Not Kosher

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Nora Rubel, author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

jewish authors blogI just finished rereading Elizabeth Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen for what feels like the umpteenth time. I assign this multi-layered memoir of a woman’s journey into the observance of kashrut for my class on religion and foodways. Upon completion—every spring semester—I want to throw out all my dishes, kasher my pots, and start all over in a neatly organized kosher kitchen that pays homage to these boundaries that my ancestors found so important. Except that this is myth, one that goes quite a few generations back. My paternal grandparents—Holocaust survivors—taught me to enjoy a good lobster. My maternal grandfather, the grandson of a great rabbi in Poland, had no use for organized religion, let alone such antiquated dietary laws. My parents eat on Yom Kippur. And yet, despite the longstanding ritual impurity of my kitchen history, I am haunted by minor transgressions. I am hyperaware of the cutting board used to slice meat and I will choose a different one for dairy—even if these items will share space on the dinner table.

When I see my mother-in-law drink a glass of milk with a meat meal, I recoil. But is that the response of a closeted kosher girl or just that of a pretentious foodie who believes that milk is not the proper gastronomic accompaniment to a lemongrass-scented beef stew? It is one thing to take on these obligations when there is a cultural context for such behavior, but I grew up with none. Perhaps I am just too lazy to take the leap into what would surely be a downward spiral into obsessive compulsive behavior. My partner and I already have food rules, but ours are more along the lines of Michael Pollan’s recommendations than those mitzvot passed down at Sinai. We make our own bread, buy meat from farmers we know, belong to a CSA, and eschew processed foods. We eat in what we see as an ethical way. But is it Jewish?

Last fall the president of the Reform Movement, Eric Yoffie, suggested a way that it might be. “This is not about kashrut…We need to think about how the food we eat advances the values we hold as Reform Jews.” In the aftermath of the nightmare revelations of the Postville slaughterhouse, one realizes that kosher does not always equal ethical. Yoffie’s—and the URJ’s—Green Table/Just Table initiative requires us to bring back a sense of wonder to thinking about how our food gets to our table. Is factory farmed beef worthy of a bracha? Or is the local pasture raised lamb, slaughtered without a shochet, something more laudable? At least for now, my table remains ritually impure. Maybe it’s not kosher, but I think it’s still Jewish.

Editor’s note: There has also been a significant response among kosher-keeping Jews to Postville. Check out MJL’s coverage of the Tav HaYosher campaign from Uri L’tzedek.

Nora Rubel is the author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. She will be blogging here all week.

Posted on March 22, 2010

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