Exodus chapter 34, verse 26: “Thou shalt not boil a kid in his mother’s milk.” Some 5,000 (or 2,000, depending on who you think wrote the Torah) years ago, God told the Jewish people not to mix milk and meat. Throughout the centuries, these simple words—along with other dietary commandments—have propagated a wide variety of laws and customs known in Judaism as kashrut, which is the practice of keeping kosher.
Keeping kosher means a lot of different things to different people. For some, it just means not eating pig. For others, it means waiting eight hours after meat before eating milk, and not eating anywhere any rules of kashrut are violated. For me, it means that I don’t eat pig or shellfish or any meat that hasn’t been ritually slaughtered according to the laws of the Torah and blessed by a rabbi, and I wait three hours after eating meat to eat milk. My mother’s house has separate sinks, silverware, and plates for dairy and meat (not to mention a whole other set of silverware and plates that are only used on Passover, which has its own set of kashrut laws), and we don’t bring anything in the house that doesn’t have a certification indicating that it was made in a facility in which no laws of kashrut were violated. Out of the house, though, I’ll eat anywhere as long as there are non-shellfish and non-meat options.
Freshman year, during winter break, I ruined dinner at a hibachi restaurant. To be fair, I didn’t really think about it before we went. I like Asian fusion food (most Jews do; I saw my entire synagogue at a Thai restaurant last Christmas eve). Even when we got to the restaurant and sat down at the grill, I didn’t have a problem. It wasn’t until the chef began dicing up shrimp and crab and eel and all-those-other-things-I-don’t eat that I became uncomfortable. Whatever I ordered was going to be simmering on charred bits of shellfish (my OCD didn’t help there). The chef scraped the stove with two sharp blades, but it didn’t make a difference. The brown crust of eel was sizzling in the middle, and it was my turn to order. I told my father that I wasn’t actually going to eat anything, which set off a long argument with his side of the family about how religious I was becoming.
I suppose it didn’t really make sense that hibachi bothered me more than any other kind of restaurant. Whether or not I can see it, anything I order is being touched by utensils that have touched unkosher food. The veggie burger at the diner across the street: fried on the same oven as the morning bacon. The tuna salad at Subway: spread by the same gloved hands that just picked up a batch of teriyaki chicken. Something about seeing it, though, makes a difference. Kashrut is all about boundaries—eat this and not that, eat here and not there—and watching or imagining little meat particles breaking through the soft surface of eggs or fish or spaghetti makes kashrut feel more like a blob.
In the dining hall, I find myself examining and reexamining the same not-so-existential questions. It probably seems stupid, privileged or ungrateful (and maybe it is) to worry about such small differences in how the food I eat is prepared, but what it comes down to is that I don’t know where to set my boundaries. Will I eat vegetarian food that probably has traces of meat? Will I one day decide that, since chicken isn’t really meat, I don’t care whether or not it’s kosher? As per Microeconomics 101, we all make decisions at the margin, and decisions we make in one part of our life affect all of the others. Keeping kosher is one of the primary things that identify me as a religious Jew. More than observing Shabbat, which I’ve flip-flopped on, or going to synagogue on Saturday, which I stopped a few years back, keeping kosher has been the backbone of my religious identity.
Maybe what makes these questions about eel bits and pork scrapings so pressing is that I worry that one marginal choice slightly too far, and I will push myself over some religious edge beyond which it will be nearly impossible to reclaim my identity. In second grade, in the middle of Canada with no vegetarian options available, my mother bought me an unkosher hamburger and I stared at it as if it were the Golden Apple of Knowledge. Even then, something about it felt so alien that I couldn’t finish it, but if I had, maybe it would have been easy to get back to the States and start buying chicken fingers instead of French fries at McDonald’s (though it turns out the French fries had beef in them all along), and kashrut wouldn’t be an issue anymore.
Perhaps there is a deeper reason fueling the minutiae-paranoia that accompanies my kashrut. If I stay focused on the small questions, I don’t ever have to ask myself why keeping kosher has been so important to me. For many religious Jews, I think the answer is simple: they keep kosher because the Torah and other texts say to do so. For those whose adherence to kashrut is much more stringent than mine, I wonder if the strictness makes it less stressful. They have few, if any, boundaries to wonder about: God has set them out quite clearly. There is less waffling around the margin, or trying to decide what is or is not OK today. I don’t know if I believe in God or, if I do, whether he handed down all of the commandments (such is the topic of another article). On the days I do believe in Him, my belief is still peripheral to my kashrut, and I figure He’s probably happy that I do it. But I don’t really do it for Him.
My friend once told me she kept kosher because she saw something holy in the idea of being conscious about the food that goes into one’s body. Even if the boundaries weren’t set by God, or perhaps existed parallel to him, there is something meaningful in bringing intentionality to eating, a holiness between our hands and our food and our mouths that maybe we had once known thousands of years ago when we killed and planted our own food, but lost when we let others make our food for us.
I didn’t like the idea at the time, and though it’s grown a lot on me, I still don’t think it’s why I keep kosher. Some scholars have speculated that when the ancient Israelites were commanded to keep the laws of kashrut, it was to separate them as a people from the surrounding nations. A few months ago, a relative who feels kashrut and other Jewish customs are inexplicably tribal and anachronistic asked me why I was engaging in self-segregation. I didn’t quite have an answer for her then, but I do now. Keeping kosher is not a way of cutting myself off from those who do not do so, but rather a way of reaching out to those who do. There are plenty of Jews who find meaningful ways to connect to Judaism without kashrut, but keeping kosher in the dining hall or Canada or God Knows Where is what makes me feel like part of a Jewish community.
At school, of course, there are some daily reminders that I’m Jewish. I spend my meal swipes at the CJL, I go to services on Friday nights, and I hang out with a bunch of Jews, but none of that makes me feel connected to a Judaism larger than the sudsy walls of the Orange Bubble. I don’t know if my ancient ancestors kept kosher in anything like the way I do, but I know that we could sit down at the same table today or a thousand years from now and have meat on the table with no cheese or butter. Kashrut is an inheritance, not a burden. It is a map covered in thumbtacks and colored strings spanning bazaars and continents that I will pass on to my children so that they can read the same words scrawled again and again: We were here. We were here.