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Keeping Kosher and Keeping It Real

April 13, 2009

My husband and I did not find one another until our late 30s. While I sometimes pine for the years we might have spent together, there were also advantages to meeting relatively late in life. We entered the relationship with a tacit understanding that we would not try to change one another. Instead, we focused our energy on merging our lives harmoniously, and sometimes creatively, while preserving our individual identities. Sometimes this was easy--we re-alphabetized our shared CD collection and gave away the duplicates. Sometimes we voluntarily relinquished old habits--I stopped listening to the radio at bedtime, and he stopped playing the accordion while watching TV.

Even in matters of religion, compromise wasn't challenging. Keith had given up Catholicism long before he met me, and as a world traveler and geographer, had a cultural anthropologist's affection for all things traditional and seemingly exotic. (A response card to our wedding from his college roommate read "Why am I not surprised that I can't pronounce half the things that are happening at your wedding!") But when it came to food, things proved to be a little more complex.

I have kept some version of a kosher home for most of my life--at my least strict, this meant a vegetarian home, and at my strictest, only foods with kosher certification and separate dishes and utensils for meat and dairy (though I hadn't eaten red meat since childhood.) Nowhere in this spectrum could you find my husband Keith's culinary preferences at the time I met him, which could best be described as "cheap meat and plenty of it."

When we first set up a home together after getting married, my husband was so thrilled to have someone else tending the kitchen (a task I readily took on, given his aforementioned culinary proclivities) that he didn't care how or what I cooked. So, that summer, I set up a vegetarian kitchen, which seemed the easiest solution in Southern Oregon, where there was no kosher meat to be found within a radius of several hundred miles. For over a year, we dined in newlywed bliss on lots of beans and tofu. My husband would get his meat fix when we ate out, and every day for lunch at the school cafeteria (not as bad as it sounds at his high-brow public school.)

The following summer, the smell of barbecue began wafting into our yard, the honeymoon was over, and Keith wanted steak. About to give birth to our first child, I was not up to the task of tracking down mail-order kosher meats, especially since he was the only one who wanted them. So, we bought an outdoor grill and a few utensils for his use, which I stashed in an out of the way cabinet above the refrigerator. Stage one of our hodgepodge kitchen.

A year later, a move back to the east coast brought a few more changes. I became pregnant with my second child, and developed a sudden and voracious craving for poultry. Our local supermarket carried Empire chicken. We lived close enough for my mother to cook for us every now and then, and what she wanted to cook was brisket, which she would bring up from Baltimore. So, we added a new set of dishes and utensils. This meant we now had two sets of dishes: one for dairy, one for meat. But we also held onto Keith's non-kosher set for his weekly steak.

Then came Passover. Passover is a more complicated beast. Not only is there a prohibition against eating chametz, but Jews are also forbidden to own chametz. Since Keith and I share a bank account, a credit card and of course, a home, his chametz is my chametz. In this case, our compromise has been no chametz in the house, but the garage is his. If you were to ask my children "why is this night different from all other nights?" they might answer "because Papa drinks his beer in the garage."

Our children are now almost 4 and 6. At least once a week we sit down to a table where Papa is eating a different main dish, on different dishes. It may seem confusing or even crazy. My friends from my days at yeshiva would never eat in my kitchen. So why do I bother?

The truth is, for those of us raised outside of Orthodox Judaism, adaptations to the laws of kashrut aren't that unusual. There's the family with "Chinese food plates", or the family that keeps a kosher home, but eats anything "out". I know a family that won't eat pig products, but buys unkosher beef products and a family who keeps separate meat and dairy dishes but chooses local, organic meat instead of kosher. For many of us, making distinctions about what we do and don't eat in a way that is rooted in, but not wedded to, Jewish tradition turns cooking and dining into a meaningful and sacred experience, even if our choices are outside the confines of normative halachah.

For us, there's an added advantage. Our crazy kitchen has helped us send a clear and honest message to our children about our interfaith marriage. Three of us are Jewish, and we keep kosher. Papa is not Jewish, and even though he is part of a Jewish family and does many Jewish things with us, he doesn't keep kosher. As our children grow, I know they will challenge us to revisit our decisions about this, and a million other aspects of Jewish life, time and time again. Who knows in what direction they will lead us? But for now, we've found a solution that preserves shalom bayit, and no Jewish value could be more important to us.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "leavened," foods that are not kosher for Passover, such as bread and wheat-based products. It refers to products that are both made from one of five types of grain and have been combined with water and left to stand raw (rise) for longer than eighteen minutes. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Amy Meltzer

Amy Meltzer is a Jewish educator and writer in Western Massachusetts. She is the author of the children's book A Mezuzah on the Door and writes a monthly column on Jewish children's literature for The PJ Library. She blogs on Jewish parenting at homeshuling.wordpress.com.

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