Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kosher


We'll go back what seems a thousand years with this one. Suffice to say, I did start bringing home pork chops, bacon, and crab. And where you see the words "my husband," insert "ex." 

In my late twenties, after much study and soul searching and what not -- admirable, but my goodness, how earnest we are at certain stages in life, and for heaven's sake I was also busy raising toddlers -- I converted to Judaism. To sum up: while I still believe that Jewish theology is correct and that the Jewish intersection with the divine is humanity's only fully authentic one, I learned something from my experience that pretty much defines "rock and hard place." The denomination of Judaism most open to converts is of course the most modern, protestant branch, Reform. That's where I found myself. But any convert to any faith is temperamentally not a protestant. He doesn't want what's "watered down." He wants the old stuff. Any convert goes knocking on doors because he has read old books and been attracted to old, capital O Orthodox ways. But it's that community, the Orthodox, which is least open to converts, and rightly so. As time went on I learned that I had and have no intention of leading an Orthodox Jewish life anyway. (I submit that I gave it a pretty good try for a while.) I just think they happen to be mostly right about the big things. God and man, what happened at Mt. Sinai, and why we're all here and how we should behave toward one another.

The ancient rabbis laid it down that the identity of a proselyte lasts through the third and fourth generation, and I think they were wise to say so. I went to temple and took my children with me, regularly, until over the years and through one thing and another, I decided that sitting between this rock and this hard place was getting too uncomfortable, and the Master of the Universe would have to be content with the fact that I had certainly meant well. Does that sound insufferable? It's okay. Judaism lets you argue with God.

Now, the funny thing is that one area in which Judaism -- orthodoxy, even -- still intersects with my life is in the realm of food. I learned all the kosher laws and I applied them as fiercely as I knew how to my dinner table, at first. No pork, no shellfish, no mixing of meat and dairy products. A cheeseburger is not kosher, nor is veal parmigiana, nor are all those meatloaf recipes calling for a half cup of milk or some melted butter. Technically you shouldn't even put butter on the dish of vegetables you are serving with a meat meal. Technically there are people who won't eat a dairy dessert within six hours of eating meat ("No, thank you, I'm fleischig," I've heard them say). It's all because the Torah commands, three times, not to boil a kid in its mother's milk, and the ancient rabbis made it their business to extrapolate more law from the written law, always seeking to fully understand and obey more and more details inherent in God's will. They extrapolated that Jews must not only avoid the practice in question, but refrain even from preparing or eating meat and dairy products together. As far as that problem is concerned, I used to huff that it seemed our non-Jewish friends had, over the aeons, deliberately thrown milk and cheese into as many meat recipes as they possibly could, just to be offensive. And all this is not to mention the special kosher laws for the holidays, and special laws even about slaughtering and about what cuts of permitted animals are themselves permitted. My husband (who put up with all this for aeons) and I eventually used to joke, as I flipped through ordinary cookbooks looking for something I could make, that there are probably recipes out there for crab-stuffed pork loin cooked in milk and sprinkled with cheese -- "and it's probably damn good!"

There's the rub, or the place where a kind of orthodoxy still intersects with my life. Having self-trained so conscientiously, I haven't prepared bacon or pork tenderloin in years, and I kind of think now I'd like to. Over the years I have relaxed every other aspect of my kashrut observance, and have eaten interesting things "out," but I have not yet taken the plunge backward you might say, and brought home pork chops or "country ribs" to cook for the family. Yet I wonder -- typical Reform-er! -- why innocent pleasures that were forbidden by a desert people thousands of years ago have to remain forbidden now. Life is short. Those country ribs are tasty. Lately I have had a hankering for pancakes and bacon with real maple syrup, which is (pardon the pun) an absolutely divine meal. But besides having self-trained, I also brought up our children to observe at least a little of the kosher laws. So I balk at setting out before them things that I used to say "we didn't eat." More earnestness. I sprinkle cheese on my spaghetti and meatballs, now. They don't. I josh that "after all I haven't boiled a kid in its mother's milk, you know," and I remind them that our ladling of meat gravy over mashed potatoes made with milk and butter was itself never kosher. Rationalizing? Or approaching the whole subject with a humane-ness that is deeply Jewish? The identity of a proselyte lasts through the third and fourth generation. I am a proselyte. They were not.

Another wrinkle is that, in the last several years, we have become a family with two serious food allergies. My husband has celiac disease and our daughter has become lactose intolerant, which means that now when I flip through cookbooks, I am looking to avoid gluten -- noodles, flour-thickened sauces, bread crumbs, and so on -- and any cream, milk, and cheese. Throw in the kosher laws about pork, shellfish, and meat and dairy, and you have a family that can basically eat, together, a lot of chicken and rice. Beef, potatoes, and vegetables are also okay. You have a family whose dinner quandaries would make any life-loving, food-loving French gourmet throw up his hands in despair. Life is short. So much is so tasty. And as a blogger I am now by way of being a food professional, so it bothers me that the recipes I post are kind of heavy on, um, chicken and rice.

What to do? I used to harrumph in agreement with the (usually Orthodox-penned) Jewish books which noted that people will follow fad diets and health diets as if the flames of hell awaited transgressors, but back away from the kosher laws which carry no sanction for violation except "thou shalt be cut off from thy people." Yes, I thought. How weak people are. To be more afraid of Dr. Atkins than God!

I fear bringing on the effects of gluten and lactose allergies. Violating the kosher laws just brings on guilt, which is not the same experience as giving open sores and deep intestinal cramps to family members. As for being cut off from thy people, well. They're still there. I'm still here. I question how profoundly we ever met. And another funny thing -- the whole scenario is just a riot -- is that, as I have told my children, it's not really the case that all treif foods are so delicious. Bacon is fried salt and chemicals. Pigs are raised so lean now that pork has little more flavor than a factory-grown chicken breast. It's just that a willingness to eat it opens up useful recipe possibilities. Nobody makes chicken breast with sauerkraut, beer, and apples. And crab ... well, there you have me stymied. I remember crab being very good.

And I've forgotten to mention wine. Wine. It's all treif, all of it from Carlo Rossi Chablis to Chateau Latour '61 to all that Spanish-bistro airen to the nineteenth-century Madeiras in historic Charleston cellars. Not kosher, unless it was made under rabbinic supervision and says kosher on the label. The point of the kosher wine laws was to insure that Jews in antiquity did not seem to endorse paganism by drinking a wine made by non-Jews, and therefore very likely intended to be poured out in libations to a god. That was all. Wine, for its own sake, was always a good thing.

And wouldn't you know it? This morning I was thinking of preparing for myself a secret breakfast of pancakes and real maple syrup, and maybe just a couple of slices of bacon from that package left in the fridge. Life is short. The kids are at school. Who needs to know? Dr. Atkins?

No such luck. It was gone. I had my usual cafe au lait and bread and butter, guilt-free. It was pretty tasty.

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