If you’re going on JDate to meet your potential boyfriend/fiancé/husband, and you’re thinking, “How Jewy do I want to go here?,” you probably just look at the person’s listed denomination of Judaism. If you’re shomer Shabbat (strictly following the laws of Shabbat), you’re going to gravitate toward people of a certain stripe.
Similarly, if you’re non-observant, you’re looking for like-minded souls who are only on JDate because of a nagging relative.
But as with everything, one label doesn’t really accurately describe what’s inside. As we all know, a size 6 in one store is definitely not the same as a size 6 in another (at least, that’s what I tell myself). And one particular label-word can create a lot of turbulence–that word is “kosher.”
When my husband and I went on our first date, we went to a swanky “casual” outpost of a non-casual chef. It wasn’t my choice, but I’d heard good things about it and had never been there. Well, when I read the menu after we sat down, I realized why I’d never been: the concept of artisanal charcuterie figured prominently in virtually every dish.
I’m no vegetarian, but I look like one on TV. That is, I would, if I were on TV. Delusions of grandeur aside, I’m just a Jewish gal from Jersey who keeps a kosher home and, when I go out to trendy charcuteries, scans the menu frantically looking for items that do not include meat or shellfish.
“I suspected you were kosher,” my husband said six months later, as we recalled our first-date interactions the way annoyingly lovey-dovey couples do. He hadn’t wanted to address it directly–it would be like calling attention to an open fly, or a bit of spinachon the front bicuspid. Apparently, he’d decided I was innocent until proven kosher.
It can be harder to reconcile eating beliefs than beliefs about a higher power, homework or discipline–and yet, I’ll argue that the eating thing is just as important as the other ones. This is particularly true in terms of whether or not to have a kosher home and to what degree. As an Arab proverb I love has it, “He who eats alone, chokes alone.”
So, when my husband and I got married and he moved in with me and my two sonsfrom a previous marriage, we had to figure out how to negotiate the food issue. I’ll tell you, it wasn’t easy. But here are some tips that can help.
1. Have a frank discussion about how you were brought up and how you might expect to raise your kids, i.e. what your home should/will look like.
This will be an interesting discussion, so you may want to have some (kosher?) wine at hand. As you think about your eating past, you may recall having felt constricted to the point of suffocation by your family’s strict adherence to hechsher (kosher seal of approval) and Passover dishes, and now find that you’re yearning to break free. Or alternatively, you may have wanted to have more of a Jewish identity on your home plates than your family’s annual pig roast. In either case, letting your partner know where you’re coming from and where you’d hope to go is a very educational discussion. Note: it’s a discussion, not a fight. Think of it as an informative tour of your respective food archaeologies.
Thinking about my family situation growing up–the disconnect between going crabbing in South Carolina and the annual fight about Passover dishes–made it easier for me to realize what I wanted and what I didn’t in my own home (no crabs, no fights).
2. In the course of said discussion, think about your reasons as to why you are/aren’t kosher, and why your partner is/isn’t.
This is an important component of the above discussion, not least because it allows you to determine how much give each of you have in your respective positions. “It just never occurred to me” is a much more flexible statement than “I believe the laws ofkashrut are dictated by God, and disobeying them is not an option.”
While growing up, my parents’ home was kosher (the crabbing thing in South Carolina, after all, was not *our* house), and everyone was allowed to do and order whatever they wanted outside the house. Once upon a time, I indulged in bacon cheeseburgers, shrimp cocktails, and escargot. And I don’t mean to shock you, but I gave them up–and don’t particularly miss them.
When I was 16, I did a study trip in Israel and fell in love (with the country, not with some beefy Israeli…that would happen later). Part of me wanted to make aliyah(immigration to Israel), to be a character in the ongoing narrative of the Jewish people. I decided that while I was ideologically inclined in that direction, I loved being an American Jew, close to my family, and that there were ways I could live my Jewish Diaspora life with a sense of purpose.
Many teenagers returning from Israel feel the need to wear a chai or Star of David on their necks, a symbol of their newfound awareness of being Jewish. I didn’t want something cosmetic–I wanted something substantive. I decided to be “full-time kosher” as opposed to just in the house, because I wanted to be reminded of my identity and my choices every time I ate a meal.
So I’m kosher–not glatt (a stricter form of kosher), since I’ll still eat out in non-kosher restaurants, but when I do, I’ll pick the fish/vegetarian option. But I am kosher out of personal choice more than a theist conviction. What is most important to me, then, is to make sure my children have the knowledge with which to make that choice–or not–for themselves.
3. Acknowledge that the presence of kids may change the nature of your decision somewhat.
My husband agreed to keep a kosher home with me. It’s a switch for him, and he privately acknowledges that there are many things we eat that would taste better if they were prepared in a non-kosher way. And yet, we’ve agreed to create a certain degree of Jewish identity in our Jewish home, and there it is.
When we go out, though, Jon tries to stick to “the kosher thing” in restaurants, even though I tell him it’s not necessary to do so for my sake. He points out, though, and rightly, that it is important for the children’s sake. Consistency matters a lot to kids in every respect, whether it’s in terms of their bedtime routine or how their parents behave. So Jon will order similarly to me in restaurants in front of the kids, and the kids order similarly. What he does in any other context is his business and his choice.
4. Compromise, in the name of “shalom bayit.”
I’ve always believed that keeping kosher is secondary to the paramount value ofrespecting others. I will never forget one of the few times I broke kashrut. I had been granted a last-minute acceptance to the London School of Economics for graduate school, bought a one-way ticket, and flew across the world knowing virtually no one. My aunt-by-marriage’s cousins in Wimbledon offered me an invitation for Kol Nidre,Yom Kippur, and break fast, and I took it, showing up at the door of people I’d never met moments before the pre-fast meal.
We sat down to a pre-fast dinner of a sumptuous, non-kosher steak. At least I’m assuming that it was not kosher, since there was butter sauce, cheese dishes on the table, and at least one person drinking milk in their coffee. Rather than offending people who were gracious enough to do the mitzvah of taking a complete stranger into their home for the holiday–and rather than truly starving through the fast the next day–I didn’t question, and simply ate. Besides, I figured, I’d have the whole next day to feel guilty.
It was an unusual situation, admittedly, but illustrates a fundamental point. I never understood those people who became more religious than their parents, and then made a big stink about not being able to eat in their parents’ home because it was “totallytreyf” (not kosher). Um, hey, newly-religious folk: remember that commandment about honoring your mother and father? At the end of the day, I’ll put that up higher on the totem pole than the elaborate constructs designed so that you don’t eat a kid cooked in its mother’s milk.
“Shalom bayit“–peace in the home–is an all-too-elusive entity that we as parents and partners should reach for at every possible opportunity. The purpose of building a Jewish home is to build a home, not to create a battleground–and hopefully, it won’t prove to be too much of a struggle to all break (kosher?) bread together.
Need some kosher cooking inspiration? Check out our recipe index for things like hummus and sweet potato kugel, and learn how one foodie accidentally stumbled on a great Shabbat meal.