How a food-lover made her peace with keeping kosher
Growing up, my family put in a valiant effort. We did the whole separate-set-of-dishes-for-dairy-and-meat thing, and we tried to abide by the kosher rules.We tried to make treyf (not kosher) a four letter word.
But my dad, over the years, became something of a grill master: he knew exactly how to serve up a succulently, slightly charred medium-rare burger and exactly when to grace it with a fresh slice of paper-thin cheddar cheese. A typical Sunday brunch soon included fluffy eggs, creamy coffee, garlicky bagels, cream cheese, lox... and, on really cold, winter mornings, a slice of smoky sausage. There was nothing intentionally disrespectful about our lapsed kosher-ness; we just really enjoyed certain tastes together.
The Jewish day school I attended made certain that by fourth grade, each student memorized the dietary laws of kashrut, including the distinct blessings for every food imaginable. However, I secretly continued to enjoy my occasional cheeseburgers at home.
Marrying into a Kosher Home
After graduate school, I spent a decade in Boston. There, I learned the formative arts of offensive driving and distinguishing a Bay scallop from a sea scallop. With the taste of treyf shellfish still fresh on the tastebuds, I met a great guy and settled down in upstate New York. When we talked about getting married, there were three things my (now) husband made perfectly clear were non-negotiable: that at least one of our kids would be raised a Yankee fan (I root for the Red Sox); that I accept that the demands of his job take him out of town; and that we keep kosher in our home.
No cheeseburgers on the grill. No scallops. No funky food products containing gelatin (like hot chocolate with lovely, squishy marshmallows).
I made peace with many ideas during that prenuptial conversation. I would have to scrutinize the ingredient deck of every packaged food I'd ever want to bring in the house for the proper kosher indicator (a sign, called a hechsher), making my shopping trips at least three times longer than before. And more troubling, I'd have to tell my parents that I wouldn't be able to bring leftover meatloaf from their home into mine.
Before the wedding we registered for three sets of dishes: dairy, meat, and Passover. It felt ridiculous and greedy.
Early in our marriage we entertained a lot. Our friends would ask what they could bring to our party, and I'd have them bring soda or wine rather than salads or desserts. Once, when a friend brought a plate of cookies she'd made in her own kitchen--with her own non-kosher utensils, in a non-kosher oven, with non-kosher ingredients--I feigned my appreciation, and, because I had no idea what to do with them, set the plate on the countertop, still Saran-Wrapped, where they sat until the party ended. I pretended to have forgotten about them and sent them home with my guest at the end of the night. I felt like an ass.
Thou shalt not feel like an ass.
My keeping a kosher house means that the family and friends I grew up with have to ask what's okay to bring over and what isn't, what's okay to put on the table and when, what can be eaten on which plates, which serving utensils can be used, which sponge to use on which side of the sink. It's confusing, sometimes frustrating for all of us, and because there's no lightning bolt, no voice of Charlton Heston, no burning bush for each instance that a dairy fork has landed on the wrong side of the sink, I have to ask myself, constantly, why do we do it?
In a world of food bloggers, foodies, food channels, and cooking shows, and just when our local grocery store sells every grain, spice, herb, imported olive and cheese, just when in human history it's easiest to make gourmet food in your own home--why do I keep kosher? The short answer is that I love my husband and respect his desire to maintain a tradition that has been in his family for hundreds of years, as do many modern Jews.
Nutrional, Sustainable, Organic, Local...
But this is also a world of fast-food, microwaveable pouches, take-along snacks for car trips, and drive-thrus, when some food doesn't even resemble real food. Keeping kosher coincides with my interest in nutrition and homemade yumminess, and sit-down, talk-about-your-day meals that require more than adding water (though I sure like that stuff too). Learning how to keep and maintain a kosher home requires the mindfulness of a Zen master: each time I shop, cook, and eat, I'm hyper-cognizant of the ingredients I'm putting into my body. And so with my commitment to kosher comes a newfound appreciation for organic, locally-grown, and sustainable foods. Even on the most harried, chaotic, poop-explosion-up-the-back days, I'm contented that I'm at least feeding my family well.
This is precisely the aim of kashrut in the first place: to eat conscientiously. Obviously, there's no present-day harm in eating a calf in her mother's milk (thanks, Tums and Lactaid), but the ancients purported that to mix milk, a symbol of fertility and a life-giving substance, with meat, which is dead animal, is to invite bad karma. And who needs bad karma in the kitchen?
Kosher is a choice, as is the extent to which anyone practices any religion. It was a hard choice for this food-lover, but then I think about what the poet Grace Schulman once said to me: "Being Jewish is hard. If it weren't, then everyone would do it." These laws of kashrut that we practice in our home are constant reminders not to take for granted how accessible food is to us when it isn't to so many millions of people elsewhere. I have to think so carefully about where my food came from and how it was prepared, that in the midst of the chaos of dinnertime, when I'm precariously pouring my 2-year-old daughter a cup of milk on the lip of the fridge so that I don't sully the counter on which I'm preparing chicken, I take a deep breath: it fleetingly occurs to me how lucky I am to have such an issue.