a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Kosher That Works For Me

Posted on: April 28, 2011

In conversion class we’re studying Jewish Texts; Talmud, Mishnah, Torah, etc.  Chatting about “putting a fence around the Torah” inevitably turned into a discussion on kashrut, that caused us to run late (again).  I challenged Rabbi K. about why she makes the decision to keep kosher; why eat only kosher foods when she could eat organic or sustainable food and have a larger impact on the food business at large.  She’s kept kosher her whole life so it’s what she’s used to, a part of her and her identity.  Kashrut laws are something I feel both compelled towards and at the same time have huge issue with, bacon love aside.  Rabbi K. said that I should look into Eco-Kosher and perhaps, just perhaps I’ve found a way to be Erika Kosher.

An older Jewish gentlemen in the class noted that maybe in another 2000 years the Talmudic writings would include laws of kashrut that we were discussing at the table.  Sustainable foods, Local Foods, Vegetarianism, etc.  If I got to write my Kosher Laws, which I sort of get to do because let’s face it my way of keeping Kosher isn’t Kosher at all.  My Kosher Laws would look something like this:

1-Kosher Packaged Foods.  This is actually pretty easy because I try to purchase Kosher packaged foods already.  It gets tricky when thinking about Milk and Eggs.  My milk and eggs are not kosher; I get them from the Farmer’s Market and I’m okay with this.  Ethically it’s more important that my eggs and milk are coming from a farm that’s in the vicinity rather than choosing milk and eggs that happen to be kosher.  My flour, spices, butter, peanut butter, etc. are already kosher and in most cases organic.

2-Meat and Meat & Milk separation.  This one is tricky for me because there’s nothing I love more than a burger with blue cheese.  I don’t actually understand how the idea of boiling a kid in it’s mother’s milk = don’t eat a cheeseburger or wait 6 hours between meals.  Rabbi K. explained that the actual separation of milk and meat may have occurred when Jews went from being farmers to buying their meat and milk at a market.  When we were farmers we could be sure we weren’t “boiling a kid in it’s mother’s milk” because we knew the goat from its kid…still I have issue with it.  This may be one of the harder areas for me to wrap my head around.  I love linguine alfredo with chicken.  A chicken doesn’t produce milk, though so…is that a loop hole?

In terms of actual Meat I also tend to either only buy meat from the Farmer’s Market or Organic Meat, I have a real problem with buying, say Tyson meat.  If I can’t afford to purchase the farmer’s market stuff then I opt for organic.  There is Kosher Organic but it tends to be really expensive.  In terms of fish, again, I prefer to buy open-water fish that’s been caught in an ethical way.  I don’t buy fish that are over-fished and I’ve yet to find a Kosher Fish Market that doesn’t turn my stomach because of the overtly fishy-smell.

I also am a little confused about which parts of the animal you can eat.  What do the kosher butchers do with the rest of the cow/goat/sheep?  If you can only eat certain parts, I hope they’re giving the rest to other companies…but how are those other folks treating the meat?  Nose-to-tail butcher practices is not just a “new trend” but a more practical and useful practice.  If you’re going to sacrifice the life of an animal, we should at least use all of it, right?  The questions keep coming and coming. 

3-Shellfish, Bacon, and other Treif.  This is probably the last area that I’ll work on and will definitely be the hardest part for me.  I love bacon (on my cheeseburger) although I’ve found lamb bacon which probably comes from the wrong side of the lamb.  I love mussels.  Oysters on a half shell with horseradish.  I love lobster.  I love scallops (wrapped in bacon and sizzled in butter).  I love shrimp cocktail.  Unlike folks who’ve kept kosher their entire lives giving up food things that are tasty, enjoyable, and flavors that I’m accustomed to will be very difficult.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible and I’ll never be able to give up bacon, shell fish, or the desire to try interesting meats like Ostrich it will just take a while to get me to that place.

4-The Kosher Kitchen.  Another area I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around.  I don’t want to be that”crazy” person that scolds a friend for using a parve plate for their steak.  I don’t want to have to rap a wooden (parve) spoon across my partner’s fingers for using it to scrap meat bits down in a pan.  I can’t fathom buying extra utensils and pots and pans and I find those little labels to be a little bit tacky.  I get how warming up plates and utensils opens up the different molecules and therefore allow the meat or milk products to seep into the plate but if I’m making the effort to put only kosher (or organic) food on the plate does it matter that last week I used the plate for a dairy meal?  Can’t I just use boiling water between washings and keep all of the same plates and deal only with the separation of wood utensils?

5-Family and Friend Outings.  I live in NYC, because of that fact I’m surrounded in any borough at any time in any season by at least a dozen amazing places to eat.  Menus that offer pickled meats, fish, veggies, braised and glazed meats and treats and foams to boggle the mind and alert the senses.  I don’t eat to live but I live to eat (maybe it’s a bit of both).  I don’t want to turn down an invitation to a barbecue or reservations at a restaurant for fear that I can’t eat the food.  I also don’t want to to a BBQ or Restaurant and be forced to eat a salad because everything else on the menu is non-Kosher. 

6.Organic/Local Veggies vs. Pesticide-laced Kosher Fruits and Veggies.  There are only a handful of bugs that are acceptable to eat while keep kosher.  They’re listed in Leviticus if you want to check which ones are OK.  To prevent those non-kosher bugs, a lot of Veggies and Fruits are treated with pesticides or examined to assure that the fruits and veggies are bug-free.  Personally, I’ll take buggy veggies over treated veggies any day.  I can wash it myself.  Mirs and I are planning on joining a CSA this year for our produce and regularly shop at the Market for produce.  I’m happy to support local farms and farmers but by doing so I can’t be sure that the wrong types of insects aren’t in my food.

I’m realistic.  I know that I won’t have what an observant Jew would consider a Kosher Home and I’m OK with that.  I also realise that making this decision, for real this time, means that I have to take smaller steps then when I attempted to keep kosher a month into the conversion process.  I have to be aware that there will be slip ups and cravings and that I’m only human and can only handle so much.  Rabbi K. said a few things about her kashrut that still have me thinking.  She keeps kosher not only because it’s what she’s known her entire life but because it keeps her mindful of who she is as a Jew.  She also keeps kosher because it keeps her mindful of what she puts into her body.  Kosher food isn’t “cleaner” it isn’t “holier” it isn’t “better”, but there is a connectedness to Jewish identity when you keep kosher.

It sounds like I’m building up why I can’t keep kosher but I hope that it just means that I’m finding ways that keeping kosher will be meaningful to me without compromising my food politics.  I like rolling these ideas around in my head and spilling them out for you to consider as well.  I will have to make decisions about meat that I eat and food that I buy and will think more about the ecology of my kosher vs the stringent laws of kashrut but I think I’m in a place to at least start step one.  Only Kosher Packaged Foods.

7 Responses to "Kosher That Works For Me"

I’ve been working on it for a while now (over a year) and yesterday I touched meat and went right over to the dairy side of the sink to wash my hands. So yeah, slip ups are unavoidable.

The non-kosher parts of the animal (like the sirloin steak) are sold to non-kosher companies. They don’t get wasted.

I’m not sure what you are talking about when it comes to kosher vegetables?

I’ve always read that you have to check your fruits and vegetables so that they’re free of bugs. In one of the Kosher Grocery stores in Brooklyn they have kosher, or checked veggies in a section of the produce. As well as signs on vegetables that have not been checked.

Ah, okay. I wondered if that is what you meant. We do not have that here as far as I have seen. We have to check ourselves.

From a completely non-Jewish perspective, I do have to say that I find some of the Leviticus and Deuteronomy laws incredibly sensical, some very B.C.E. Jewish culture, and some just baffling. If a hare is all one has to eat as they starve in the desert, which takes precedent? Staying Kosher or not doing something to ensure your survival? A.k.a… eat the damn rodent. I suppose the answer to that may be eat it if that’s all you have, and make sure to keep it in mind for Yom Kippur.

I also understand that it technically doesn’t matter why God said not to eat it. The point is, don’t. This isn’t matter of life and death like Abraham asking God to not destroy Sodom if there’s one good person left. It’s just, ‘don’t eat this, and don’t complain.’

Personally I’ve been looking into the Noahide laws recently. It’s been an interesting thing to investigate, but the answers range from just listing the seven, to a Chasidic website that states beyond the seven laws, there are also hundreds of mini or sub laws attached to them. Too many hundreds and you start getting close the number 613, so I don’t know if that’s actually true or if the author/branch wants to see more mikvot for everyone to follow.

From what I can see, even from the Chasidic website, is that kosher isn’t really a part of the Noahide laws. That means that in this aspect, Jews will still really stand out from everyone else if their kosher habits were known. And this concept of everyone having a different kind of Kosher is something I’ve just not heard before, but is incredibly interesting. If buying non-organic and non-local foods is a serious moral issue for you, then it does sound like that is a personal kashrut for you. How fascinating, and even… liberal. I suppose Reform Judaism does have the reputation of one of the most liberal of the branches…. except maybe reconstructionist, which is a completely different sort of ‘liberal’ in my opinion.

(btw, that Judaism essay of mine is finally finished. If you’d still like to read it, Erika, I can send it. :) )

Yes, send it :) blackgayandjewish@gmail.com I can’t wait to read it.

For me all 613 mitzvot are understandable daunting. I also am not one of those people for whom the Torah is the word of God and therefore you do it because you’re “supposed to”. That whole “supposed to” part of any faith is what I would call “lazy” faith because to me (at least) it should have meaning. Things like not killing some one, okay but something like kashrut has to mean something to me…which is why I pick at it, I turn it around, I try to see it from different angles and the way that I feel about food and how it is sourced and where it comes from is definitely more meaningful and possibly more spiritual for me-therefore Erika Kosher. It’s not Kosher it’s kosher (little k)

[...] by this post heading that I am not currently keeping kosher.  It is something that I’ve struggled with for over a year and something I do not yet have reconciliation for.  Relevant is a difficult [...]

[...] finally figured out Erika Kosher.  You can read about the process I went through here and here.  The way that I keep “Erika Kosher” isn’t halachically kosher and I’m [...]

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