Sara Lonstein Gilbert
Eating kosher is now a big part of my life. Over the past several years, my family and I slowly made the transition to becoming kashrut observant. Keeping kosher has added meaning and value to our practice of Judaism, as well as enhanced our Jewish identity and sense of self-worth.
When one gets to be my age, one truly understands that all of life is about relationships -- with family members, friends, colleagues, and God. As a life-member of Weight Watchers and a dieter who has tried every diet in the book, it has been a long-standing joke that I've been trying to improve my relationship with food. Little did I suspect that my food choices would ultimately enhance my relationship with God and my community.
My childhood home had been kosher until I was two years old. While my mother never cooked pork and we never drank milk with our meat meals, we did have bacon and eggs or a ham sandwich every once in a while. I never knew exactly why we had two sets of silverware. I just thought that we used one set in the kitchen and the other in the dining room. It never occurred to me that it was a vestige from the earlier days.
I attended Hebrew school for a few years and even became a Bat Mitzvah. Although I must have been taught the rules of kashrut there, I honestly thought keeping kosher was something only Orthodox people did. And I didn't really know any of them anyway.
My husband, Michael, was a lobster man. It wasn't a special occasion, no matter in what land-locked part of the country we found ourselves, unless he ate lobster. I don't care for seafood, so while I would eat my beef en brochette, I'd wait, seemingly for hours, while he'd wrestle every morsel of lobster meat from the claws and shell. Throughout Europe, he would eat mussels on the street and savor every local dish. Spanish paella was a favorite. Who would ever imagine that one day we would have a kosher home?
As I look back, I recall we made the decision to eschew pork products. I don't recall the reason. It must have been that pintele yid deep inside that somehow led us to make ourselves distinct, in this small way, from the rest of the world around us. We said no to ballpark franks, pork and beans, Keebler crackers made with lard, and McDonald's egg McMuffins. That was our first step. It may not have been earth-shattering. We certainly did not, would not, call ourselves "kosher." But we did have an awareness about the food choices we were making.
To those who may be considering making the transition to kashrut observance, I strongly recommend taking small steps. Each of us has a lifetime to grow in all kinds of observance. Sudden and radical changes, I believe, can be too overwhelming and difficult and thus only short-lived. The transition to kashrut observance deserves, and even requires, a great deal of thought and self-examination. At times it may be difficult, generating feelings of self-denial and suffering. Go slow! There are many small steps you can take. Judaism is about evolution. As one grows in practice, one can grow in understanding, commitment and real change.
My husband and I raised our family in a beautiful, religiously diverse neighborhood. Our children attended public schools. Our friends included neighbors, fellow PTA parents, Girl and Boy Scout families, soccer and softball team members. We were invited to many parties, picnics and outings. My children learned to ask," What kind of franks are these?" "Do you have something other than Oreo cookies?" (in the days when they were made with lard!!) "Will you take that ham off my sandwich?"
After birthday parties and cook-outs, neighborhood Moms would report, "Your son asked about the hot dogs. Next time I'll be sure to buy some all-beef ones for him." "Your older daughter took the pepperoni off her pizza. Your younger daughter ate only celery for lunch. What responsible, mature and disciplined kids you have."
Sometimes I heard, "How could you put your kids in such a situation?" " How can you make them feel so different from everyone else on the block, in the troop, on the team, in the class?" But our kids had internalized the message: "we are Jews and this is what Jews do or don't do. And this is what everyone in OUR family does or doesn't do. Everyone has their differences. We tolerate and respect those differences. We are very proud of the way you are and the choices you make." I truly believe that learning to say 'no' in a variety of situations, (and in the process upholding our family's standards and expectations regardless of whether they set them apart from their friends), taught my children a valuable skill that has served them well throughout their teen years and into adulthood.
Read Part Two of "Making the Transition to a Kosher Kitchen".
Excerpted from a presentation at the JCC of Denver, Colorado, August 1999
Reprinted by permission of Star-K Kosher Certification. Visit: http://www.star-k.org.
For more information about how to make a kosher home, visit: http://www.star-k.org/cons-keep.htm.