When I was nine or ten years old, not long after my family started to keep kosher, we went to a hotel up in the Catskills for Presidents’ weekend. It was a skiing resort, basically, and it was kosher. I’ve worked hard to block out the skiing portion of the trip because it was truly harrowing, but there was also an outdoor ice skating rink, and an indoor pool, and a theatre where the last gasp of the Borscht Belt came to perform. But most of all, there was the food. They made fake scallops from halibut, cut into rounds, and whenever they were on the menu, that’s what I ate. The waiters were convinced I was lying about my age, because I could have had a hamburger and French fries, or spaghetti and meatballs and I chose this?
But I’d grown up on seafood, at my best friend’s house; mussels and clams and lobster and crab legs were normal for me, and I missed them so much.
I discovered fake shrimp when my school took us on a class trip to a kosher foods expo when I was twelve. The fake shrimp was at the first table as we walked through the door. It didn’t actually look like shrimp, more like a distant cousin. And it was sweeter, and didn’t have the right texture. But I loved it. It had been only three or four years, by then, that I’d been without shrimp and lobster, but it felt like a lifetime. And just the idea that someone in the Jewish world seemed to feel my pain, and wanted to offer me a substitute, felt very kind.
There is a lot of internal conflict within the Jewish community about how to keep kosher. I couldn’t have school friends over at my house in junior high and high school because my family’s level of Kashrut was not high enough for the orthodox kids. We had only one sink and one dishwasher, so that even though we had separate dishes for meat and milk, they were all washed together. We bought strictly kosher meat and cheese, but we only waited an hour after a meat meal to eat dairy, and my classmates waited six hours.
I would like to give the ancient Jews the benefit of the doubt that the purpose of kashrut was to look out for the health of their people, by avoiding pork which would have carried trichinosis, and using salt to drain the blood from meat to preserve it. They were also thinking about the most humane way to kill an animal for food, and checking carefully to make sure their people would not eat meat from an animal who may have been diseased. But over time, other things were added in by the rabbis and sometimes it’s hard to know why.
How did “don’t cook a calf in her mother’s milk” become don’t eat any dairy for six hours after eating any meat? Not only can’t you eat meat and milk together at the same meal, you can’t, ever, eat them on the same dishes. Just washing the dishes with soap and hot water between meals is not enough, you need to have separate dishes, and pots, and pans, and utensils, and silverware. Wine has to be watched over to make sure it hasn’t been used for a sacrament in another religion, which would make it unkosher for Jews. (Wine, it seems, absorbs blessings more tenaciously than any other substance). And what the, pardon me, freaking hell is Cholov Yisroel? Jewish milk? Really?
When I hear about gluten free diets and wheat free, nut free, dairy free diets, and vegan and vegetarian and lacto-ovo, and only organic and no preservatives…I think this is probably what it was like with the early Jews. Everyone had their own weird rules around food and the rabbis wanted to put everyone on the same diet so they could eat together. Because that’s what it’s all about, you want people in your community to trust each other and eat in each other’s houses instead of each family eating alone in their own homes and guarding their own individual rules. The fact that kashrut has become one of the primary things that separates different groups of Jews from each other was probably not what the rabbis had in mind.
My current synagogue is a lot less strict than what I grew up with. I would call it “kosher style” or “Kosherish” if I were going to give it a name. No one is bringing in crab or pork or non-kosher meat into the building, but food can be brought in from homes or restaurants where non-kosher food is also prepared.
Our rabbi waxes nostalgic, not usually during services, about side trips to discover lobster flavored ice cream (disgusting, just so you know) and Philly cheese steaks (much better!) on his way home from one religious conference or another.
From early on, my father insisted that my brother and I had to try all of the foods he remembered from his childhood. We’d go to a kosher delicatessen for turkey and chopped liver on rye, or knishes, or knockwurst, or hot pastrami with mustard. I assumed that Jewish food was always kosher, and that any food served in a kosher restaurant must be Jewish, like Moo Goo Gai Pan, and sushi.
One day, my father brought home ptcha, calves foot jelly, a cloudy white mass served with lemon juice, and it was abhorrent (much as you might think). Then there was Kasha Varnishkas – buckwheat with bowtie pasta, which tastes kind of like sawdust and dirt, with onions. Stuffed cabbage was better, because we could remove the slimy cabbage and just eat the chopped meat and rice mixture inside.
The kosher butcher always has aisles of things to try – like potato knishes, and blueberry blintzes, sour pickles, Israeli pickles, Gefilte fish, Matzo ball soup, noodle kugel, and kishka (which used to be made with cow’s intestine and stuffed with yummy stuff, until they realized that no one could get past the intestinal coating and another coating was chosen). The last time I checked, though, they did not sell kosher dog food. This was the excuse orthodox families used, when I was growing up, for not getting their kids a dog: animals bring treyf into the house.
My father tried to make that argument at our house as he became more religious, and we said we were fine with feeding Delilah, our Doberman pinscher, all of the steak in the freezer, if that’s what he wanted. Delilah was also a big fan of hamburgers and brisket and grilled chicken breast and sausages. When there was no steak left in the freezer for my father’s Friday night dinner, he gave in on the anti-dogfood argument.
If Cricket could decide what was kosher and what wasn’t, I think she’d outlaw kibble altogether. She doesn’t believe in the need for fiber or a balanced diet. She would also declare that all meals should be shared with your dog, or else the meal will not be considered kosher. If you eat that whole pancake, and your dog has not had at least two bites, you have sinned.