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.

Weddings Speak To All of Us…And We’re Listening

  
ketubah_signing

Ben and I signed our ketubah, now 10 years ago

Recently I attended a long-time friend’s Conservative Jewish wedding, and the event found me reflecting on my own interfaith wedding, now ten years in the past. The  wedding took place in the Conservative synagogue she’d attended since her bat mitzvah, a large, well-appointed synagogue outside a major East-Coast city.

The ceremony started in the traditional Jewish way, with the ketubah signing and bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s head and face, in a reference to Jacob’s being tricked into marrying Leah instead of her sister Rachel. As two rabbis watched, friends and relatives signed the ketubah, and I felt tears spring to my eyes as I remembered my own friends bending over our ketubah to pen their names in Hebrew characters. Today’s bride was one of those friends. My maid of honor was also present at this friend’s wedding. She is not Jewish, and had carefully transcribed her name in Hebrew onto my ketubah before also signing in English. Sitting next to me at our mutual friend’s wedding, she turned to me and smiled.

Other moments, though, emphasized the difference between this wedding and my own. We chose not to do a bedecken, for example, and our rabbi was all right with this. At my own wedding, my spouse and I each circled the other seven times, and then we circled each other simultaneously once. Yes, I felt dizzy in the ninety-degree heat! At my friend’s ceremony, she circled her groom seven times, as is traditional, but he did not circle her. Despite these differences, tears again sprang to my eyes as I saw the bride and groom make faces alternately amused and loving at each other. I remembered my gathered friends and family laughing at the funnier facial exchanges during our own circling.

These small differences, though, hardly bothered me, and in fact, served as pleasant reminders of my ceremony. I find that I cry more at weddings with Jewish elements now than I do at Christian or non-religious ceremonies: the distinctive elements of a Jewish ceremony have such a strong association in my mind.

During that day’s wedding ceremony itself, however, my mood shifted as one of the rabbis addressed the couple under the chuppah. First he made the guests laugh: “It is easy to marry the person you love, but much more difficult to love the person you married.” A chuckle rose up through the audience, emerging from my own mouth as well.

The rabbi moved on, though, to a comment that gave more pain than amusement. “We have here what could be called a best-case scenario.” I expected another amusing quip, but instead, I ended up feeling awkward, and then even angry. “Both the bride and groom come from Jewish families; both of their parents are still married, and both of them also attend the same synagogue,” he explained. I felt a sudden stab of anger and even rejection.

By implication, my own marriage was not a best-case scenario, on two counts, no matter how I might feel about it! Not only has my husband married someone who is not Jewish, but he married someone whose parents are no longer themselves together! Did missing two out of three constitute a worst-case scenario, or something in-between?

When I got over my initial shock, I wondered who else in the wood-paneled sanctuary might have felt a sudden jolt of pain at the rabbi’s words. Who else there was divorced? Married to the son or daughter of divorced parents? Or (possibly worse!), dating or married to someone of a different faith? It seemed a reasonable guess that these descriptions applied to more than a few people in the room. Was it fair of the clergy to imply that we were all in something less than a best-case scenario?

I could give the rabbi’s words a more charitable spin: As the rabbi knew, my friend’s mother converted to Judaism prior to marrying her father, making her own inclusion in the “best-case scenario” in some ways a near miss. Perhaps the rabbi’s words were meant to sooth any fears the new in-laws’ may have had about the Jewishness of their new daughter-in-law? Perhaps he meant only to reinforce her status as a “member of the tribe”?

Whatever the rabbi’s reasoning, the fact remains that this was one of the first times when I, even if indirectly or without intention, felt the sting of wider Judaism’s fear of intermarriage. Despite that sting, I chose to take the moment as a reminder that we have the responsibility to our partners, of whatever gender or marital status, to create our own best-case scenarios. Those of us who have joined ourselves together with a ketubah have a valid and binding covenant that enjoins us to create our own best-case scenarios, whether those involve intermarriage, divorce in a part of the family or other elements of awkwardness.

As my friend’s new husband stomped on the glass (I remembered hoping my new husband would not step on my foot as we crushed the glass together), I resolved, again, to work to create my own best-case scenario for myself, for my husband, for our daughters and for our loved ones.