The Importance of Being Kosher
by Martin Lindauer
The smell of bacon never graced the breakfast air when I was growing up. My parents, observant Jews, followed the dietary laws, Kashrut in Hebrew, kosher in Yiddish, which forbid, most notably, the eating of pork, for example. Non-Jews, the goyim, also found it hard to understand the prohibition against beef in creamed sauce, unaware of the rule against mixing meat and dairy. Confusing, too, are Jews who consider the dietary rules old-fashioned and unnecessary and either don't follow them or hedge when eating out, ordering "treiff"--lobster, shrimp, clams, and other banned delicacies. I lapsed once, too, on the Boardwalk at Coney Island, unable to resist a Nathan's "World's Famous" hot dog. At least it's all-beef, I rationalized, glossing over the absence of a kosher imprimatur.
Non-kosher hot dogs, however, never passed the door of our house. Unheard of, too, was the sizzle of pork chops frying in lard. Untasted as well was cold milk washing down a mouthful of roast chicken. Auditory purity was maintained by referring to beef patties as "chopped meat" rather than "hamburger." I never salivated over "a good steak," like my less observant friends. A kosher steak, properly slaughtered, was from an approved part of the cow, a place other than "good steaks." To my palate, a steak was tough and grisly, as well as burnt, in mom's vain hope that extended cooking softened the cut.
Mom made up for bad steaks with gefilte fish, a patty of chopped pike, carp, and whitefish boiled in broth. On Friday morning, in preparation for the Sabbath that began at nightfall, mom played the part of the angel of death at the fish store. She peered into the cramped holding tank, pointed out her selections, and the chosen fish were clubbed to death and filleted, their heads saved for broth. I escaped the slaughter of the innocents by fleeing into the backyard of the butcher shop next door where I cheered chickens dodging the long hooked pole of the "shochet," the slaughterer. I stayed until a luckless bird's neck was lassoed and then escaped my second sacrifice of the day before the shochet, in accord with prescribed procedures, said a "b'rucha," a prayer, and cut the squawking chicken's throat.
Back home, the cut-up chicken, thankfully not looking like the original, soaked in salt water, a koshering bath that drew out the remaining blood, and cleansed away reminders that a living creature provided sustenance for our table. The briny solution made the chicken dry, which is why mom served it boiled. The simmering pot did double duty as the main dish and the soup of the day.
Mom hand-chopped the fish in a wooden bowl by an open window that allowed the breeze to dry her tears, not in remorse over the deaths of fish and fowl, but to lift away the stinging scent of onions in the mixture. In the street below, I played my last game of punchball before the Sabbath eve began, alert for the final "clunk-clunk's" of the chopping bowl, signaling the time to come home. I set the table with meat dishes and silverware taken from kitchen drawers segregated from dairy utensils.
Keeping kosher means more, though, than eating the correct food, preparing it properly, and serving it correctly.
I was introduced to Madelaine St. Johns at a high school party. Doesn't sound like a Jewish name, I thought perfunctorily, preoccupied with estimating the size of her breasts behind layers of sweater, blouse, slip, and bra. I had no reason to expect a shiksa, a non-Jewish girl, to be at the party, since everyone I knew was Jewish except for a few Italians in my school who came from segregated pockets at the periphery of my neighborhood. I naturally assumed Maddy was a Member of the Tribe. Who pays attention to last names? Maddy sounded Jewish enough to me. My testosterone-flooded thoughts focused on a more practical question: Was she "fast?" Would she let me kiss her on the first date?
We did kiss goodnight when I took her home, a self-conscious and brief meeting of our lips. "I had a nice time," she whispered.
"I hope I can see you again," I replied, too shy to push my luck and ask if I could come inside. She nodded, smiled, said "Goodnight," and slipped through the door of her house.
Where could I take her on an inexpensive date? I wondered as I jauntily walked home anticipating the next date. I would ask my buddies tomorrow before our regular basketball game at Kelly Park.
Before the game began, my pals and I swapped extravagant post-party tales of French kissing, successful groping, clinging embraces, and "dry-humping." My debriefing came late. To supersede previous tales of "making out" I exaggerated my limited encounter with Maddy.
My friends were silent, not congratulatory.
"You made out with a shiksa?" Phil finally asked.
My face showed surprise.
Jake reacted to my expression. "You didn't know she wasn't Jewish?" With a name like 'St. Johns'?"
"I kissed non-kosher lips!" I blurted out. Images of Madelaine chomping on a ham sandwich and washing it down with a cold glass of milk flitted uneasily through my mind.
The more traditional rules for Kashrut were not broached until I left for college. My folks and I took it for granted that the prescribed dietary practices would be available at the dorm where I was required to live as a freshman. I had not inquired about eating arrangements when I applied, unquestioningly assuming that kitchens all over the world, like ours and everyone else's I knew, kept kosher.
I quickly learned that there were no special meal plans at the dining hall, whether for observant Jews, Moslems, and vegetarians for that matter. One fixed meal was served, without alternatives, not even jars of peanut butter and jam for non-pork and non-meat eaters. No vouchers were issued for exchange at the Union dining room whenever ham was on the menu, with side-dishes of mashed potatoes topped with pig gravy, vegetables spiced up with bacon bits, and soup flavored with a ham bone.
On Saturday, my first Sabbath at college, and the first football game of the season, the kitchen contributed to school spirit by serving barbecued--pork!-- spare ribs. I waved the treiff away at the serving counter. Better to leave my portion for someone who wants seconds, I reasoned benevolently. I imagined my mother approvingly nodding. "It's good you didn't waste food, even if it is treiff." I could almost hear my father's echoing sentiment. "Goyim in Europe are starving, too." I pictured my Rabbi wagging his finger. "When you do the right thing, the Lord will provide."
I didn't eat the pork but I knew I had crossed the kosher Rubicon. After all, meat and dairy meals were cooked in the same pots and pans, served on the same trays, and eaten with the same silverware. I tried not to think about what the eggs were fried in, chicken basted with, and gravy made from.
In two areas, though, I firmly stood my ground: I would not eat meat from swine or drink milk with flesh. When cold cuts and cheese sandwiches were served for lunch, I'd gingerly pluck out the meat, flip it aside, wipe the slice of cheese with a dampened napkin, and turn the bread inside out to minimize traces of the verboten combination.
I ate hot dogs, though, believing on the basis of my earlier experience with Nathan's all-beef that all frankfurters had an identical provenance. True, the dogs tasted blander than the Hebrew National brand I was used to back home but I attributed this to the absence of garlic, a seasoning rejected by Sen-Sen sucking students.
To boost the hot dogs' flavor, and to prevent my mind from dwelling on their pedigree, I lathered them with a thick layer of mustard and copious dashes of ketchup. G-d knows I'm trying my best, I applauded myself silently. (I was reluctant to spell out the Lord's name in a non-kosher context.)
Baked ham, a favorite, was served once a week. I didn't know what to make of the perfectly round and pink slab that lay limply in the assigned meat section of my tray. I had never seen a cut of beef like this. I quizzed the student sitting next to me. "What is it?" My neighbor gave me a disbelieving look. "It's ham," he informed me. He must have thought I had been a vegetarian since birth.
So this is the enemy, I thought, grimacing at the glistening circle of sunburnt-like meat with its thin edge of bleached white fat. My mouth became dry and I swallowed hard. Isn't cooked meat supposed to be brown? (Or black, if it's grilled by my mom.) I fought off a rising hint of nausea, stared at the abominable object, and thought, Now I know how Adam must have felt when Eve offered him an apple. Or could it have been a slice of ham? I wondered irreverently. That would explain why Jews aren't allowed to eat pork. I stopped straining for levity, took a deep breath, covered the pig derivative with my paper napkin, and watched damp spots of grease slowly leak through. I carefully nudged the neighboring portions of potatoes and carrots away from the forbidden zone, picked at their distant margins, and kept my eyes averted from the masked meat.
The student who had identified the ham politely asked, "Could I have your meat if you're not going to eat it?"
"Yeah, sure," I croaked, grateful to get the damn thing out of my sight. My neighbor lifted the ham with his fork and ferried it to his tray. "Keep the napkin over it," I shouted. The transfer was successfully made. "How about giving me your cake in exchange?" I suggested. The trade was gladly made.
Over the next few weeks, whenever porcine by-products were helpfully identified by informative and growing crowds of ravenous students, I found eager traders for a piece of cake, a slice of pie, or a bowl of Jell-O. At breakfast, when bacon was served, I bartered the stiffened strips for an extra bowl of cereal or glass of juice.
My trading partners, more than satisfied by the exchange, believed I was on a special diet. Few downstaters at the college had ever met a Jew and urban residents had only a faint inkling of Jewish dietary rules. I was considered a strange eater anyway, since I feasted on liver, which like garlic, ranked high on the students' list of tabooed foods. My tablemates couldn't understand, though, why I rejected liverwurst sandwiches when I was told that pig liver was its source.
Unfortunately, I couldn't trade the milk that accompanied meat meals since coffee and coke were the preferred beverages.
The gaps at lunch and dinner left me hungry, but fortunately, mom sent a CARE package every few weeks. The box bulged with cans of tuna, salmon, and sardines, jars of tomato sauce, and packages of spaghetti. The postage alone would easily have paid for twice the contents if purchased at a local market. But I never asked mom to send money instead of food so I could buy my own staples. Unable to write English well, canned goods was her way of sending love.
The package's arrival alerted my perpetually hungry roommate, Gary. I shared the cookies, crackers, and raisins--but not the tuna and other entrees. "They're my only meals when pork is served," I told him in a firm tone. A liberal Reform Jew, Gary had no compunctions about trafficking with treiff, and as my roommate, he received special preference in the bidding for the meat I couldn't eat. He had no cause to grumble at my justified stinginess.
Dad sent his regards via a kosher salami, ordered every month from a Jewish deli that shipped out of town. The salami made it through the mail all right but getting it into my stomach was another matter, at least at first.
A yellow slip in my mail box notified me of dad's contribution to my emergency food bank. The clerk took the paper and returned with a long thin box boldly marked "Perishable" on all sides. "Well, well, what do we have here?" he asked, staring at the elongated shape.
"It's Jewish soul food," I told him, excited by the prospect of eating a kosher salami.
I rushed to my room. Saliva pooled at the back of my mouth in anticipation of the delicacy that awaited me. Back home, Mom made a salami sandwich for my school lunch nearly every day. "Not for my boy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," she declared. "And soitanly not on white bread," she added, spreading mustard on Jewish rye (with seeds).
I tore open the box, peeled away layers of butcher paper--and froze at the sight of a cylinder of white scum. "Uch. Feh." I turned away and swallowed several times, holding back the nausea that billowed up my gut. This is worse than a ham, bacon, and liverwurst combo sandwich, I screamed silently, feeling both disgusted and angry at the same time. Why didn't the people at the deli tell dad he can't mail perishable food from so far away?
I held my breadth and gingerly shoved the wrinkled packaging over the white-encrusted tube, sloppily mashed down the lids of the box to cover the sight, fled downstairs, and raced out the back door into the service area. I hastily dumped--whatever it was--into a garbage can. "Yuck," I bleated, repeating the word several times as if the horrific image could be expunged with a verbal barrage. I wiped both hands on my trousers, as if the tactile repetition could cleanse away my memory of this piece of dreck, shit. I predicted that years would have to pass before I'd ever look at a salami again, let alone eat it. I directed a final and loud "pee-yoo" at the lidded receptacle's disgusting contents and headed back to the dorm.
I ducked into a bathroom, tore off my shirt, and washed my hands and arms, as well as elbows in case they had come in contact with the so-called salami. I pushed open the single window in my room as high as I could, stuck my head out, and inhaled scoops of fresh air. Still feeling unnerved, I left to find Gary. I would even discuss Saturday's football game if it would wipe my mind clear of the slimy and rotten piece of dreck.
I sped down the hall and found my roommate in the lounge. I waved urgently, motioning him over.
"What happened?" he asked, staring into my blanched face, squinting to decipher the calamity he saw there.
"I just threw out the ugliest salami in the world," I answered with a grim look. "At least I think it was a salami."
Gary grabbed my shoulder. "Where did you get rid of it?" he asked, pushing me towards the door.
"Why do you want to know? Do you think the salami will poison the air on campus?"
"Just shut up and take me to where you tossed it."
Gary followed me closely down the stairs, pressing me to move faster. Once outside, I pointed to the salami's final resting place. Gary raced over to the garbage can, threw off its lid, peered in, and looked up triumphantly. "Thank God the garbage truck hasn't come yet!" A free thinker, Gary had no compunction against using the Lord's name freely. He reached in and fished out the package.
"What the hell are you doing?" I yelled, the queasy feeling I had fought off earlier roiling up again.
"I'll show you when we get back to our room."
I hurried to get there first and laid newspapers on my desk. Gary tenderly placed the putrefied package on the protected surface and impatiently ripped off its wrappings. I rushed over to the window and put my head outside. "The white crud on the outside of the salami is normal," Gary shouted at my back. "Get me something to wipe it off."
I ran to the bathroom, my eyes averted from the open box, and returned with several wads of dampened toilet paper. Keeping my distance, I handed the cleaning material to Gary with one outstretched arm while covering my eyes with the other hand. I hustled back to the window as Gary scrubbed the alien object. "Careful," I yelled. "I got books laying around."
After about 10 minutes, Gary called me over. I cautiously approached, spotted the Hebrew National label, opened my compressed lips, exhaled, and smiled. "What the hell was all over it?"
"I used to work in a deli." Gary explained. "One of my jobs was to wipe off the salamis and baloneys every morning. The white stuff is normal."
I wasn't so sure. "Are you positive it's really gone? Forever? Guaranteed?"
Gary was certain. "The chalky covering is salt, or some chemical preservative, nitrate maybe, or nitrite, something like that. Whatever it is, the stuff seeps up to the surface."
"Is it still edible?" I asked, still suspicious.
"Sure," Gary replied. "I'll prove it." He took out his pocket knife, sliced a hunk off one end of the freshly sanitized salami, peeled off its outer casing, and started to eat it. "Umm, delicious." His eyes brightened when he noticed my indecisiveness. "If you don't want the salami, I'll take it."
"What d'ya' got to trade?" I mumbled, automatically falling into a familiar routine.
"Hmm, not bad," Gary hummed, not hearing the question, his eyes closed in pleasure. "Could I have another piece?"
"Yeah, sure, you deserve it," I answered.
"Come on, try a piece," Gary urged.
"Just a little," I answered warily. Gary cut a chunk. "No, smaller," I instructed. I cautiously took the proffered sliver with my finger tips, tentatively nibbled off a tiny piece with protruding front teeth, my lips drawn back, ready to spit it out--and quickly gobbled up the snippet. It tasted great. "You can take half of the salami," I said generously, grateful for Gary's successful salvaging of the salami. "But you have to promise me something."
"Sure. What is it?" Gary replied, ready to eat his half right then.
"When another package comes, I'll let you know and you pick it up. Clean it off real good but out of my sight, in the laundry room, the one in the basement. OK?" Gary happily nodded his agreement. "When you're done," I continued, "put the salami back in the box and wrap it up again. Use toilet paper from the bathroom, not the original packing. Then bring it to me. And never, ever, tell me what it looked like when you opened it. All right?"
Gary eagerly agreed and I was able to supplement pork-less meals and depleted CARE packages with a few slices of salami. Occasionally, though, an image of the salami's fuzzy metamorphosis as it crossed the country in the mail flickered across my mind.
More residents of the dorm learned I was bartering pork for dessert and the demand for my discarded meat increased. I upped the ante from one to two desserts. The enthusiastic bidding and hard bargaining left me uneasy, though, for I was affirming the stereotype of the Jew as a sharp businessman and cunning trader. I limited the exchange rate to two desserts. "I don't want the goyim calling me 'Shylock,'" I explained to Gary.
"You should also worry about getting cavities from all the extra desserts you're eating."
When the salami was gone, the CARE package depleted, and pork was the main dish at dinner I ate at a vegetarian restaurant near campus. But rice and beans were boring and only a temporarily filling. Reluctantly, I decided I could not live by dessert alone. I resigned myself to eating treiff.
Gary was shocked. "Don't break your vows," he begged. "Whenever someone asks me what being Jewish means, I point to you eating in the dining hall as a living example."
"But I'm really not," I corrected him. "Macaroni and cheese casseroles are cooked in the same pot as pork roasts. So I might as well go all the way and eat pig."
"Geez," Gary said sympathetically. "Won't your Rabbi call it a sin?"
"I don't think so," I replied. "The Talmud teaches that we are permitted to eat on the holiest day of the year--the fast of Yom Kippur--if it's to save a life."
Gary looked at me skeptically. "What are you saying? Eating pork will keep you from dying of malnutrition?"
"OK, so I'm exaggerating, but you gotta' admit I have a point. Who knows what critical nutrients, essential vitamins, important minerals, and life-saving proteins I'm missing if I don't eat enough meat?"
My decision was tested that night when ham was served. "My luck," I groaned to Gary. "Why couldn't my first transgression be over pork roast or pork chops?"
"What's the difference?" my roommate asked.
"Well, at least they're brown, like the normal color of cooked meat, or black, if it's a steak my mom cooked. Pink meat looks raw."
The reference to colors gave me an idea. "I could make believe," I said slowly, thinking through the implications of what I was about to do, "that the piece of ham is a big slice of salami, which is also red"--except when it's sent through the mail, I passingly thought--"and it's round, too."
Gary looked at me as if there was something wrong with my mind as well as my eating habits. "I don't get it. A slice of ham is bigger than a slice of salami and it's softer, too. How ya' gonna' fool your eyes and your mouth?"
Expectant traders clustered around me for the pending auction.
"No sweat," I said after a moment's pause, recalling my procedure with hot dogs. Gary and the others murmured uneasily as I thickly lathered the ham with dollops of mustard and doses of ketchup until nothing of the meat showed through.
The crowd around the table pulled back, their faces a mixture of incredulity and repugnance. I cut a small, unrecognizable, and dripping slice of--what?--from its bath of multi-colored liquids and slurped it into my mouth.
"What the hell does it taste like?" Gary hissed through clenched teeth.
I swallowed hard, then once again noisily. "I don't know. I didn't chew it." I cut another piece from the unrecognizable puddle on my plate. The few remaining onlookers hastily departed. "It's like eating texture," I told Gary in a tight voice.
" I can honestly tell my folks," I said wetly through a ring of red and yellow lips, "that I never tasted ham." I made a V-for-victory sign with my fingers over the colorful pool on my plate. "I have conquered the enemy," I exulted.
I thoughtfully studied the glass of milk in front of me. "A person needs calcium as much as protein to survive, " I informed Gary, who winced. Buoyed by having solved the pork dilemma, I reviewed possible strategies for overcoming the impasse over drinking milk with meat. "I could close my eyes, gulp it down real fast, and make believe it's thick water."
"Put mustard or ketchup in it," Gary advised sarcastically.
"Feh." My stomach lurched at the idea of converting milk to slop. "Uh, maybe I've done enough rule-breaking for one day," I temporized. "I better stop now before I compound the sin of eating pork by drinking milk with it. The Lord might excuse one infringement of the Law, but not two. Especially when it's eating ham with milk."
Suddenly a solution emerged, one worthy of the deepest Talmudic reasoning, born out of having made compromises over food ever since I came to college. "I could drink the milk before the meal," I told Gary, emphasizing the sequence. "Technically, I won't be having milk with the meat since it's already in my stomach."
Over the years, my life and circumstances changed drastically, but I still tried, with only partial success, to keep some semblance of kosherhood. As an officer in Korea I ordered the Mess Hall orderlies to substitute extra portions of potatoes and vegetables when pork was served. Awaiting me in the barracks were cans of goulash and meat balls shipped to the troops from the kind Hadassah ladies back in the States. On Passover, when Jews are not permitted to eat bread, the charitable synagogue sisterhoods sent boxes of matzos overseas along with jars of gefilte fish and tins of macaroon cookies. The collective conscience of American Jewry was declaring to Jewish soldiers in foreign lands, "You may not be able to keep kosher, but for at least the eight days of Passover 'Thou shall eat appropriately.'"
In the tradition of taking in strangers during the Passover Seder, the ceremonial meal on the first two nights that celebrates the Hebrew's Exodus from Egypt, I shared my largesse with a raggedy lot of orphans, lost children, and abandoned kids from a nearby village on the northern border of South Korea close to the DMZ where I was stationed. The shaven-headed youngsters in black-dyed and cut-down Army fatigues, flip-flops on their feet cut from discarded tires, looked as goyish as non-Jews could. But they didn't have to be Jewish to enjoy kosher food.
I finished my tour, went back to the States for graduate school, got married, had kids, and found a job teaching in a small town in Pennsylvania where we were one of only a few Jewish families. It was too expensive to ship kosher meat from Philadelphia or New York so we bought our chicken, chopped meat, and roasts from the local Krogers. But never pork. Compromising once again, I had become a Reform Jew, like my old roommate Gary, not by conviction but by default.
Occasionally, my children complained about not having bacon for breakfast, "Like all the other kids."
"You can eat bacon when you're at your friends," I sermonized, adept at making deals. "But at home we keep kosher." The problem was solved when ersatz bacon constructed from beef appeared in the meat department of Krogers. The strips were fried in the pan set aside for meat, served on the appropriate meat dishes, and eaten with silverware taken from the drawer boldly marked "Meat" on masking tape, across from the counter with "Dairy" scrawled on it. My kids lacked a formal Jewish education--there was no Hebrew school in town--but they darned well knew they were Jews. Their status was defined by the peculiar rules they followed in our kitchen.
Keeping kosher outlasted my marriage.
I convinced the non-Jewish woman I was living with of the importance of buying a second set of dishes and silverware. Sitting down to dinner the first night after the new purchases, I inspected the correctness of the settings. Satisfied, I made a promise: Next year, if we're still together and she's become used to the idea of two sets of everything, I'll raise the possibility of buying another set of pots and pans.
I looked down at the plate of roast chicken and idly wondered, What would I do if my girlfriend, not yet completely versed in the intricacies of Kashrut, surprised me on my birthday with a special dinner of lobster and shrimp? How would I meet the challenge of rejecting the meal without hurting her feelings? Ketchup would work on the shrimp, I figured, but mustard on lobster...?
I reached over and patted my girlfriend's hand playfully. "What would you think if I started calling you Eve for short?"
Evelyn smiled. "Is that your way of telling me you'd like an apple for dessert?"
from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine