I did. Eat forbidden foods! Yes. I confess.
I was born into a strictly kosher home. Among the equipment in my mother’s kitchen was a slanted board, in constant use, that enabled Mom to kasher meat by soaking and salting it. She was fastidious about doing that, and I remember that when the kashering started to be done by the kosher butchers, what a relief it was. Like getting a refrigerator instead of having an iceman, dripping water spots all over the house. A job that had to be done and was being done, but by someone else!
Growing up in our house was a Jewish experience. The food was not only kosher but it was also traditional. Chicken soup. Matzah balls. Kugels. Brisket, flanken, roast chicken, stuffed cabbage, breaded veal chops, and Mom’s famous meatballs. Chopped liver and gefilte fish for erev Shabbat appetizers and homemade mandelbrot for an occasional dessert. As Mom could never stand the smell of herring, it was the only typical food I can think of that never entered our home; my mother’s distaste for that smelly dish remains permanently embedded in me, even at age 82. I have never tasted a piece of herring.
Mom’s cooking was predictable, very Ashkenazi Jewish, and delicious. Mom never would have looked at a cookbook of gourmet cooking or French cooking or anything esoteric at all. She knew what her family ate and there were never cooking experiments or surprises. Today would she have been serving chummus or even the now prosaic chicken schnitzel? I imagine the answer would be yes, but I’m not really certain. Old habits often remain in place.
It was the same with all my many aunts and in the kitchens of my friends’ mothers. I never tasted pizza or any of the enormous variety of non-Jewish cooking. No shrimp, no lobster, no bacon, and no cheeseburgers. Kielbasa, what’s that? Sausage? Just the word sounds decadent. Newark had sufficient kosher restaurants to accommodate us on the very rare occasions when we ate out. Very rare occasions!
That was how I grew up in Newark, and my husband, living across the rivers in the Borough of Brooklyn, grew up the same way. When I started visiting with his parents, the people might have been unfamiliar but never the food.
So how did two kosher kids start experimenting, or let me be honest, eating treif? It was a long time ago and I honestly don’t remember. Maybe guilt is what makes me so forgetful. But we went treif pretty much all the way, except certain categories were excluded. We never ate pork, not on principle but pigs are really filthy and disgusting. But you couldn’t say that about shrimp or lobster. Oysters and scallops were very unappealing, but a nice thick filet mignon, cooked rare, was actually quite delicious.
I told my children, years later, when we were entirely kosher once again, that for them kashrut came naturally since they had never eaten non-kosher food at all. They didn’t know the sublime taste of a Maine lobster claw, fresh from the sea, dripping in butter, with a squeeze of lemon juice. It means nothing to them. Totally unimaginable. But for us, to have given that up is a true moral commitment. Knowing the temptation and not yielding is surely a more major step than never knowing it at all. If that’s rationalization, so be it. I cannot change what I cannot change!
So for the very early years of our marriage we were not kosher, neither in the house or out of it. No barriers except the self-imposed, and only because the offerings were not tempting. When our parents came to visit we served kosher take-out on disposables and never discussed the unmentionables in the freezer.
One clue that this might not be a forever phenomenon in our lives was when we went to a kosher deli with our only non-Jewish friends, my college classmate Gay and her husband, Frank. It was a date night and the deli meal followed the movie. Frank ordered a pastrami on rye. No problem there — but with, and it’s still tough to get the words out, a glass of milk! Clearly he was clueless and the waitress easily finessed him by saying they were out of milk, avoiding embarrassment.
That was pretty uncomfortable and actually led us back to kashrut forever. So we kashered everything and have been fastidiously kosher these last 60 years or so.
But in answer to the question of why be kosher at all, is it a remnant of ancient culture and archaic laws of food safety, is it the humane way that Jews slaughter animals? Is that why it was written into the Torah? I know very well that we can intellectualize all of the rules and laws that our Judaism demands and find rationales for some of the more abstract or unclear. It’s pretty obvious that we shouldn’t commit murder, but eating ice cream with a hamburger is a more complex conundrum.
With kashrut I have my own explanation and you are totally free to dispute it. I never proclaimed myself a Jewish scholar and I am definitely not! As a matter of fact I confess that I am a yeshiva drop-out.
I believe that observing kashrut will connect us to our Jewish roots. Whether it be during college at Hillel or Chabad house or elsewhere on our Jewish journey, what we eat and whom we eat it with will bind us together in a commonality that will strengthen our community throughout the generations to come.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!