JWR Pesach
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

The 'Your Belief' syndrome

By Susan R. Weintrob

I WAS STANDING in a congenial group at a cocktail party when hors d'oeuvres were passed around. I politely shook my head. By the third pass, one of the other guests noticed my refusal. "Come on, try it. Looks fabulous." The guest took one and munched contentedly. I shook my head. The guest persisted.

"What's in it?" I asked my hostess.

"Browned beef, pork sausage and Monterey cheese," she told me.

Smiling at her, I shook my head. "I can't eat it."

I thought nothing more of the matter until, later on that evening, the older gentleman, who had urged me to taste the hors d'oeuvres, came up to me.

"I want to apologize for asking you to eat those hors d'oeuvres. I didn't realize that you followed your dietary laws."

"Oh, you mean that I keep kosher ?" I responded.

The fella nodded, looking nonplused at my use of the word kosher. "Isn't that difficult for you? Can you ever eat at other people's houses?"

I explained that all my friends knew that our family keeps kosher and were very accommodating. "I really don't have much of a problem."

The person looked surprised.

I felt no less surprised. The person with whom I spoke is Jewish, belongs to a synagogue, is a long-time member of its board of trustees and is a regular participant at Shabbat services.

I was reminded of the wicked son's use of the word "you" and not "we" in the Haggadah : what your holiday means, when you were brought out of Egypt.

Now, I do not think this fellow party-goer is wicked, but I wonder why, despite many years of affiliation with the Jewish community, the question about kashrus observance was phrased in a way that obviously did not include him.

I am used to curiosity about our family keeping kosher. In our town, we are the only family that has a kosher home and maintains kashrus outside the home.

For years, we had not gone to dinners at the local Reform congregation that we used to belong to because they not only did not maintain kashrut, but served treif, and mixed meat and milk on the same table.

However, an interesting phenomena has taken place at this synagogue, representative of trends across the US. A vegetarian option was mandated by the board, so that those who wish to make the move towards kashrut may attend holiday or Shabbat dinners. This motion was supported by most of the board members. When some spoke out against this option, a person who had only recently converted to Judaism spoke up. "I would hope that the board would support, not oppose, those people who move towards kashrus." The motion passed.

In the past, many Jews hid observances from their neighbors or fellow workers. Some groups moved away from following kashrus, labeling it a "tribal," or "superstitious" ritual. "Be a Jew at home and a man in the street," was a saying familiar to many. Today's generation no longer feels this necessity. Today more young families are interested in keeping kosher.

While many non-religious Jews may not start out with two sets of dishes, they often do not eat pork, or mix milk and meat. They are respectful of kashrus as a Jewish tradition.

The party-goer is from the generation of my uncle and stepfather, who had to change names to get jobs. These experiences remain with them. Today, Jewish identification and observance are no longer "treif" to the American public. Those who are openly Jewish and traditional no longer feel out of the mainstream of American life.

While my fellow guest showed surprise that our friends were aware that we follow Jewish traditions, history has shown us that anti-Semites do not temper their feelings because of the level of a Jew's kashrus observance.

There is no doubt that keeping kosher has been a mark of Jewish identity for several thousand years. While many Jews have sought to find practical reasons that kashrus is beneficial, the Torah unites kashrut with holiness, not health.

Many non-Orthodox Jews follow the traditional reasoning as well. In Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's popular Jewish Literacy, he offers an interesting interpretation on the effects of maintaining kashrus. He connects the non-violent behavior of Jews to the prohibition on hunting, cruel slaughtering techniques, and consumption of the blood of an animal. According to Telushkin, the reason Jews commit violent crimes at a lower rate than their non-Jewish neighbors is not because of genetic differences. He attributes this characteristic to kashrus, which "has helped civilize the Jewish spirit."

Our sages have understood that the meaning of the word "kosher" is derived from morality, not diet. Therefore, the word "kosher" itself has nothing to do with food. It is used in the sense of being proper or ethical. Thus one can ask about any project or enterprise, "Is it kosher?" --- meaning is it legal or respectable.

Unlike diets which count calories, keeping kosher counts something else --- a sense of what is proper and what is "treif." Keeping kosher does not separate us negatively from our neighbors, anymore than other disciplines we impose upon ourselves, such as recycling our resources or exercising regularly. Kashrus unites us with the Jewish people, tells us to restrain our appetites.

Some things are permitted, some are not. Children brought up in kosher homes learn early on that not only our food but our actions can be "kosher."

As an adult, my husband began to follow kashrus in stages. One night, after he decided to eliminate non-kosher food from his diet outside our home, he had a real test. Following a six-hour recording session of his chamber music group, a platter of food was brought to the musicians --- jumbo shrimp. Despite being very hungry, he refused. He commented later that if he had been on a diet and chocolate cake had been brought out, there would have been no doubt that he would have broken his diet. He had amazed even himself.

While there is no easily visible hechsher (rabbinical supervision) mark stamped on many life decisions we must make, keeping kosher reminds us daily who we are and who we want to be.

JWR contributor Susan Rubin Weintrob is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion and is a faculty member of Ball State University's English Department.


© 1998, Susan R. Weintrob