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All in the Family

When keeping kosher is a lifelong journey, your parents are along for the ride

Talia Kaplan
August 30, 2019
Photo: Flickr
Photo: Flickr
Photo: Flickr
Photo: Flickr
This article is part of Kosher Not Kosher.
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The only thing more stressful on erev Passover 2019 than the long line at Call Your Mother, a “Jew-ish” deli in Washington, D.C., was the last-minute texting with my mom asking about my holiday dietary needs. After many conversations about how we could all be flexible yet authentic in our Passover practice, so that we could happily spend the holiday together, I was about to board a train home to Philadelphia. Naturally, I needed to get in those final leavened carbs, and eat them in peace. Yet the limited kosher-friendly options on the trendy treyf menu and the line full of people in Easter pastels made it clear that I may not be the target clientele. Upon arriving home to my Jewish family, I would once again find myself marginalized for my food choices. For as my family sees it, my diet is very religious.

People often think about how kashrut separates Jews and non-Jews, but it also creates divides within the Jewish community. At least, it has for me. My Jewish journey has brought me to rabbinical seminary, where I matriculate this fall, but it has also brought tensions with my family, ones that are not easily resolved.

My earliest Jewish food memory is latkes hot out of the frying pan, being carted to my first-grade class. My mom, armed with homemade applesauce, came to teach about Hanukkah in our predominantly Christian public school. Through food, my mom shared with me her love of Judaism. My mom did not know how to read many of the words in the prayer book, but she had my grandma’s matzo ball soup recipe practically memorized. She helped organize holiday meals with family friends, which became central to our observance. And it was this friend group that primed me to seek out meaningful Judaism in community.

For most of my childhood, my parents kept a kitchen that fell somewhere between kosher-style and kosher, buying hekhshered meat and keeping two sets of dishes, but not checking for other hekhshers, or kosher seals, or waiting between eating milk and eating meat. They modeled these distinctions after my dad’s upbringing; my mom derived little meaning from kashrut but supported my dad’s practice for years. My mom even went so far as to try to have us eat “kosher-style” when we were out at restaurants. Chicken fingers got the green light, but cheeseburgers were a no-go. But that all went out the window one day at a restaurant in Chinatown, where my dad’s father ordered pork spare ribs in front of his three young grandchildren. My mom could no longer reign us in. Treyf did not immediately become a big part of my diet, but my brother quickly became pork’s No. 1 fan and never looked back.

Similar to their relationships with kashrut, my parents had different perspectives on Camp Ramah. My dad fondly remembered his experiences in United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative youth group, while my mom had some hesitations about the Conservative camp’s intense Jewish observance and its brand of Zionism. As a sixth grader, I was just focused on whether or not I’d make friends and if I’d get a bottom bunk bed. I did not yet realize that, after a summer or two of camp, the immersive Jewish experience—including a stricter kashrut practice—would inspire me to keep “full kashrut” when I returned home. Soon, being consistent meant, for me, eating vegetarian at restaurants. How silly, I thought, to have a kosher home but eat unkosher meat out.

But just a few months after returning home from a later camp summer—was it 2009? 2010?—I was back to my old ways. I had decided that a brief stint at keeping kosher did not make me feel closer to God, so it wasn’t worth doing. I then began exploring more restaurants with friends and family and discovered an affinity for certain treyf: cheeseburgers, pulled pork, crab cakes. My parents’ practice had also relaxed; they started buying nonkosher chicken and red meat. Yet they still wanted to have a kosher-style home, refraining from cooking shellfish and pork and keeping separate dishes. I began advocating for eating cheeseburgers at home. After all, the meat for the burgers wasn’t kosher. Why not go all the way?

This juncture was the first time I remember my kashrut practice creating family tension. My father was fine with me eating whatever I wanted out but remained committed to maintaining some semblance of the kosher home. I would not back down on the cheeseburgers. So, my mom got creative. She personally would have abandoned the notion of a somewhat-kosher kitchen but found a way to meet both my needs and my dad’s, buying vegan cheese for the nonkosher patties that we ate off of our meat plates.

This all seemed ridiculous to me at the time, but I would later come to believe that halacha is never all or nothing, and religion does not have to be rational to be meaningful. A few years later, when I was on my own in college, I found myself in Jewish communities with a halachic contingent. I began to feel uncomfortable living a Judaism informed by texts and tradition without having a halachic practice myself. I felt like I should keep kosher. But I could tell this came from external pressures rather than a desire to deepen my connection to God, Jewish community, or tradition. I wanted to avoid making choices—dietary or otherwise—out of guilt, so I held off on changing my practice.

As I spent more and more time in observant communities, I felt a natural pull toward kashrut and slowly began eliminating treyf from my diet. There was no one moment; I just found myself reflecting, wanting to balance intentionality with the principle of na’aseh v’nishma—doing and then understanding. At times, I tried to justify my choices to myself, perhaps an attempt to avoid many of the inconsistencies I experienced as a child. When I was no longer eating nonkosher red meat but eating poultry without a hekhsher, I told myself I was keeping biblical kashrut. It was not long before someone reminded me that we’re not living in the biblical era; our Judaism today is that of the rabbis and halacha, rabbinic Jewish law. I came to realize that we weren’t just living the Judaism of the rabbis, we were living the Judaism of generations of Jews before us. Kashrut became a point of connection to Jewish communities around the world, past and present. Moving away from trying to rationalize my observance, I found meaning in shared ritual.

Keeping the only-dairy-out-version of kashrut, and staying in relationships with Jewish friends who didn’t keep kosher, and with non-Jews, was easy in college, where vegetarian and vegan options abounded. Suddenly, though, eating out with my family during school breaks became a challenge. My differences seemed to be a sticking point. While I felt like finding menus with vegetarian options wasn’t a big deal, family friends began to constantly ask if there was food I could eat. When we would go to the beach as a family, my two siblings and parents shared crab dip appetizers while I alone waited for the entree course. This change also brought up old feelings for my mother, who had for years wanted to stop maintaining a kosher kitchen, only now to find herself having to accommodate a child who couldn’t eat everything she cooked. I had become an outlier in the home and community that were foundational to my Judaism.

In these settings, I was often perceived as very observant, even though that was not how I saw myself; when I spent time in other communities, on the Upper West Side or in Jerusalem, it was the leniency in my practice, like eating dairy at nonkosher restaurants, that put me on the margins. It didn’t register with my childhood communities that the desire to continue sharing meals with them and with my non-Jewish friends was a large factor in my decision to continue eating out.

I’ve learned that, for me, it’s worth navigating these tensions to maintain both my old relationships and my relationship with Jewish tradition. At the end of the day, my commitment to other Jews and to kashrut both emerge from an upbringing that placed people at the center of Jewish practice. Though I no longer practice Judaism the way my family did when I was growing up, my parents’ values, specifically their commitment to community, influence how I approach Judaism today. I follow halacha in part because I experience it as the ever-evolving product of Jewish communities’ interpretation of the divine. So, I will continue to eat in my parents’ home and go out to restaurants with childhood friends. I just might ask that they make a reservation for after sundown on Saturday night. After all, I don’t find God in abstaining from cheeseburgers, but I do find God in community.

Talia Kaplan is a social justice advocate, community organizer, and Jewish educator studying for rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Follow her @tkaplan27.