After 20 years of marriage, my husband and I switched to a kosher kitchen. That mid-life change, a “course correction” if you will, occurred almost 17 years ago.
Neither Mike nor I grew up in kosher households. In fact, my mother fried up bacon nearly every weekend. Even pork chops—pork chops!—showed up at our dinner table from time to time. My parents identified strongly as cultural, ethnic Jews. But keeping kosher? That was something that religious families did, a Jewish practice that seemed unnecessary, antiquated.
As a 22-year-old bride-to-be, registering for two sets of dishes was the furthest thing from my mind.
But parenthood has a way of making you think hard about things that didn’t seem so pressing before. Once we were entrusted with four little lives to shape, all sorts of new/old questions bubbled up. What kind of family did we want to be? What kind of home did we want to create? If we wanted our children to embrace their Judaism robustly, what did we, as their parents, need to do? So we began a steady climb on the ladder of Jewish observance at home, and investment in Jewish education and summer camping outside the home.
But go so far as to keep kosher? No way.
Until the summer that our 16-year-old daughter returned home from Camp Ramah and said, “Mom, we have to start keeping kosher.” She explained her reasons: that keeping kosher was a way of being actively Jewish every day, at home, as a family. By incorporating Kashrut into our home, we could expand Judaism beyond the external events, like going to synagogue or summer camp. She felt that the change was long overdue, and concluded with her top closing argument (yes, this girl went on to become an attorney): “You guys are in the midst of this big kitchen remodel. It is the perfect time to switch to a kosher kitchen because everything will be new.”
Persuasive? You bet. But I knew that the toughest sell was going to be Mike and our three sons, all big, strapping, meat-loving guys. They love steaks, they love ribs, they love big burgers. They just love meat! Their initial reaction was intensely negative. “NO MORE GOOD MEAT?” they wailed in unison. “NO WAY!”
I let the topic sit for a few days, and then marshaled my own strong argument for Mike. “When we are doing everything we can to enable our kids to build strong Jewish identities, and one of them wants to take it a step further, how can we say no?”
Mike acknowledged the merit of my point, and I think he sensed that this was a battle he might not win. So he offered this: “I will agree, if we can find a really, really good source for meat.” He sat back, looking much like the Wizard of Oz after he told Dorothy to bring him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Today, it is easy to find kosher meat in the Twin Cities. Back then, the options were more limited. One of our sons, the least interested in kashrut but the most interested in where his next steak was coming from, started searching the still-new internet. He found a kosher vendor in Baltimore that would ship us meat by the crate, packed in dry ice.
From there it was full steam ahead. I bought a second set of everything for the newly remodeled kitchen, the first meat order was placed, and we began learning how to eat in a new way. The adjustment for all of us was easier and faster than I could have anticipated. My favorite memory from those first months of keeping kosher was when the boys would come home from school, see the empty meat container in the garage, race to the freezer, open it, and exclaim, “The meat is here!”
We began keeping kosher to accommodate our child’s sincere yearning to ascend the ladder of mitzvot (commandments), but it was not long before keeping a kosher home became quite meaningful to me, too. It feels right to know that Jews of most levels of observance would feel comfortable eating in our home. I like the mindfulness about eating that kashrut generates, the awareness that eating meat is always a moral compromise. Judaism’s life-centered focus makes an explicit separation between the living and the dead. That is why meat, which comes from a dead animal, must never be mixed with milk products, which are life-sustaining.
In his newest book, “Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life,” Rabbi Harold Kushner discusses how our observance of commandments bring a measure of holiness into the home, “turning mundane moments into appointments with God.” Exactly.
There is another important thing that I learned from this experience years ago, and it is this: Life is a work in progress. Decisions made at one point can be revisited—and changed—at another. It is never too late to grow in observance, to step a rung higher on that ladder of mitzvot. And sometimes it is the children who lead the way.