It's un-kosher, but kibbutz brings home the bacon

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 20, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Ever since the big wave of ex-Soviet immigration here, business at the Kibbutz Mizra has been just swine.

The kibbutz sells pork. The new immigrants can't get enough of it.

"Ever since they came, the consumption of pig meat has been going up," said Hadas Senderowicz, manager of the meat-packaging plant near Nazareth.

Pork is about as non-kosher as non-Kosher gets. But Kibbutz Mizra has long resisted the outcry of the religious orthodox.

Kibbutz Mizra, like most of the collective farms called kibbutzim, was settled by liberal, secular Jews who did not "keep kosher." They did keep pigs, for the same reasons many farmers did: The creatures eat just about anything, grow like crazy and can make quite a few meals.

Some farmers even think pigs are sociable, though that may depend on how long the farmers have been out on the farm.

In 1962, religious groups in Israel won the first "pig law," prohibiting pigs from being raised on Jewish lands. Ironically, the law spurred the fledgling meatpacking business of Kibbutz Mizra.

All of the other kibbutzniks who had gotten accustomed to a bit of bacon with their morning eggs from their own pigs now had to buy the meat elsewhere. Kibbutz Mizra moved its pigs to Arab-owned and Christian-owned lands near Nazareth and cranked up its meat-processing plant.

The only non-kosher factory in Israel, it has 120 employees and packages 130 products, ranging from ostrich meat (which is also forbidden by Jewish dietary laws) to smoked goose breasts to Hungarian sausage.

Supermarkets here do not handle the non-kosher products. But the Maadaney Mizra (Mizra Deli) label does well in the hundreds of little non-kosher butcher shops and delicatessens throughout the country.

Mrs. Senderowicz claims 1.2 million customers in a country of 5 million people, 4 million of them Jews. One cannot lay all that bacon on the plates of the Arabs, the majority of whom are Muslim and even more strict about avoiding pork.

"An awful lot of Jews eat non-kosher," Mrs. Senderowicz concludes.

The success of the business infuriates the orthodox Jewish religious parties. They clamor periodically for a broader law banning pork from Israel, and Mrs. Senderowicz and her fellow kibbutzniks periodically protest such attempts with marches in Jerusalem.

"Saddam Hussein saved us" in 1991, she said. Just as the pork ban seemed imminent under the conservative government, the Persian Gulf war diverted attention.

Future attempts seem unlikely to cook up much support among Israel's newest citizens from the former Soviet Union.

Many of the half-million immigrants have a history of eating pork and economic reasons for continuing to do so.

"It's cheap," Mrs. Senderowicz said. "In the first year they were here, they bought stuff like pig legs and pig fat and livers and kidneys. We never sold that before. Really, we used to throw it away. Now we vacuum package it and sell it."

Her kibbutz's sales of pork products have increased 10 percent in the last two years, as Israel has received its biggest wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.

As the ex-Soviets begin to get their economic feet on the ground, Mrs. Senderowicz sees their buying habits changing.

"Even with a little money, they are starting to buy 200 grams of our pork sausage instead of a kilo of pigs legs," she said. "They're starting to buy things I am proud of."

She is eager for the new immigrants to get jobs and prosper. Then they can indulge their eating preferences completely, or whole hog.

But some others are beginning to appreciate the lowly pig, Mrs. Senderowicz said. Pig organs and pig skin are structurally close to their human counterparts, and every so often a local hospital wants pig hearts to study, she said.

Even the religious Jews give pigs their due for that. One Orthodox man was told by his doctor to use pig fat for a disease of his skin. He phoned the kibbutz several hours ahead, came in shielding his eyes from the heretical foods and slipped out quickly with his purchase, like an embarrassed husband in a lingerie store.

"He must have thought this non-kosher food would swallow him up," Mrs. Senderowicz said. "But he never came back, so the pig fat must have worked."

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