the United States and certainly in the western United States," said Rabbi Aron Tendler, associate rabbi at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood. "He constantly keeps in touch with manufacturers and has an exhaustive research data program regarding kosher products and shares the information freely and willingly with everyone."
The observance of the laws pertaining to kosher food was dictated in the Old Testament and interpreted by Shulchun Aruch, a legal treatise on Jewish law. This biblical law was adopted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the early 1950s as Federal Law No. 383-B, Eidlitz said. Generally speaking, the law dictates how kosher foods are prepared and the ingredients that are allowed into the food products.
To make sure products are prepared in a proper manner, a kosher authority, known as a mashgiach, supervises the procedure. Kosher restaurants usually employ a full-time mashgiach and kosher markets or manufacturers are regularly visited by a mashgiach to make sure products are prepared properly.
One of the main problems in the kosher industry, Eidlitz said, are fraudulent claims made by some product makers who give hecshers, or seals of approval, to foods that are not kosher. The hecshers are the signs given by certifying organizations that consumers look for to determine if a product is kosher, he said. Another problem, he said, is products or restaurants that are labeled "kosher style." These generally are not kosher; products and restaurants must have certification.
"Some manufacturers offer four different hecshers for water, when in fact you don't have to make water kosher," Eidlitz said.
"With the kosher market becoming very sophisticated with its offering of a large variety of products, companies and people have to be very careful on what they choose and supermarkets are very accommodating because it is becoming a very lucrative market," he said.