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.