We were sitting in a riverside restaurant with the lights of the city sparkling in the descending twilight. I could tell that my relative was angry at me, but I wasn't sure how to handle it. This was a person that I loved and respected, but she had placed me in a tough situation. I had told her that I don't eat anything in non-kosher restaurants anymore, but she had insisted on coming to this restaurant. We had grown up eating fish and dairy in all restaurants even though we had a kosher home. But I had learned more, and I felt stuck as I sipped slowly at my glass of ice water.
"Why do you have to be so extreme? Why can't you at least order a salad? It's kosher enough."
I squirmed in my seat. I couldn't go back to the way I was before, even though there was a small part of me that longed to do just that. I didn't want to hurt her, but I knew I couldn't eat this type of food anymore. I shook my head, feeling the heat of embarrassment on my cheeks. My relative ordered her meal and continued to try and persuade me to be "normal again."
"Why do you have to get bogged down in the details? How unkosher can fish be?"
"Why do you have to get bogged down in the details? You can be Jewish without going this far. How unkosher can fish be?"
I began to feel annoyed. Why was it okay to be so concerned with the details of decorating your living room but not with the details of your values? Why was it okay to focus on the details of your outfit but not on whether what you were wearing was refined and modest?
After you cross certain bridges, you can never go back to where you were before. I had searched and found a deeper relationship with God, and I couldn't return to the previous level of that connection, no matter how uncomfortable I was at this moment.
In the Details
Later that year, I had a wonderful lab partner and friend who happened to be Japanese. He was a kind and thoughtful person who respected my religious beliefs. He would eat with me in the kosher Hillel House, and would gladly re-arrange our tennis games for Sundays instead of Shabbat. He even once examined a bag of chips and said, "It says kosher, but I'm not sure that it's kosher enough."
When I told him that various people in my life were annoyed with all the new details of my observant life, he seemed surprised. "All great achievements in life require enormous attention to detail. Think about our organic chemistry exam this morning. Or think about the famous karate champions. They don't just kick randomly. Their movements are precise and focused. I admire your commitment to your religion's details."
This comforted me as I continued to navigate the complex dynamics of keeping my friends while moving forward spiritually. After I married and had children, I began to realize that all our connections require attention to details in order to see the big picture. I may love my children, but if I don't know the names of their friends or teachers what does that tell them about how much I care about their lives? And I may love my husband, but if I don't know which foods he hates and which words to use to encourage him, then my marriage may have lofty goals but no tools to actualize those goals.
It's important for me to remember which of my children likes cream cheese and which of them likes jam. I need to know that the words that help this daughter will not be heard by another child. And the myriad laws of Shabbat and keeping kosher have enlarged and clarified the "bigger picture" in ways that I never could have found if I had disregarded the details as archaic and unnecessary.
Of course the big picture is crucial too, but it needs to be constantly integrated with the precious details that give our lives meaning and direction.
I don't really understand why one child likes chocolate and the other likes vanilla. Neither do I understand why God permits some foods and forbids others. But I observe it out of respect for the dignity of the system. And that respect deepens my relationship, whether it's with my spouse, my children or with God. And in time, we can often begin to understand the underlying motivations behind those particular preferences and deepen the relationship even further.
This past year I was sitting with the same relative in a glatt kosher restaurant in Jerusalem overlooking the moonlit walls of the Old City. We were about to order when suddenly she looked up at me and said, "Maybe you have it right."
"Maybe I have what right?"
"All of this. Israel. Judaism. Building a family. Staying home with your children."
I almost choked on my water. It was so out of character for her to say this! She was always telling me to come back to New York and get a real job.
"Why are you saying this now?" I ask.
"Well, as I get older I'm starting to realize that maybe this kind of committed life is healthier than I thought it was."
I was so shocked I couldn't speak. Then she closed her menu and almost whispered. "And maybe it is true. Maybe it's the countless, little acts that matter. Maybe God really is in the details."