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.”
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.
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.
8 thoughts on “My Adventures with Kashrut”
Since when is there only one way to keep kashrut? Capitulating that the “traditional way”–which really means the Orthodox way–is the only real way, which is kind of what you imply here, is not the answer. If it were, you might as well defer all other aspects of your religious observance to Orthodox gatekeepers. You wouldn’t defer your style of davening, or shabbos observance, or choice of fabrics, or clothing or head-covering decisions from those of your denomination of choice to accommodate someone else, and you wouldn’t consider them somehow less because others might not consider them halachic. Why do that with kashrut? Just because an M.O. family–or the corporate heckshering industry–might not consider your kitchen kosher absolutely does not mean that it isn’t kosher.
And then there’s the differing ideas of what’s kosher between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, even!
Most of my Reform Jewish friends have decided as long as there’s no pigs or crustaceans in the kitchen, it’s kosher enough. Cheeseburgers are fine, as are meat pizzas.
In fairness, there is no single Orthodox way to keep kosher; the rules in every kosher kitchen are idiosyncratic. However, “kosher” means “according to the requirements of Jewish law” and there’s not much getting around that. No one is forced to keep kosher, and many of us keep some modified form of it, but the word means something specific. I don’t regard my tradition as less than any other; I’m a Reform Jew because I think it is closest to the spirit of the tradition.
I never really had a huge desire to keep kosher but I identify with the desire to know where my food comes from. Plus my fiance would not be interested in having a kosher home and I want a peaceful home too.
A Jewish life (really any ethical life) is a balancing act. I just typed “a balancing cat” and maybe there is a useful metaphor somewhere on that clothesline, too.
I now have the urge to Google “balancing cat,” but I’m almost afraid of what I might find if I do…
In my experience, from keeping a kitchen that we kashered when machmir kid came home, kashrut – beyond the designation of which animals are and aren’t – was anything but clear and straightforward. Depending on whom you ask, smooth-top stoves can or can’t be kashered; you do or don’t have to reserve separate burners on an electric stove for meat and dairy; X amount of one flavor accidentally dropped into another can or can’t be nullified; and basically since one is supposed to follow the guidance of one’s local halachic authority and minhag hamakom, moving from one town to another could render some great percentage of one’s previous practice no longer acceptable. About the last words that would occur to me would be “clear” and “straightforward.”
Patti, you have a point. I was thinking of the binary quality of most decisions, but you are right, there is a multiplicity of opinions.