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To Be or Not To Be (Kosher)

To Be or Not To Be (Kosher)

Existential angst and the Jewish dietary laws.

by

When I was a kid, I used to feel really sorry for people who kept kosher. You see, in my home, we could eat whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. There was one exception however: a little holiday called Passover.

Although we ate only kosher for Passover foods during the holiday, we thought nothing of eating them in a non-kosher manner. I remember one year when I was making matza pizza, I realized that salami would be a great stand in for pepperoni. So I took out the matza, spread on some kosher for Passover tomato sauce, covered it with kosher for Passover mozzarella cheese, and threw on several slices of kosher for Passover salami. When my mother walked into the kitchen and saw this concoction baking in her toaster oven, she started to scream at me, "Allison, what are you doing? You have to put foil down or else the cheese will drip everywhere!" It didn't occur to either of us that there was something rather odd about being so careful to avoid eating leaven while having no concern whatsoever about mixing milk and meat.

It didn't occur as odd to us: being so careful to avoid eating leaven while having no concern whatsoever about mixing milk and meat.

Even though our version of Passover kosher wasn't that stringent, it was a nearly impossible feat for me to endure. Every commercial on TV with pasta or cereal tortured me. Every friend and classmate in the cafeteria eating bread in my presence drove me mad. On pizza day, forget about it.

But throughout the dietary hardships, there was always one thing that comforted me. I knew I would get to go back to "normal" in only a more few days. And this was the exact reason why I pitied those people who always kept kosher. They never got to be "normal". They never got to go back to eating whatever they wanted whenever they wanted – no shrimp, no bacon, not even a cheeseburger. It seemed like a pretty miserable existence in my opinion.

And then the weirdest thing happened. I had been having this pesky existential crisis throughout my childhood and teenage years where questions like "Why am I alive?" and "What's my purpose in this world?" kept popping into my head despite the fact that they were neither invited nor welcomed there. After many years of sleepless nights and morbid thoughts, it occurred to me to look into what Judaism had to say about these issues, and much to my surprise, I was completely blown away with what I saw. The wisdom, the lifestyle -- all of it just made so much sense.

I slowly started to learn more and add observances into my life: Shabbos, holidays, and yes…KOSHER. I decided to take it on in stages. After all, I was used to eating so much good stuff I figured in all fairness to myself I should at least give it up little by little. I stopped eating shellfish first. Next came bacon and all other pork products. Then, milk and meat. I was quite proud of my progress, so I kept on going. Next was non-kosher red meat and I was doing fine, hardly feeling the pinch. And then, when I least expected it, my kosher momentum came to a screeching halt. For there before me stood: the poultry issue.

My kosher momentum came to a screeching halt. For there before me stood: the poultry issue.

According to the arbitrary system that I had come up with, it appeared that giving up non-kosher poultry was next on the list. Everything else I had stopped eating up to that point had been fairly easy to do - the shellfish, pork, milk and meat all felt blatantly treif so it seemed appropriate to part with those delicacies. And as far as non-kosher red meat was concerned, I was hardly even eating it at the time of my kosher metamorphosis due to taste more than anything. But when it came time to say good-bye to non-kosher chicken and turkey, here were foods that were a staple of my diet yet didn't scream treif, and the combination of these reasons convinced me how important these birds were to my existence.

There were no kosher meat restaurants in my area at the time, and I just kept trying to imagine myself living a life where I couldn't just go out and pick up a turkey sandwich whenever I felt like it. How would I ever be happy again, I wondered, if I could never meet my friends at a restaurant and order chicken fingers if the mood struck me?

All that progress, and I was seemingly stuck with no way out. My life would be nothing short of horrible if I couldn't have my choice of poultry whenever I darn well pleased. And then it hit me one day -- the choices I had before me: turkey sandwich OR the meaning of life? Chicken nuggets OR a purposeful existence?

I felt the squeeze with the poultry, but I decided to persist nonetheless with becoming kosher, because I realized that I had a goal in mind more profound than a chicken could ever hope to be. And after not too much longer, I had become fully kosher - in my home and out of my home - during the week of Passover and throughout the rest of the year.

The first Passover I celebrated after becoming strictly kosher was a remarkable experience. No chametz (leaven) for eight days didn't bother me one little bit. I didn't feel a thing. My level of self-control - after having committed myself to dietary standards throughout the rest of the year - was now on a whole new level.

Do I miss the foods I used to eat? Sure. Am I convinced that a Wendy's bacon cheeseburger, with cheese fries, and a Frosty (just how I used to like it) will be waiting for me when I die and move on to the World to Come? Most definitely. (Although since food doesn't exist in the hereafter the way it does in this world, I will gladly accept the meal in whatever currency is appropriate in heavenly terms.)

Have I ever "cheated" or even considered the possibility of cheating? Not even once. Because no matter how much I enjoyed those foods (and I think my level of enjoyment has been made abundantly clear by now), what's my body good for if I can't control it? What's my life worth if it's not leading up to something greater than my next meal? That's why I chose – to be kosher.

Allison Josephs is the creator of www.JewintheCity.com, which features her online videos and blogs that challenge the public perception of Orthodox Jews and traditional Judaism. She is also is a regular blogger on ModestlyYours.net. Allison has been involved in the field of Jewish Outreach for ten years, teaching and lecturing, and has worked for Partners in Torah, Sinai Retreats, NCSY and Stars of David. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Columbia University and lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

Published: June 28, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 21

(21) Robyn, December 29, 2008 2:13 PM

There's a simpler option: go vegetarian or vegan

Just not having meats in my home (making my kitchen dairy by default) made kashrus so much easier. One set of dishes for the year. One oven/set of knives/pans etc. I practice tikkun olam daily by refusing to have sentient death in my kitchen. Vegetarian is not for everyone, but will you consider giving it a shot?

(20) Sara, July 24, 2008 6:23 AM

Too true

I embarked on the same "step" program as you (although I had not previously eaten pork, shellfish and meat and milk) and just like you, I got stuck on the poultry issue. No more KFC?! The prospect was terrifying! I'm glad for the changes, though. I was taught that treif food builds a wall around your heart, making it harder for Torah to enter. By living kosher, I have been blessed with so much Torah.

(19) Saftanna, July 8, 2008 11:26 PM

Kosher @ 60.

We began keeping our home Glatt Kosher when I was 60 years old. Number 2 Son is a Baal Tshuva and our first grandchild would never have been able to taste my cooking. I wanted her to suffer like everybody else. Seriously, Kosher people had invited us to eat in their homes, and until we were Kosher, we would not have been able to reciprocate. If my husband were not completely agreeable, I would not have been able to do it. Actually, I love keeping Kosher and I enjoy my Kosher kitchen, it makes me very happy. Our little old 24-foot RV is not yet kosher, but if HaShem Blesses us and we are ever able to get a newer one, you can be sure it will be Kosher from the get-go. We already promised Number 2 Son that it will be. Many Jewish people, some related, cannot understand why we enjoy our Kosher home so much. It just feels right. Little by little my husband and I have become more observant and it is wonderful. Now, when we see a cheeseburger or some other such mishmosh on TV, I get a short swift wave of nausea. HaShem has His ways, better, much better, late than never.

(18) Hannah, July 6, 2008 1:43 AM

How dare you

Great article.
I went from a home similar to yours to an orthodox marriage and a well kept kosher kitchen and then on to an messy divorce and a rebellious non-kosher period. Now I have returned to keeping kosher. I am so much happier with myself. I have rediscovered pride in what I do at home and, of course, outside.

Recently I was invited to dinner at a 'friend's' house and, along with a vegetarian companion, was served soup that tasted a bit strange. I later enquired what was in the broccoli soup and was told that it contained broccoli, cheese and chicken stock. How dare you, I thought. How dare you mix milk and meat without my knowledge and how dare you give a vegetarian meat stock. Keeping kosher may be limiting in food choices but it proves to also be a test of more than the meal itself. It may well be a good basis for testing respect in relationships.

(17) Colin, July 4, 2008 5:30 PM

Set-apart people ,Set-apart diet

Hello ,I never ate kosher until 3 years ago. When I started studying Torah I realized that it wasn't for health reasons we are suppose to eat kosher, but because we are a SET-APART people for G-d. the health benifits are icing on the cake. I did the same thing slowly and systematic, first i cut out the unclean animals ,then istudied about proper slaughter,and then packaged food. As I accepted truth G-d gave me more understanding, it has been awsome . THANS FOR THE GREAT ARTICLE. COLIN

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