The Challenges of Keeping Kosher at an Interfaith Birthday

  

Anna's baby

Growing up, my mother’s house was kosher. We had dishes for dairy and dishes for meat and we never mixed milk with meat. This goes back to the teachings of the Torah where it states on three separate occasions that a baby goat is not to be cooked in it’s mother’s milk. But our house was kosher mainly because my mother wanted my brother and me to fit in at the Orthodox Yeshiva we went to even though we weren’t Orthodox.

This plan fell through more than once. Most of my friends’ parents knew that my own parents weren’t religious. When we had sleepovers it was I who would have to travel to my peers’ houses because our house wasn’t “kosher enough.” But my mother’s efforts weren’t in vain. When Adrian and I moved into our apartment a few years ago it was my Grandmother’s dishes I unpacked from a cardboard box labeled “Grandma Rosie’s Dairy Dishes.”

There were teacups with pink roses and a tan trim on them wrapped in bubble wrap. There was a cake plate lined in gold and a blue glass candy dish I remembered reaching into as a child to pull out sticky black licorice squares. These dishes had made their debut in my Grandmother’s apartment then later at my mother’s house and finally were gifted to me. They held memories of Friday morning pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. They also held the responsibility of staying kosher.

For my nephew’s first birthday party this past Sunday, the Star Wars cake I made followed the kosher rules. But the kosher rules also brought up concerns for our daughter Helen’s quickly approaching birthday in October. My brother and his wife ordered from a kosher catering company and had traditional Brooklyn/Jewish food. There were pastrami sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting in addition to the cake I baked. As with any Jewish event there was more than enough food. Adrian and I talked about having a Mexican/Jewish themed birthday for Helen to honor the Jewish side of my family and the Mexican Catholic side of Adrian’s family. 

Baby Helen

Helen in her non-kosher piglet onesie

I started to get excited thinking about Helen’s birthday. We began saving empty cans of jalapeño peppers for floral arrangements and I bought a pack of Mexican Lotería cards (a traditional Mexican board game similar to bingo) to make into crafty invitations. I obsessed over Pinterest cake ideas and thought that getting balloons that say “uno” instead of “1” would be a cute idea.

Then, in the middle of my excitement, I remembered how much Adrian loves to eat meat and how steak tacos are usually accompanied by fresh cream and cheese. I thought of Adrian’s favorite Mexican dishes that involve chicken and cheese and pork. Then I panicked.

We keep a kosher home but when we eat out we don’t eat kosher. But how was I to explain to him that Helen’s birthday had to follow kosher rules? My family is kosher but his family will also be there. Part of me felt I was being unfair. Part of being kosher sometimes makes it seem like I am making Judaism seem more important than Catholicism, and that’s not fair. But, how do you bend a rule that can’t be broken because of tradition or belief or just out of respect for other family members?

I waited until Adrian got home from work.

“Bebe,” I said, “I’m worried about Helen’s birthday. Maybe we shouldn’t even have a party this year.” I couldn’t believe I was considering cancelling my daughter’s first birthday party so that I wouldn’t have to have an argument about steak enchiladas.

“Why?” Adrian asked, “I thought you wanted to do a big thing the way your brother did.”

“Well, I did, but I’m worried about the food.” I started to bite my nails.

“Stop biting your nails. What about the food?” he said.

“It has to be, well, it’s going to have to be, I mean because of my family we are going to have to have kosher Mexican food.”

Adrian thought for a while before he answered, “What does that entail?”

He knew some of the kosher rules but I reminded him that aside from the meat being kosher we couldn’t mix milk with meat.

“You want meat at the party?” he asked.

“I thought you wanted meat at the party,” I said.

“Why don’t we just do all dairy?” he said.

“What?” I couldn’t believe it. Adrian is a carnivore through and through and I assumed he would want to have something with steak at Helen’s party.

“I mean we can just do cheese enchiladas, guacamole, salsa, chips and have everything be dairy, no meat.”

“I thought you wanted meat!” I yelled in shock.

“I do, but dairy is so much easier!” he shouted back.

Part of the challenge of being in an interfaith relationship is trying never to offend the other person. I was so afraid I would offend Adrian by not having traditional Mexican cuisine at our daughter’s birthday that I looked past the other options in Mexican cooking. Mexico has a wide variety of seasoning and spices and I was looking only at having a kosher party as being a problem and not a bridge between two cultures and traditions. Anyway, Helen’s first birthday is about celebrating the birth of new traditions as well as old. We want to bestow on her a life rich with flavor; a life where the menu has both chicken noodle soup and pozole.

My Turn to Make the Passover Meal (with Grandma’s Potatoes)

  
Baby Helen Rose

My mother with baby Helen Rose Castaneda

Passover is approaching. The stores in my neighborhood have begun the process of taking the chametz (bread) off the shelves and replacing the inventory with matzah or other kosher for Passover items. This is a tradition and it is Jewish law. Because Moses led the Jews in escaping Egypt and the bread did not have enough time to rise by the time they needed to escape, they ate unleavened bread. This is why the shelves are lined with different colored paper at my house. I switch the dishes to have Passover dishes. The night before the Passover seder I burn the bread on my mother’s front lawn. 

My mother hands me the Passover shopping list with a coupon for Cascade soap pods and a white envelope filled with crisp green twenty dollar bills. It’s been a rough month. A few weeks ago my brother’s kids (two twin boys almost 9 months old) got the flu. I was recovering from bronchitis. My mother had an upper respiratory infection. My 6-month-old baby girl Helen Rose had a cold with a fever. Then a relative passed away and my mother slammed her finger in a glass door and almost cut her whole thumb off. She’s having surgery right before the first seder.

But maybe all of this was a sign. This is my first year as a new mother and so as a new mother with my own mother recovering from her hand surgery, I will make the first seder meal alone. I am excited and nervous and as always, I am thinking of my Grandma Rosie.

My grandmother only owned one pot. It was the Russian immigrant in her, the memory of when people were fleeing the Pogroms. She learned what it was to take only what you can carry, that your feet are faster than history when they run toward the future. Every Passover my Grandmother cooked brisket in that pot. She lined her colossal charcoal colored pot with potatoes. They dripped with oil, paprika and onions. They were salted with her tears and the memory of an everlasting childhood. She turned the meat over and when it was ready she brought it to the seder table.

As a child those potatoes were my favorite dish. Flavored with the grease and fat of the brisket and the smokiness of the past. I piled mountains on my plate and pushed aside other delicacies for my simple peasant supper. Because Grandma Rosie only cooked once a year, her fridge usually only contained Ginger Snaps, Canada Dry tonic water and Tanqueray gin. She would sit at the kitchen table and instead of cook she would read the stocks. As a child of the depression she hid money under her mattress and never threw anything away.

When Grandma Rosie passed I found her holiday recipe book in my mother’s kitchen. One of the first recipes has an instruction of “crack 40 eggs.” I thought that was hilarious. It’s like a book if you’re cooking for an army. But I furiously searched those pages for her potatoes asking myself the whole time the pages crinkled beneath my fingers why I had never thought to hold her shaky hands and learn about her yesterdays through food. Why had I not thought to chronicle for my own daughter, named after her, the first steps my Grandmother took to survive in a world filled with Pogroms?

My Grandmother began each Passover holiday with a greasy finger. I understand now why it was this holiday she cooked for. It was the lesson of Passover she wished to pass down. The book we use on Passover is called the Haggadah. It is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  It says “We were once slaves in Egypt…” But the lesson is that we can be slaves at any time to anyone, even now. History always repeats itself.

Daddy and baby

My husband Adrian and Helen Rose

My daughter is Jewish on her mother’s side and Mexican Catholic on her father’s side. We speak Spanish at home, English at my mother’s house and most recently we put Hebrew letter magnets on the fridge. The world is changing. She will face many obstacles and I will lead her back to the lessons of the Passover seder. I will teach her the Jewish proverb that says, “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”

I’m about to leave the house to finish the rest of the shopping before the big day. I look to my menu I made on white loose-leaf: parsley, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket, Grandma’s potatoes.

Planning for a First Shavuot

  

Cheese blintzes

Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, it’s never been a holiday that I’ve experienced. I am, admittedly, embarrassed to say this. However, in the spirit of blogging about my interfaith family, I announced to the family that this year, we should do something differently! I promptly looked at Ben for suggestions. He said, “Well, let’s see,” and walked over to the bookshelves, coming back with a big stack of Jewish cookbooks. Laurel grinned in excitement and fascination, and I could see her thinking, “Yay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!”

For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s explained that, for him at least, “Jewish holidays are all about food!” This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with “what do we do at the holiday?” but with “what do we eat?

To my delight, though, one of our favorite cookbooks (Olive Trees and Honey, a vegetarian cookbook with recipes from around the Jewish world) described not just the foods of Shavuot, but the other practices and traditions as well. As we prepare to celebrate our first Shavuot, I expect we’ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I don’t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know we’ll be focusing on these three things.

First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husband’s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit I’ve never eaten a blintz. My friend Scott in college loved them, and piled them onto his plate whenever the dining hall served them. To me, those dining hall blintzes looked like they were swimming in water, or grease, or something else even less desirable, and they therefore lost much of their appetizing appeal. Ben, however, swears that all I need to do is make a crepe and put a sweet cheese filling in it, and we’ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac ’n’ cheese sauce, I can probably make a cheese filling. Shavuot part 1, check!

For Shavuot part 2, staying up all night reading Torah and studying, I doubt we’ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think we’ll take the opportunity to tell our children—likely while eating our blintzes!—the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. We’ll show them our various paperback and hardback translations of the Torah. I wonder what questions Laurel will ask, in her entertaining 5-year-old way. Will she ask what a sacred text is? (Will that even be the language we use?) How will we answer? Will we talk about sacred texts beyond the Torah or the Hebrew Bible? About writing and literature as hallowed activities for the transmission of human knowledge, emotion and experience? Or will those questions come later? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Finally, there’s the book of Ruth. If ever there were a story to celebrate in an interfaith family, this would be it. The story has a personal connection for me because my grandmother’s name is Ruth, and it’s my middle name as well. I love that the Hebrew Bible includes a story of a woman choosing to live a Jewish life with a Jewish family. I love that even in a religious tradition that’s passed down from generation to generation, the tradition itself preserves a tale of an outsider choosing to become an insider. Ben and I already mentioned the story to Laurel when we first described Shavuot with the stack of cookbooks. We’ll tell it to her again on Shavuot (probably over blintzes). As the years go by, I expect that both of our children will find many layers of meaning in this story of extended families, the relationships we choose for reasons of love, and the traditions around which we consciously choose to shape our lives.