Danielle Freni is Senior Communications Associate for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Washington, D.C.
A Kosher-for-Passover Crisis
Four nights into my first Passover, I blew it.
I had mustered up all the will power I could, but it just didn't sustain me. Nor did the rice and beans I'd allowed myself after deciding (as only converts can) to be Sephardic for this holiday. Driving home from a long day of work after yet another unsatisfying meal of re-heated chicken and rice, my stomach growled as my mind wandered. The two were staging a revolt. It was only a matter of time before my hands and feet joined the uprising, and steered the car away from my home and toward the Golden Arches.
Suddenly, there I was--in-line at the drive-through--only three cars separating me from hot, delicious guilt. As the drivers ahead pondered the menu, I pondered my self-worth. I debated skipping the line, driving home and chowing down some matzah with peanut butter. But, who was I kidding? Cold, flaky crackers didn't stand a chance against the brightly lit menu displays of perfectly coiffed trayf (forbidden foods). I called my Jewish friend and mentor, who'd converted three years earlier, and left a desperate message on her voicemail.
“Help! I am a terrible Jew-in-training. I'm at McDonalds and it's only day four!”
As I inched closer to the beckoning lights, a booming and seemingly irritated voice demanded my order.
“A cheeseburger, small fries and a coke.” I blurted out, hoping that if I didn't linger on the words too long maybe God wouldn't hear them!
“Small fries and coke,” she responded “Drive up.”
Oh no! She forgot the cheeseburger! Or did she? Should I correct her? Was this divine intervention? Another chance to re-think my options and stick to the mitzvot (commandments)? My own voice interrupted my thoughts.
“And a cheeseburger!” I shouted desperately, as if there were only one left.
Pulling away from the window, sucking down coke to fill the void in my stomach, the warm bag poised on my lap just begging to be opened, I made another call.
“It's me again, I have purchased the burger. You still have time to call me back and talk me out of eating it.” My friend had only a few minutes to call me back. I knew once I pulled into the driveway, the burger wouldn't stand a chance.
For five miles, it sat beside me as I sorted out the kosher crisis in my head. The internal dialogue went something like this: Forty years in the desert, Danielle, and you can't last eight days without junk food?
At every red light, I looked at the bag, hoping to conjure up enough feelings of guilt. But the burger's fate was sealed. As quickly as I killed the engine, my mouth was filled with meat and dairy. And it was good.
What does my lapse in observance say about my aspiring Jewishness? Am I less religious than I thought? Less committed? As the thoughts racked my brain, I turned to my good friend (whom I have never met) Rabbi Harold Kushner. His book, To Life!, was the first recommendation my rabbi made when I officially began my journey towards Judaism--and it remains my single most favorite. To Life! made everything I'd always pondered about my own beliefs very clear to me. It helped me decide what kind of Jewish life I wanted to live--and taught me why it should be lived.
Kushner is the reason I opted to keep quasi-kosher in my new apartment. (“Quasi” because while I use two sets of cookware, dishware and utensils, I wash them all together. And though trayf isn't allowed, anything else on sale is--whether or not the OU (Orthodox Union) okays it.
I have good reason (also courtesy of Kushner) for adhering to some of the rules of Kashrut (keeping kosher) and not others. He explains that keeping kosher is a lesson in self-discipline. It's a means of restraining oneself at will, where others easily succumb to instinct. I like to think I mimic some of this restraint every time I pause before reaching for the appropriate silverware and every time I stop short of sprinkling cheese on my spaghetti and meatballs. (And let me tell you, growing up with an Italian dad, that is not easy!) But I am careful not to make my kashrut observance so tedious, so inconvenient and so aggravating that I begin to resent it rather than embrace it.
Kushner also explains that keeping kosher is a constant reminder (as I am a constant eater) that Jews do things differently. I know that as a Jew, God has personally given me a list of rules he'd like me to follow. In my mind, my God doesn't expect me to keep all 613 down to the letter. But, so long as I'm thinking about them, I'm on the right track.
I'm not proud I ate that cheeseburger, but I think that's exactly the point. I knew the rules, I made a conscious decision to break them and now I am left with the consequence which, for me, is the torturous internal conflict of “good Jew" versus "bad Jew” (not to mention a couple of extra inches on my hips).
I am proud, however, that instead of continuing on this path and abandoning all dietary restrictions for the next four nights, I have taken time to reflect and regroup. Tomorrow, it's back on the matzah wagon.