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.

Jewish Dietary Law for Beginners

Jewish tradition sanctifies the entire process of obtaining food, preparing it, and eating it. This has always been the case with us; some of the earliest writings about Jews by outsiders have commented upon our food practices.

KASHRUT (kash-ROOT) is set of rules set forth originally in the Torah, refined in the Talmud and subsequent interpretation. The key texts for Jewish dietary law are in Exodus 23 and 34, Leviticus 11, and Deuteronomy 14. Those texts outline which animals are suitable to eat, which animals are forbidden, which birds and water creatures may be eaten and which are forbidden. For more about food laws in the Bible, MyJewishLearning.com has an excellent article.

To summarize the rules, animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Birds must not be predators or scavengers. No “creepy-crawlies” may be eaten (no shrimp, no snakes, no snails, etc.) Meat and milk must be eaten separately. One must not consume the blood of any creature. Over the centuries, rabbis have set the boundaries of practice so that these rules are not accidentally broken.

Animals are slaughtered according to the rules of kashrut, which is derived from the process by which animals were slaughtered for sacrifice in the Temple. Animals must be calmed, and the knife must be very sharp, so that the animal does not suffer unduly. Proper shechitah [slaughtering] severs the carotid and jugular as well as the windpipe very rapidly; animals die within seconds. Only certain parts of an animal are considered kosher, and a kosher butcher has to be specially trained to cut the meat up properly.

Some have tried to justify the rules of kashrut by speculating that they are for health or cleanliness. As expressed in the text, and as practiced by Jews for centuries, they are not rules with “reasons why.” The “why” is that they are commandments.

Today Jews who keep kosher do so for many reasons, for instance:

  • Kashrut is commanded by God.
  • Their parents kept kosher, so they continue the tradition.
  • Some keep kosher in solidarity with Jews everywhere.

Some Jews do not keep kosher, but they avoid forbidden animals: they do not eat pork or shellfish. Some keep a limited form of kashrut, but only at home; when they are out, they don’t worry about it. Some Jews do not keep the food commandments at all, but they are aware that they do not keep them; even in non-observance there is awareness.

There are many interesting modern thoughts about kashrut. Some raise ethical questions about the treatment of laborers and/or of animals in modern kosher food processing plants. Some raise questions about sustainable food practices and our stewardship of the earth.

I heard a sermon when I was a student that made a huge impression on me. Rabbi Gersh Zylberman suggested to us that when we look at the dietary law as a whole, what we see is a complex of practices that discourage and limit the consumption of animal products. Combined with other texts that advocate for kindness towards animals, he argued that we should allow kashrut to move us toward a vegan lifestyle. Inspired, I researched a vegan diet and kept it for a time; but eventually I decided I was not yet ready for that degree of holiness.

Do you keep kosher? Is your diet influenced in any way by your Jewishness? Why, or why not?

Passover Shopping Tips

The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.
The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

Spring is on its way.

I know this because my friend Mark has begun stockpiling matzah. Ever since the Great Matzah Shortage of 5768, he has watched for the first kosher-for-Passover (KforP) matzah to appear in the stores and he snaps it up. He’s discriminating – he has his preferred brands – but he is not going to be caught short of matzah, because eating matzah is a commandment for Passover.

This weekend Linda mentioned to me that Mark found some matzah, so now I know it: spring is coming.

Since some of you may be wondering about shopping for Passover, I thought I’d pass along some basic tips. I hope that some readers will add their tips to the comments, too.

1. BUY MATZAH EARLY – You do not want to be looking for matzah at the last minute. It truly is a requirement for any seder, no matter how liberal or laid-back.  You also want to check the label carefully, because often the nice people at the secular grocery store don’t realize that there is matzah and then there is kosher-for-Passover matzah. Just because it has “Maneschewitz” on the box doesn’t mean it is OK for Passover. Somewhere on that box it must say “Kosher for Passover.” [Some people like to eat matzah year round; they buy regular matzah anytime.  Kosher for Passover matzah is made according to the laws of the season, and for more detail I will point you to the Orthodox Union page on the subject.] (Thank you to Rachel Fleming on Twitter for this tip.)

2. BUY KOSHER WINE EARLY – If you are hosting a seder, or if you are taking a bottle of KforP wine as a table gift to a seder, pick up your wine early. As with the matzah, it is a commandment to serve it or grape juice at the seder. Particularly if you crave “nice” kosher wine (not the cough syrup some of us traditionalists insist on buying) it may be hard to find in the days immediately before Passover.

3. DON’T GET CRAZY – If you shop in a Jewish store or in a city with lots of Jews, you may find the wild variety of processed KforP  food pretty dazzling. Particularly if you are a newcomer to the Jewish world, you may either be dumfounded or you may feel like you need “one of each.” Stop right there: step AWAY from the shopping cart!  All that stuff is still processed food and most of it is not particularly nutritious. If there’s something a family member particularly loves, of course that’s different. But truly, you don’t need to break the bank buying lots of mixes and faux-cornflakes. Passover is a great time to improve our diets by eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies, most of which are automatically kosher for Passover. If you enjoy cooking, get a Passover cookbook and get the ingredients you need for some interesting-sounding dishes.

Speaking of “Don’t Get Crazy,” if you are feeling confused or crazed when you think about Passover cleaning, I wrote an essay a while back that may help: Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

4. STORE YOUR PASSOVER FOOD. Until you get the kitchen and/or house ready for Passover, leave your Matzo and KforP wine in its wrappers and away from your regular food.  You don’t want them mixed in where someone may snack on them or get chametz in there. This is the reason the KforP matzah comes in a box that is also shrink wrapped: the manufacturer is not taking any chances.

5. PACE YOURSELF. I know, it’s easier to say it than to do it. Start early, go steadily, and do your best. Don’t be so busy getting ready for Passover that you fail to enjoy Purim. Always remember that human beings are more important than anything else.

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