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A Tale of Two Kitchens: How a Nonpartisan Holiday Became Sacred

We have different levels of observance, but my family comes together for one holy day: Thanksgiving

Jordana Rothman
November 19, 2012
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

My two brothers and I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, specifically that particular suburban brand of Conservatism that mandated Hebrew school on Sundays but allowed cheeseburger cookouts at home.

Pork rarely found its way into the kitchen in our mildly observant household, but shrimp certainly did, twirled with strands of garlicky spaghetti or skewered and grilled on the patio. Sure, my siblings and I endured a decade of after-school Jewish education, and our cultural Jewishness loomed large. But we never observed the Sabbath, we never waited until an hour after sundown to break our Yom Kippur fast, and we never, ever kept kosher.

Most of us still don’t. But once a year, we come together for a big family gathering—and that meal, these days, is always kosher. It’s not Passover or Rosh Hashanah that serves as my family’s high holy day, though. In fact, it’s not a Jewish holiday at all: It’s Thanksgiving.

For most people, Thanksgiving doesn’t carry much in the way of spiritual significance, but for us, it’s the time when my family’s Jewishness—and all our distinctive ways of expressing it—becomes the most important. It’s a nonpartisan holiday made sacred for us, largely because of where this feast is staged: in a kosher kitchen, built and maintained by my non-kosher parents, with this very sort of occasion in mind.

It began with my eldest brother. Galvanized by a teacher at the same part-time Hebrew Academy I would later attend, he began circling a religious lifestyle in the mid 1990s, when he was 17. Most kids in our synagogue who continued their Jewish education after their bar mitzvahs were funneled into this school several towns over, but few came out the other end more religious. My other brother and I were students at the academy as well, and neither of us became devout.

But my eldest brother was different. First there was a yarmulke and then tzitzit, the little white fringes swaying beneath the hem of his sweater. Soon he was spending Friday night and Saturday at a friend’s house, where he could ride out Shabbat—we never observed it—and study Torah in peace.

He’d always been a vagabond, though, each shift in music and vestments buoyed by this stimulant or that. In late junior high he’d adopted the kaleidoscopic wardrobe and musky aroma of a lapsed hippie; a few short years later, it was all-black threads, metal on the boombox, and a tormented snarl twisting up his face. In early high school he was given to bully-baiting stunts—in one memorable triumph of pre-Trevor Project bravado, he wore a pretty dress to school, with a sign hung around his neck declaring himself a “poseur.” My mother, infinitely supportive, snapped photos of him in the plaid frock at the bus stop while I stood out of frame, tiny fists thrust triumphantly skyward in support. Although he’s five years older than me—and just 13 months older than our other brother—he and I share a twinlike bond. We operate with a live-and-let-live code that’s always kept us close.

So, for me, anyway, it was a non-issue when he declared himself baal teshuva in the twilight of his high-school career. By his sophomore year in college he had moved into a Chabad house. I spent a few adolescent weekends there, marveling at and partaking of vodka l’chaims (so indiscriminately poured!) and napping through shacharit swaddled in a blanket printed with crescent moons. There I met the wonderful, patient, and generous woman who would ultimately become his wife and my sister-in-law. The house always smelled like a disused fireplace. I liked that.

It was different for Mom and Dad, though. This was not the easy-going Judaism they raised us with, and his religious about-face must have felt like a rejection. At first they wondered if my brother’s Jewishness, like thumb-sucking, was just a phase. But as his piety deepened, his twisty peyes growing ever longer, the reality of my brother’s life choices eventually settled on them like a veil of impermeable dust. Though she never complained about it, accommodating him during winter and summer breaks was taxing on my mother, who gamely made the trip to Teaneck, West Orange, Livingston, and other hubs of North Jersey Jewry, where the appropriate foods could be bought, brought home, and warmed on our only piece of kosher kitchen equipment: an overworked hot plate.

It took years of trial and error before my family reached its own brand of accord. Along the way, we learned the kind of Jewish lessons often glossed over in your average Conservative education environment: about shatnez and negiah, and especially about kashrut. “We respect each others’ peculiarities,” my father said once of our hard-wrought stasis. A clunky kind of tolerance—“you’re weird, but I can live with it”—but tolerance nonetheless.

But there was one area where compromise wasn’t so easily reached. I vividly remember one day coming across my mother folding laundry, the smell of dryer sheets tickling my nose as she tended crossly to the chore. “My grandchildren will never be able to eat in my home,” she said, painting a nihilistic picture of what might befall us as a family. It seemed premature to fret about such things; my brother had no kids—he wasn’t even of drinking age yet.

But sure enough, by the time he graduated college, he was a married man and the bleak future my mother had envisioned began to click terrifyingly into focus. Cuticles were nibbled, courses of action mulled, dotted lines signed, and in short order we moved house: My parents built a dream home, all low-pile carpeting and blonde wood, not two miles from where my brothers and I grew up in northern New Jersey. Its key practical feature: two kitchens, one secular, the other unconditionally kosher.

The second kitchen was completed just around the time I was flowering as a teenage degenerate. Parties—if you could call eight people clustered around a smoldering blunt a party—were frequently conducted in the woods behind my house, in smoke-filled SUVs parked in the driveway, or in the finished basement, my ping-pong-equipped dominion, where the kosher kitchen had been built. Any number of injurious antics were staged during these hazy sessions, but I was fiercely protective of the kitchen. Having grown up freely mixing milk and meat, I was unclear on its governing rules, and so I felt sure that I’d unwittingly destroy it—this toiveled emblem of the careful harmony between mother and son. If I caught someone so much as washing his hands in the kitchen’s holy sink I’d eject him from the house, shrieking teary home-wrecking accusations after him across the manicured lawn.

That passed.

The years rolled by, and I grew more comfortable in the kitchen, conversant in its quirks and ordinances. After I left home for college, I’d plan my sporadic homecomings to align with my brother’s visits from Massachusetts, where he’d made his home. We’d spend hours laughing down in the kitchen, hatching comical plans for penal moon colonies and fake human flesh teppanyaki restaurants. We drank tea and ate bowls of quinoa and stiff discs of frozen Macabee pizzas. I told him once, with black hair dye coagulating in a bun on my head and in sludgy streaks across my eyebrows (a Groucho Marxian effect), that I wished I was as sure about anything as he was of his spirituality. The kitchen was our place, quiet and cozy. It was precious then. Still is.

Soon my brother started a family: There was one child, and then another. When his whole clan was visiting from Boston, I’d head from my home in Brooklyn to my parents’ house in New Jersey to see the kosher kitchen buzzing with activity. I can’t recall exactly when—or for that matter, why—Thanksgiving evolved into a sacrosanct holiday for us. Like most things, it happened gradually and by process of elimination. My brother’s family was typically occupied during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even with the second kitchen, the house wasn’t equipped with enough chametz-free plates and tools to handle Passover. Sukkot would fall smack in the beginning of the kids’ school year. And Hanukkah lacked a certain gravitas. So, it fell, eventually, to Thanksgiving. Neutral territory. Unreligious. Thanksgiving would be our annual, epic-scale family gathering. It would be our high holy day, with its own set of rituals and conventions. And because a segregated meal—this food for us, that food for you—wasn’t in line with the communal spirit of Thanksgiving, it would also be entirely kosher.

A turkey was essential, of course. For years we prepared those awful swollen Rubashkin’s birds, until the Agriprocessors scandal of 2008 shut down the now-bankrupt slaughterhouse. We moved on to Empire, and eventually to free-roaming, organic Wise Poultry. Cream-filled mashed potatoes, pork-sausage stuffing, and buttery pie crusts were out, naturally. (I mourn the loss of dairy a bit.) Instead we had all manner of olive-oil-roasted squash, great platters of softened apples shingled with glazed sweet potatoes, tangy cranberry chutneys, and big verdant salads.

Wine was a problem though—I found the boiled mevushal stuff not fit to thin out a vinaigrette. But I was delighted to learn that most spirits are considered kosher, a discovery that inaugurated my own tradition of bringing bottles of rich whiskey, single village mescals, and herbaceous tequilas home for the holiday. We get good and tight to fuel the long night of postprandial chatter, rehashing of wild stories past, heated Scrabble matches, and the occasional table-pounding niggun.

To furnish this feast, we learned to kasher parts of our much-larger secular kitchen. The self-cleaning option took care of the oven. My mother bought separate grates for the stovetop, the kosher ones marked with a swipe of red nail polish. She found inserts for the sink and cloth coverings for the counter tops. She built up a storehouse of fleishig-friendly recipes. She’d never kept a kosher kitchen as a young woman. Now she’d mastered two.

Word of our kosher Thanksgiving got out. The local Chabad shliach, his cheery wife, and their ever-growing brood caught wind and soon became annual guests. Friends content to forgo the classic holiday staples have joined us, too. To accommodate this new influx of merry makers—and not to be outdone by the traditional two night festivities surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Passover—we eventually added a second day to our Thanksgiving celebration. A whole new crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins comes on Friday for bagels and leftovers, as codified a custom as the Thursday meal.

The whole thing is a triumph of adaptability, a big, belt-loosening testament to one family’s commitment to each other. For awhile my brother’s religious rerouting seemed like it might threaten our delicate peace—a second-act twist too inscrutable for our parents to swallow. We could have splintered, washed our hands of each other, conceded to tense and fragmented family gatherings (or worse, none at all).

Instead we met somewhere in the middle. The kitchen was a kind of armistice, a blue-and-white tiled war room where we reconciled our two very different relationships to the same faith. In that kitchen, pilgrims of a kind, we made it all work.

Jordana Rothman has written for Gastronomica, New York, and Time Out New York, where she served as Food & Drink editor. Follow her on Twitter @jordanarothman.