Amidst the boxes of books, crates of plates, and suitcases still waiting to be unpacked, the signs are everywhere: A house blessing in English and Hebrew, perched on the hall table. A gorgeous, rainbow-hued art print of one of Hillel's teachings, waiting to be hung on a freshly painted wall. A battered copy of Blu Greenberg's How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, sitting among the Passover cookbooks on the kitchen shelf.
And yet, moving into my very first Jewish home a month ago, there was treif (non-kosher food) in the refrigerator before there was a mezuzah (vessel affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes that contains the handwritten text of the Sh'ma prayer) on the doorpost.
The last time I went through the moving dance, it was 1997. My three best friends and I could finally afford to give up our shared house, and we decided that it was time to strike out on our own. Moving into my own apartment was a new, if somewhat disquieting, experience--suddenly there was no one else's loud music playing at all hours, no one to fight with over the shower schedule, no one using up the last of the butter. At the same time, however, there was no one with whom to exchange war stories at the end of a long workday, no one to go to the diner with on Sunday morning, no comforting sound of the radio drifting in from another room.
The silence of those first months in my new home was deafening. But as time went on, the silence brought about a change in me that had been waiting to happen. As we read in 1 Kings 19, God is not to be found in an earthquake, a fire, or a mighty wind, but in the still small voice that follows. Without the distractions inherent in sharing a life with my roommates, I was finally able to begin the process of converting to Judaism.
But once I had finally converted during the summer of 2002, I didn't quite know what to do about the place where I would be living a Jewish life. Having created a Jewish identity, and having chosen a Hebrew name, I felt that I needed to start creating a Jewish environment--a Jewish home. I read books and asked friends from my temple for advice on what I should be doing. Down came the museum carving of Saint Cecilia; up went a mezuzah. Out went my nativity set; in came a menorah. I bought a kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks made of rich, glowing purple glass. I even brought bouquets of flowers home from the city on Friday nights to decorate my kitchen table, where my boyfriend and I would light candles before leaving for services at my temple.
But having lived in my apartment for five years before my conversion, these new objects didn't seem to make a big difference among the same old furnishings. I couldn't tell, and I didn't know how I could possibly know, if my home was really Jewish.
And of course, there was the question of keeping kosher. Before my conversion, I had studied the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), and had even worked for a Jewish organization whose events--from meetings to gala dinners to the annual staff picnic--were all strictly kosher. Yet I knew that in my home, it would be a difficult law to follow. Having grown up Catholic--and being half-Italian--I was raised in a culinary heritage that celebrated shellfish and recklessly mixed meat and dairy, from our treasured recipe for Aunt Gloria's lasagna to our family's annual Christmas Eve dinner with baked ziti, calamari and scungilli in the starring role. Even my family recipe for matzah ball soup contained a pinch of parmigiano reggiano. Thus, keeping kosher was a rung of the ladder of observance that I just didn't see myself climbing.
But a few weeks ago, as I prepared to move to a new, larger apartment, I thought I would finally have the chance to start all over again, and make my home a truly Jewish space. In my new home, I would finally have a dining room (where I would lovingly hold family seders and candlelit Shabbat dinners), as well as huge new bookshelves to hold my ever-growing Jewish library. I decided that it was time to do everything I could to make Judaism a tangible part of the place where I would be living--including taking that final step of keeping kosher.
But my very first mistake proved that old habits die hard.
On my first night in my new home, just hours after the movers had placed the last box in the middle of the living-room floor, I raced back out the door to take part in a Saturday night concert at my temple commemorating 350 years of American Jewish music. On the way home, exhausted from the day's events and the evening's performance, I stopped off at the local Chinese take-out--my usual remedy for being too tired and disorganized to cook. It wasn't until I was home on the couch, wearing pajamas and surrounded by boxes, with a nearly empty bowl on my lap, when I realized that there was pork tucked into the wontons in my soup. I wasn't in my new home for twelve hours, and I had already rendered it treif.
With new furniture just arrived, and books still waiting to be unpacked, I am still trying to figure out how to make my home more Jewish. My front hall may display all the right décor, but I think, in time, my Jewish home will come into being by means of the life I will live there.
There are, of course, Shabbat and Hanukkah candles to be lit, latkes and honey cakes to be cooked, and holidays to be celebrated within its walls. But what will ultimately make it a Jewish home will be the times shared with friends and loved ones. Even though my family--and many of my friends--are not Jewish, my home will be a place where I hope they will become more comfortable with the Shabbat blessings and hagaddahs, where we can continue to teach, learn from, and care for one another.
And as for keeping kosher? Maybe in my next apartment.