Marin County dairy looking for a way it can become kosher

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The Straus Family Creamery produces kosher yogurt, processed at the certified-kosher Brown Cow Yogurt plant in Antioch. But Michael Straus is finding that koshering the rest of his Marin County line — California's only organic dairy — is another matter.

One rabbi told Straus that he might have to wash equipment at higher temperatures than the state requires.

Another rabbi told Straus the state standards are high enough. But for milk, cheese, the dairy's award-winning butter and yogurt to attain the highest level of glatt kosher, the rabbi warned, an official must visit the 660-acre property near Point Reyes and oversee the operation every day on which the product is certified.

Yet another rabbi listed other, less demanding standards that require only two or three surprise inspections during the course of a year. Besides, this third rabbi pointed out, all unadulterated, fluid cow's milk is automatically kosher. But to make it kosher for Passover — well, in the Ashkenazi tradition, you can't feed the cows any grain for awhile…

So it is that after more than a year of research, Straus still can't find a practical way to make his entire product line kosher. "We're still trying to find a level of kosher that makes sense for us. The kosher process — it's not cheap," Straus says.

Ironically, the Strauses wouldn't have to change their operation much in order to put out a kosher product. They already make their cheese without any animal rennet. Moreover, Michael's older brother Albert, who manages the farm, opened an organic creamery six miles away last February, creating the first organic dairy concern west of the Mississippi.

The Straus farm itself stopped using pesticides and herbicides around 20 years ago.

The problem is to get a rabbi or other Jewish official to witness the operation. Still, other Jews — in Israel — will get an in-depth look at the Straus dairy. Israel TV's Channel 1 recently taped an interview with the Straus family for an upcoming two-part series on American Jews. The program, for the show "Mabat Sheni" (Second Look) will include interviews with such American Jews as Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and master violinist Isaac Stern.

Michael Straus, who handles sales, is still exploring ideas to get the kosher stamp of approval for the creamery. Perhaps, he suggests, the dairy might be certified glatt kosher one day of every week. Maybe the family could work out a deal with an Orthodox community — trading a rabbinical overseer for discounts on Straus products.

Several key kashrut requirements are federally mandated anyway, reports Jonah Gewirtz, who chairs the board of directors at the New England Board of Rabbis.

Gewirtz says the government agrees with talmudic law, for example, in its insistence that milk cannot be sold as cow's milk if it has been mixed with the milk of pigs or — though this is not as much of a problem as it once was — camels.

Still, some people insist that their milk be Chalav Yisrael — that is, processed in the presence of a Jew who observes kosher laws.

Gewirtz notes the potential dangers of substances that transform milk into other products like cheese and ice cream. To meet kosher standards, cheese coagulants must be protein enzymes from vegetables, not meat, and should preferably be purchased from an observant Jew. Shortening, too, must be vegetable, and must come through pipes purely dedicated to vegetable products. Kosher yogurt cannot contain beef gelatin or animal protein enzymes.

Chemical ingredients are always highly suspect. Milk enriched with vitamin B-3 is also disqualified, since the B-3 additive comes from the spinal-cord oil of cows.

Michael Straus didn't grow up kosher. When his father, Bill Straus, purchased the dairy ranch in 1941, he was the only Jew in an area populated mainly by Swiss-Italian Catholics. The elder Straus — hoping to please his bride, who had lived in Holland before fleeing the Nazis — ordered kosher meat from an East Coast outfit. By the time it arrived at his ranch outside the remote California town of Marshall, the meat was spoiled.

The Strauses remained isolated from the Jewish community even as their children grew up. Giving their boys bar mitzvahs meant having two Petaluma rabbis take a long drive down Highway 1 to the farm, bringing Torahs with them. Giving their daughter Miriam a wedding meant having another rabbi drive out to perform the honors.

Despite this isolation — or perhaps because of it — Michael Straus wants to do something for the larger Jewish community.

"We're not going to make a lot of money on this," Straus says. "I feel like I want to give, in addition to the milk, whatever service we could provide the community."