It’s time to tackle a big one for the Jewish Mother Project: keeping kosher.
I didn’t grow up kosher—pork chops were in heavy rotation at our dinner table and cheeseburgers were my favorite restaurant meal. My husband’s parents didn’t keep a kosher kitchen either, but they don’t bring treyf in the house.
About 10 years ago, my husband Josh and I attended a workshop on Jewish values. That evening over a dinner of hamburger pizza, we made a decision. No more treyf in or out of the house, and no mixing milk and meat on the same plate whenever we had the choice (in our own home, and when ordering from restaurants). We decided against getting two sets of dishes or worrying about hechshered ingredients, although at this point I can’t remember why. I suspect it had to do with cost, space, and a general sense that those aspects of the practice just weren’t meaningful to us.
We kept with it quite faithfully for years. And then we had kids. Due to a variety of factors, including epic levels of pickiness in one child, an unparalleled devotion to sprinkle cheese in the other one, and a child who broke two bones before the age of 5 (thus triggering a mild obsession with the girls’ milk consumption), things started to slip a bit in our house. Still no treyf, but we got a little looser about the division of milk and meat.
This, of course, is why we talk about putting up a fence around the Torah. In Pirkei Avot, we are called upon to observe extra mitzvot for the purpose of making sure we don’t even come close to violating the Torah. Even though we know there is no possibility of cooking a chick in its mother’s milk, we still don’t mix milk and chicken because we don’t want to wander into dangerous territory. Which is exactly what happened to me. A few months ago, I forgot what I was doing, and I put a piece of cheese on my turkey sandwich, and well, it was delicious. And then somehow, well, I decided (without ever really deciding, of course) that I didn’t really care about mixing milk and meat, and well, I’ve been living the high life in Turkey & Cheese Sandwich City over here lately.
But the whole point of the Jewish Mother Project is to figure out what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and then, most importantly, to actually do it. So once again, I reached out to my community, both real and virtual, to find out if, how, and why my friends are keeping kosher or not.
I was grateful to get a range of responses from, “Hell no, because BACON,” to an incredibly thoughtful email outlining the joys and challenges of keeping fully kosher at all times. Many folks described a number of variations and adaptions, such as keeping kosher at home but not out of the house, to avoiding treyf or eating vegetarian at all times, to keeping some version of kashrut on Shabbat and holidays.
Those who kept kosher to some extent or another spoke of being raised that way, feeling connected to their Jewish heritage and community, wanting their friends and family to feel welcome in their home, and honoring the value of Jewish ethics and traditions. In addition, a number of individuals talked about the importance of the constant reminder of being Jewish, and how it helped them feel grounded as they went about their daily lives.
Those who didn’t keep kosher, or did so to a limited extent, said they weren’t raised in kosher homes, found little or no meaning in the practice, or said it would be too divisive with their families of origin. A number of folks also spoke about the financial and logistical challenges of keeping kosher, as well as a desire to focus on organic, ethically sourced food.
Once again, my friend Rabbi Sue Fendrick put it quite eloquently: “Keeping kosher is about a portable Jewish identity. It is related to the most daily and most common thing that human beings do besides sleep and go to the bathroom. I like that. It’s a way of carrying one’s Jewishness with one wherever we go in a way that is not just abstract.”
As I read through the various responses to my question, I tried to pay close attention to what resonated with me and what didn’t. I noticed that concepts such as being mindful about what I’m eating and feeling grounded in, and connected to, my Jewish faith and community felt very meaningful to me. In addition, I know that whether or not a food is hechshered is not important to me, except to the extent that it matters to individuals in my community. Finally, I want to be able to share meals with friends and family of all different backgrounds in a respectful, connected way.
I have thought a lot about what sort of practices I want to adopt that will honor most, if not all, of these goals, and here is what I have come up with: For the rest of the Jewish Mother Project (at which point I will re-evaluate), I will not eat fleishig (meat, chicken, turkey, etc.) unless I am in someone else’s home, in which case, I will eat what I am served, unless it is treyf, in which case, I won’t eat it. Transitioning to pescatarian (I’ll still be eating fish) won’t be as big of a change as it sounds, as I don’t eat much meat these days anyway. In addition, it seems like the most effective and authentic way to address many of the goals and values I noted above.
I will continue to serve chicken, turkey, and beef to my daughters. They don’t eat much of it now, but it is a staple of their somewhat limited diet, and when they do, it’s usually organic and free-range, which is important to me.
This doesn’t address the issue of keeping a kosher kitchen to some degree or another, which I would want to do primarily in order to be able to host friends who do keep kosher. I don’t have a great answer for that yet, but in the meanwhile, I am happy to use paper plates and plastic utensils and bring in hechshered food from outside.
The idea of bringing a sense of mindfulness about my Jewish identity and heritage into each meal is also important to me, so I’ve decided to add one more step to my kashrut observance. I want to learn, and say, the appropriate blessing before each meal. If I am in public, I will likely say it quietly, or even silently, but I want to take the time to feel and express gratitude not only for the food I am so lucky to have, but also to live in a time when I have the freedom and support to do so from a Jewish perspective.
One last thing before I go: I want to give you an update on a previous Jewish Mother Project topic: Two weeks ago, I wrote about my Shabbat observance, and the changes I wanted to make, specifically around my technology use. Last week, I made a concerted choice (after discussing it with my husband) to work on my computer on Shabbat because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get any work done on Sunday due to a family birthday party. I wasn’t mindlessly checking my phone or Facebook, so I felt good about that, but I was definitely on technology and away from my family. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I’ll keep you all posted.