My Adventures with Kashrut

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to submit humbly to someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans, and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: my nearest classmate-neighbor was David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont. David had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! He was very helpful. After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I no longer keep a kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities. When and if the day comes that I can keep the kitchen kosher without the martyrdom shtick, I’ll go back to keeping a kosher kitchen. Right now I lack sufficient holiness for it.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

Nowadays I am more concerned with the sources of my food than with kashrut per se. Where did this food come from? Who grew it? How were the growers and harvesters treated and paid? Were animals mistreated? Is it sustainable agriculture? What kind of carbon footprint is involved? Unlike kashrut, which is very clear and straightforward, these ethical and moral questions are complex and require balancing. And – I should add this, lest I set up a false dichotomy – there are many Jews who keep kosher and worry about the complicated questions, too.

Bottom line: These days, my kitchen is easier to keep, but the shopping is complicated. I’m OK with that. Check back with me in 10 years and I will have learned more.

Another Kind of Jewish Learning

IMG_2154Tonight I had dinner with Linda at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, just before teaching my Intro class. We were talking about our sons, and I mentioned that Jim loves babka.

“Vodka?” she said.

“No, babka.”

“What’s babka?”

A question!  Rabbis love questions! And this rabbi loves babka. How could my beloved not know about babka?

It was time for some Jewish learning: we ordered some babka, and had it for dessert.

Jewish learning comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes it comes in big heavy books, and sometimes it comes in the form of a cake. This cake was loaded with chocolate and Yiddishkeit, and it was delicious.

What Jewish topic did you learn by experience, not in a class?

What’s your favorite traditional Jewish treat?

Intro to Judaism Now Available Online!

One of my classes
One of my classes

I teach Introduction to the Jewish Experience, a Basic Judaism class for beginners, and this year we are extending our reach to include distance learners. That’s right, if you have a computer and access to high speed internet, you can take the class, too. We began last week, but recordings of each class are available online for registered members of the class. It’s not too late to sign up.

This is not a “conversion class,” although some of the people who take it may be studying towards conversion. People take the class for many reasons: they are in an interfaith relationship and want to learn more about Judaism, they are born Jewish but want an adult Jewish education, or perhaps they have begun working for a Jewish institution and want to understand Jewish life. If you are curious about Judaism, that’s all you need.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are studying with a rabbi for conversion, ASK YOUR RABBI before signing up for any online “Intro” class. He or she may prefer or require a particular class.

The class has three parts, which may be taken in any order:

  • Fall: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays
  • Winter: Israel & Texts
  • Spring: Traditions of Judaism

You can learn more about the class and see the syllabus at the class website. This class is offered through Lehrhaus Judaica, an school for adult Jewish learning in Berkeley, CA since 1974.

To sign up for the class, visit the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog online. There you will find more info about the class, including the schedule and tuition.

Learn from the Best
Image by Tony Alter

Today I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman. It was sad, as all funerals are sad, but it was also a celebration, because Henrietta Garfinkle, or “Hank,” as her friends knew her, had been waiting for this day. She buried her great love, Vic, 18 months ago, and while she was not a person to grieve herself to death, she looked forward to spending eternity with him.

A lot of people avoid funerals. It’s too bad, because at the funeral of a mensch – a deeply good person – you can learn a lot about how to become a mensch yourself. We heard stories from Hank’s children, and her children’s spouses, about how she had been with them. We heard from her rabbi. And as is the case with Jewish funerals, they told the truth about her. That is actually a rule about a Jewish hesped, or eulogy: it has to be true, even when the truth is difficult.

I can’t remember everything that was said. What I know is that I left that funeral with a clearer idea of exactly the sort of mensch that Henrietta was, and that as a result, I know some new things about how to be a good Jew and a good person. I learn not only how the person was good, but I get a sense of what their challenges were in being a good person. This happens every time I attend a funeral.

So the next time you hear of a funeral in your congregation, consider attending. It is a mitzvah to attend a funeral, even if you didn’t know the person well. If they were part of your community, it is a mitzvah to go, period. If they were especially beloved in your community, be SURE to go, because it’s a great opportunity: you’re going to learn from the best.

Mapping Our Jewish Journeys

liftarn_Compass“These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt” – thus begins the last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers. The books of Exodus and Numbers tell the story of the Israelites from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River. This final Torah portion pauses to review where they’ve been before they cross into the land of their ancestors, the land they have been seeking all along. Their journey did not end with the river crossing, though. In truth, the journey of the Jewish People was only beginning.

Where are you on your Jewish journey? Are you a tourist, checking us out? (That’s OK, by the way – you are welcome to learn all about us.) Are you on a journey toward Judaism, seeking to connect with the tradition and perhaps convert? Are you already Jewish, but looking for a deeper connection with your people and your tradition?

My guess is that if you’ve come looking for this website, you’re on some sort of a Jewish journey. To get the most out of it, and especially to get where you want to go, it’s wise sometimes to stop and take your bearings.

Do you have a Jewish community? Traveling through the wilderness alone is miserable, if not impossible.  Joshua ben Perachyah, one of the most ancient rabbis, used to say, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.” In other words, don’t journey alone. Whether your Jewish community is a class, or a congregation, or a club, or a chavurah, you need other Jews. Otherwise you’ll lose your way.

What’s your immediate goal? If your goal is conversion to Judaism, there are specific steps to take. If your goal is to learn more about Judaism, find a class! Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer “Intro” classes that are appropriate for a wide range of learners. If your goal involves making a Jewish choice, like how to raise your children, or how to manage within an interfaith relationship, local Jewish institutions can point you to resources and there are also websites with good information. Or you may have a very specific goal. There also your Jewish community can come into play: look for Jews whose path you admire, and learn from them, whether it is how to make bagels or how to speak Ladino.

Where have you been already? Just as Moses paused to recount the journeys of the Israelites, you may want to make your own map of where you’ve already been. What worked? What was a good experience? What was difficult? Was something both difficult and a good experience? What was worthwhile? What wasn’t?

Where are you afraid to go? The Israelites often stopped in their tracks to wail that they were scared, they hated the wilderness, and that slavery seemed like a pretty sweet deal. They were afraid to enter the land, they were afraid of the wilderness, and in their fear, sometimes they did dreadful things. But sometimes the things that scare us the most turn out to be the best journeys of all. If something looks scary, or feels too difficult, that might be a sign that it’s exactly your best next step, whether it’s learning Hebrew or calling a real, live, offline rabbi.

I am on my own Jewish journey, too. Mine started, improbably, in Catholic school back in Nashville. Today I’m a 59 year old rabbi pursuing new challenges. Thank you for including me in your journey!



Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself.  Beginners are a precious resource.

“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it.  We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales.  We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea.  We’ll have a blast.

I love to teach. It’s what I do.