The Jewish Politics Of Ice Cream


These days, most major ice creams brands are kosher. But depending on your politics it may not be kosher to eat all major ice creams. This nexus of political and gastronomical concerns became clear during a visit to Jerusalem several years ago. I was arranging to meet an old acquaintance for a snack. We first thought of Ben & Jerry’s, which had recently opened a shop in the middle of the capital. Then we had second thoughts.

Ben & Jerry’s, a Vermont-based firm with a known philanthropic reputation (known to be left-leaning) had announced in 1998 that it would no longer purchase water from an Israeli company in the Golan Heights, which Ben and Jerry considered under illegal Israeli occupation.

Could my Zionist friend and I in good conscience patronize a business whose politics were so at odds with ours? On the other hand, should the shop owners in Jerusalem suffer because of decisions made across the ocean? On the other hand, the ice cream is delicious. On the other hand …Finally we decided that we could buy Ben & Jerry’s, but only in Israel, since the shop’s Israeli owners and employees would benefit.

Our politics and our palates were satisfied.

We apparently were not the only members of the Jewish community (no matter one’s religious or political persuasions) who let geopolitics guide our diets, who try to reach a balance between prophets and profits.

The death on Nov. 28 of Rose Mattus, 90, widow of the founder of Haagen-Dazs, was a reminder of this phenomenon. Rose and her late husband Reuben, financial supporters of right-wing Jewish causes, were the mirror image of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. "Though not observant in the religious sense, Reuben and I were always concerned about the welfare of others and passionately concerned about the fate of the Jewish people," Mrs. Mattus stated in her 2004 autobiography, "The Emperor of Ice Cream: The True Story of Haagen-Dazs." Whereas Rose and Reuben would give their philanthropic funds to the Jewish Defense League or the Zionist Organization of America, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has concentrated on the environment and worker’s rights.

Enter Ben & Jerry’s Golan decision eight years ago. Buying ice cream became more complicated.

For some Jewish consumers, ice cream is a political battleground. Purchasing a cone or a quart makes a statement. For an earlier generation, it was lettuce: the politically aware would boycott lettuce picked by ill-treated migrant workers. In later years, coffee and wine and grapes and veal and lettuce from Gaza became the foods du jour to be eaten or avoided for various non-culinary reasons.

In the last decade, "you are what you eat" changed, for some Jewish ice cream aficionados, to "you eat what you believe." Buy Haagen-Dazs and you (depending on your politics) are strengthening the Jewish state or backing the government’s expansionist policies. Patronize Ben & Jerry’s and you are preventing the expropriation of Arab land or supporting the enemies of Israel.

"There are Jews who are still obsessed by this [subject]," said Allan Gould, Toronto writer and co-author of the humor book, "The Unorthodox Book of Jewish Records and Lists."

"Jews often eat with their politics," he said. "I did boycott grapes and I am concerned about lettuce. To this day I deliberately avoid chocolate that comes from slave labor."

Gould said an impolitic choice earned criticism a few years ago. "I was bawled out by someone for bringing a bottle of Perrier to a Torah study group: ‘How could you buy anything from France?’"

This is familiar turf for Rabbi Michael Paley, UJA-Federation’s scholar-in-residence who spends time in socially hip circles. "Of course I’ve heard about it," he said. "These things are important. All these things have deeper and echoing political meanings."

"It basically is a positive thing," said Ilya Welfeld, who is Modern Orthodox and describes herself as an "ice cream addict" and works in public relations, much of it in the food industry. "In Judaism we’re supposed to look at everything ‘materialistic’ through the eyes of our tradition."

Once it was Coke (which sold in Israel) vs. Pepsi (which didn’t), Welfeld said. "It’s not just with ice cream. Because we eat kosher food, our food has a community element to it. Kashrut raises our consciousness.

"Food," she said, "is integral to the Jewish culture.

"Next year I plan to go to Israel again. If I go out for an ice cream, I’ll have to make sure, again, that the ice cream company’s politics, as well as the ice cream itself, is kosher.