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.
I just finished rereading Elizabeth Ehrlichâ€™s Miriamâ€™s Kitchen for what feels like the umpteenth time. I assign this multi-layered memoir of a womanâ€™s journey into the observance of kashrut for my class on religion and foodways. Upon completionâ€”every spring semesterâ€”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 grandparentsâ€”Holocaust survivorsâ€”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 dairyâ€”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 Pollanâ€™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?