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Apr 10 2012

Are You Jewy Enough?

By at 9:36 am

I grew up in a home where “Jewish” meant sneaking into High Holy Day services without a ticket, and “kosher” meant we didn’t eat bacon. We did a raucous version of Passover where one sister always replaced “God” with “Great Spirit,” another referred to the Pharoh’s army as “the band of ninjas,” my mom never sat down, and my grandpa patiently read aloud from the Maxwell House haggadah.

I took it upon myself to be way ahead of the curve and write our own haggadah as a teenager. I didn’t get very far, but I did end up with a ridiculous one-act play in which the punny phrase “A hundred shekels? Oh no! Egypt me!” was shoe-horned into the action.

So I went off to college with only the barest knowledge of what, actually, it was to be a Jewish Jewy Jew. Suddenly living in upper Manhattan, where synagogues are as plentiful as Starbucks, I had a funny little spiritual rebirth and found myself going full-on kosher for Passover.

It was easy. Not only did Barnard have a whole kosher dining hall, the regular dining hall was also outfitted with a stack of matzo next to the bread. No feather or candle required. I mean, obviously that wasn’t going to work for the most stringent adherers, but see above: alternate dining hall.

Or so I thought. I was happily enjoying my peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-matzah sandwich, and trying to perfect my “ugh, this is sooo gross, but really, what we do for God, am I right?” eye-roll, when a woman I sort-of knew came strolling up to my table.

“You know you’re just showing off, right? Why are you even bothering with matzah if you’re going to put peanut butter on it?” she asked me, sharply.

Well. I was kinda showing off. And also? I had no idea what she was talking about. There was no Wikipedia in the ’80s, so I had no choice but to stare at her stupidly and later ask my Orthodox friends what the eff she was talking about. Had no idea.

A few years later, now a vegetarian, I was eating in my favorite “mock-meat” restaurant on 57th street. (Anyone remember that place? I think it was glatt kosher Chinese?) I saw a young couple sitting a few tables away, obviously at least Conservative if not Modern Orthodox, and an acquaintance of theirs popped over the little window by their banquette to say “hi” just as the waiter brought their food.

“Hey, you guys! You know you can’t eat that, right? It’s something-certified, but not something-else certified.” They looked up at her, crestfallen, while she went on to describe the difference, which presumably she would report to other people at their shul. When she pranced away, they looked at each other, then stood up and left, their hearts heavy and their stomachs empty.

Guh. What’s even the point? Is it about competing to be the Jewiest, or about being conscious of your decisions and keeping an awareness of God in your daily food choices?

My college boyfriend was a bit of a schmuck. However, one of the things he was not a schmuck about was that he kept “kosher-style.” Unwilling (and too broke) to go the full monty, he didn’t worry about buying the kosher meat, but wouldn’t eat pork and wouldn’t mix milk and meat. He took a tremendous amount of crap for this. I mean, rude crap along the lines of that woman’s “why are you even bothering at all if you’re not going to… ” remark from one side, and “nobody’s going to trust you if you won’t sit down and break bread with them” from the other. Rude. Rude!

On the other hand, I once saw this boyfriend’s mom rip a McDonald’s bag from her exhausted daughter’s hand, as she walked in after a long night of working a crappy job, and threw it in the trash, screaming “Don’t bring this garbage into my kosher home!” Again, what’s the point? Does it honor God to make your daughter go hungry? Sit outside with her if your kitchen’s so kosher. Sheesh.

“Don’t yuck someone else’s yum,” my friend Marjorie Ingall always says. “Don’t treyf someone else’s kosher,” I would like to add in this Pesach season. Rules and codes are precious, I do see that, and sometimes they are all we can cling to. But let’s do so with generosity and gentleness. Because if we can’t lend a supportive hand on the way to Zion, what’s the point of even trying?


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