These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Falling off the Kosher Wagon

Posted on February 24, 2014 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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From Ma'ayan Dyer's (Spring '12, Spring '13) blog:

1010931_10151759117826934_1200120848_nEven before the completion of my conversion three years ago, keeping kosher seemed relatively simple and came surprisingly easy. Sure, the BLT was my favorite sandwich once upon a time, and the spectrum of the many delicious treyf Italian meats were a goyish treat that I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying no to if offered the chance to partake in their consumption. But other than that, ham has never been the most appealing of meats to me (it looks a little too…human), and I found out rather quickly that, apart from the occasional but incredibly strong craving for the forbidden seafood of my gentile youth, there were still plenty of fish in the sea, so to speak. I used to think of the burger as being woefully incomplete without a slice of melted cheese, a concept that has now become so foreign to me, that I find myself wondering just what it was that I saw in the cheeseburger in the first place. Even keeping separate dishes came to me with ease; crossing a meat utensil with a dairy one by accident was a rare occurrence, and when it did happen, I would notice my mistake immediately (think of your first childhood reaction to that horrible buzz that comes with failing to successfully remove the wishbone in a game of Operation…man, I hated that game). Even with so many new restrictions to my eating habits though, I took to keeping a not too lax degree of kashrut the way a Polish bubbe takes to whipping up a bowl of matzo ball soup during Pesach. It just felt natural.

Since the beginning of my Jewish journey though, keeping kosher represented so much more than just doing what my rabbi told me I should do. I liked the idea of putting religiously mandated parameters around my eating habits; it seemed to infuse even the most mundane and ordinary day to day practices, such as eating, with significance and meaning. It also became a marker of identity for me. The more Jewish practices that I began to adopt as my own, the more I felt like I was becoming my true self. For many of us who have chosen this life, conversion certainly does feel like stepping into a role that we were born to play. For me, adopting Jewish practices into my lifestyle helped flesh out that role more completely. I’m not saying that this is true for all Jews, by birth or by conversion, but I certainly didn’t cross the BLT off of my diet just because I’m into self-denial and masochism–there’s something rewarding in it for me, even more rewarding than the pleasure of eating tasty food.

Keeping kosher came even easier while living in kosher households during and after my conversion, especially after living in Jerusalem for a year and a half, where I would actually have to go out of my way to fall off the kosher wagon (or go to Tel Aviv for a day). Now that I am back in the States and currently residing in a place with a very small Jewish community and living in a non-Jewish home for the first time since my conversion, I have begun to compromise my kosher eating habits along with the rest of my Jewish observances, little by little. Having a kosher kitchen is not viable at the moment. Keeping separate dishes is also not only impractical (not that there is anything “practical” about it in the first place), but would create a hassle that would involve unwilling participants in my household. As a result, I have modified my kosher diet a bit here and a bit there. I still won’t eat treyf animals, I still will only eat certified kosher meat, and I don’t mix my meat with my dairy. It may seem like the kosher-lite diet, but when you lack a community, Jewish practices start to fall to the wayside. The system-shock that comes from the change between a vibrant Jewish life in Jerusalem, to the lackluster reality of living as the rare Jew in Anywhere, U.S.A. also has the unfortunate effect of feeling like such practices start to ring hollow. It also has the side effect of stubbornly holding onto what you’ve got until the situation can feasibly change; I have to eat to survive, so keeping kosher is what I’ve got. But then there was The Hamburger Incident.

The Hamburger Incident, as I have come to think of it, involved me, my persuasive hunger for something not mashed together into a patty to create the illusion of real meat, and my now fluorescent exasperation with my living situation, which has disrupted what was a satisfying Jewish existence in the Holy Land. I had conceded that eating at non-kosher restaurants would not weigh too heavily on my conscience but that eating non-kosher items would, so I would just eat vegetarian or permitted fish when eating at such a place. This was something that had been my practice before I moved to a place where kosher restaurants are more than just a nice idea. So as I stared resentfully at the veggie burger option on the menu at a local burger joint one particularly frustrating day, I suddenly heard myself say, without even really thinking it through, “I’ll have a hamburger and fries, please,” to the lady behind the counter who had no idea of the inner-turmoil those seven words had suddenly sparked within me. I stopped short of ordering a cheeseburger, although the thrill of considering doing so made my heart thump as though I was getting ready to rip my clothes off and streak through the place with my hair on fire: “I’m not supposed to be doing this! This is wrong! This is bad! I’m breaking the rules! Wee!”

As the kind woman at the counter passed me the fittingly plain, conspicuously trying to look inconspicuous brown paper bag, I felt like we were conducting a public drug deal. Not looking her in the eyes as she cheerfully thanked me for my business, I snatched the bag from her outstretched hand, and got out of there as though I couldn’t flee from the scene of the crime quickly enough. I got into my car and drove back home with every muscle in my body rigid and tense as the heavenly aroma of the burger filled my car with the clear evidence of my transgression.

I ate my meal in my bedroom with the door closed, like a criminal hiding with stolen goods. It was delicious, and hit the spot like no other meal had in a long time. I savored each bite, and the whole event was over much too soon. How could something wrong feel so right?

After the meal though, guilt and remorse started to set in. Not because I had fallen off the kosher wagon for the first time in years—it happens, and it isn’t the end of the world when it does. Indulging in a treyf treat on a rare occasion wasn’t really the issue for me. It was the fact that I had crossed a line that I insisted that I not cross for my own sense of well-being. It’s like having a cigarette after going for months smoke-free. Maybe it’s one slip-up, one moment of human weakness, just one step back. Or maybe it’s the one thing that leads to another, and before you know it, you’re buying another pack, knowing full well that it won’t be your last. Remember when you said that last time? And sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I had a treyf steak. And so that important sense of self, true identity, and deeper meaning begins to fade a bit more. The line begins to blur. The feeling of liberation is replaced with a sense of unease. Is this going to be my life now?

I am not writing this piece to look for sympathy from Jews who are satisfied with their degree of observance, strict or lenient, or from Jews living in situations where they can comfortably live their Judaism with the support of a community and not having to constantly explain and excuse themselves for their practices. The Jewish world has experienced significant anxiety for generations over how easy it is to lose one’s identity in the assimilation of living in the non-Jewish world. I am not saying anything profound. Perhaps I am just confessing my own anxiety regarding a loss of Jewish identity and the fear of the encroaching reality of re-assimilation. I’ve been on both sides of that fence, and really, while I don’t mind visiting, I don’t feel at home on this side. Home is where you can be yourself without feeling like it’s a battle.

I miss being myself. I want to come home.