The thing about marrying into a family of Orthodox-in-the-shul-but-not-in-the-home Jews, is: it’s not always clear which religious traditions they hold sacred, and which they let go of completely. Or why. And so it took awhile for me to understand how my husband Andy and his family followed the rules of kashrut, or keeping a kosher diet/home.
Andy quotes his beloved Jacobs grandmother (pictured here) often. According to family lore, Grandma Alice, whose husband and sons faithfully attended an orthodox shul (synagogue) in New Haven, disdained the practice of kashrut in her home. “God has more important things to do than worry about what’s in my pots!”
But the story may be apocryphal. Andy’s Dad — Alice’s youngest son — and Andy’s older brother eat no pork but enjoy a good cheeseburger or Connecticut Lobster Roll. Andy and his other two brothers have no problem eating pork or shellfish or mixing meat & cheese — after all, why walk away from a fine New Haven apizza, whether clam or pepperoni?
Also, for many years after we were first together, Andy wanted to follow his family’s tradition of keeping strict kashrut during the eight days of Pesach (Passover). Which is to say, we not only avoided the traditional chametz (leavened wheat products and other “bread substitutes”) during that time, but suddenly it also mattered that all our meats, canned and dairy goods during that time carry a rabbinic “kosher-for-Passover” seal, and that we have dairy-only or meat-only meals. Suddenly, margarine – which we never otherwise ate – was the choice over butter in all our main meals.
It made my Unitarian, rational-argument brain hurt. Why does your brother avoid pork but not shellfish, if the Torah says both of these are treyf (non-kosher)? And I understand that part of the Passover holiday is to eat matzah instead of bread, but why do we suddenly care whether a Rabbi has observed the grinding of our coffee beans? Sure, that ice cream contains corn syrup, but can you honestly tell me that ice cream is a substitute for bread?? Margarine is full of unhealthy transfats and it tastes crappy! And if Sephardic Jews can eat rice during Passover, why can’t we? Who decided we’re following Ashkenazi rules, anyhow? Doesn’t that mean we’re following medieval eastern European rules for eating – we sure don’t follow their rules about everything else in our lives!
What’s more, the fact that our son’s birthday is in April and often fell over the Pesach holiday apparently meant that we had to go without giving him a birthday cake. This made my mother’s heart hurt. Yes, I know, there is such a thing as flourless, or kosher-for-Passover sponge cakes, but have you really ever tasted a good pesadik (kosher for Passover) cake? Couldn’t we make a 1-day birthday exception for our kid, given that we seem to make other exceptions to the dietary rules all year long?
Eventually in our young marriage, we realized we were fighting two battles at once. The first battle, of course, was one of how to build our own married life together as a separate and unique thing from that of Andy’s parents (or for that matter, mine). Just because mom and dad’s Jewishness looked one way, didn’t mean Andy & Karen’s couldn’t look…a different way. A way that we chose consciously, respectfully, together.
The second battle was…how exactly did we feel about Jewish dietary laws? Not just during Pesach, but…do we think God cares about what’s in our pots?
Over time, we learned and practiced in our marriage what my friend Rachel has dubbed “values-clarifying” — as in, “We would have bought/done/decided that thing X, but Harry and I values-clarified yesterday and decided Y instead.” Values-clarifying generally entails having an intentional, respectful conversation about a tough decision, acknowledging each other’s perspectives, consulting the wisdom of other sources, and then reminding yourselves of your shared values and deciding together how to best reflect those. It’s a fantastic relationship practice, best done over a good meal or a long walk. I also think it’s kinda Jewish — similar to p’sak halacha, which is the process by which rabbinic scholars consult Torah and Talmud in order to make a ruling on a specific question concerning halachic (Jewish religious) law. The difference, of course, is that halachic decisions are, for observant Jews, binding, and the sources consulted are strictly religious.
So as we’ve values-clarified, again and again over time, we’ve decided:
- God cares about our Earth and all the Life within it. So our “dietary rules” mean we seek out and support farmers, markets, restaurants and gardens with organic and sustainable practices. We compost. We recycle. We re-use. We avoid water bottles and other take-out or packaging waste where we can (working now on remembering to ask for “no straws please!”). We try not to waste food.
- God cares about how we treat other living beings, with fairness and compassion. So we also seek out producers, markets and restaurants with fair and compassionate labor practices, and who support community, equality and justice. We buy local. We tip servers generously and thank the kitchen staff. We support organizations who feed the hungry.
- God cares about how we welcome others to our home. So we are conscious of letting guests know about our own (non-kosher, non-vegan, etc…) kitchen and taking whatever steps we can to accommodate their diets so they feel comfortable with us.
- God cares about our bodies and asks that we respect them. So we try to follow “Reb” Michael Pollan’s food rules: “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
- God cares about our spiritual growth, and there’s a reason that Jewish tradition has developed as it has and nurtured the Jewish people for so long. So we use the Jewish holidays as opportunities for reconnecting on the regular. That means, yes, over Passover we eat matzah and not bread, or any of the obvious bread substitutes. We’re not so worried about whether other food during that time has the hechsher (mark of rabbinically-approved kosher status), but we’re actively aware of the choices we’re making and especially if we’re with guests, we’ll err on the conservative side. We fast on Yom Kippur (though I personally make the non-halachic choice to drink water on that day). We choose and celebrate traditional holiday foods on other holidays — latkes, donuts & chocolate gelt for Chanukah; apples & honey for Rosh Hashanah; all the traditional foods for our Seder table (though I personally draw the line at matzah brei, but that’s a matter of great family controversy and best-suited for a separate blog post).
- God cares about our experience of beauty and joy in the world. So we welcome others to our home for meals, as often as we can (my sister says this Cab Calloway song is the Karen & Andy theme music…). We enjoy our food! We use food to get closer with friends and strangers, to learn new things about our own and others’ cultures, to mark moments of celebration and life passages. While we’ve gotten away from it in recent years, I’ve an intention to return to having a special, distraction-free Friday night Shabbat meal, and saying the blessings over food and wine, as often as we can.
- We still don’t eat margarine (pretty sure it’s not something God would ever dream up).
Would the Rabbis recognize these all as rules of kashrut, or does anyone else even see how I can think of them all as dietary rules? I guess not. And we’ll keep values-clarifying.
But we’ll try to keep living in a way that I can be proud of, should God ever stop by to take a look inside our pots.