April 20, 2007

So How Kosher Are You?

Apparently there are so many ways to keep kosher. Someone might argue that whether something is kosher or not is pretty exact- and "certifiable". But these certifying authorities differ, and some are accepted by certain communities while others are not. Maybe there as many ways to keep kosher as there are Jews. I don't know. I was bewildered by all the options.

Should we keep "ingredient kosher", and make sure things that enter our house only have kosher ingredients (checking the ingredients of each product)? Or should we require a hechscher, a certifying authority, to make sure that not only the food's ingredients are kosher, but that it's preparation and the equipment used to create the food are also kosher? Should we make sure our milk is from a dairy with Rabbinic supervision and certification? Should we only use bread from a kosher bakery, one that observes special rules about separating challah? Should we only buy our kosher prepared food from places that observe Shabbat? What about fish? Should we get it from a kosher fish-market? And what's the deal with swordfish?

All of the answers to these questions vary depending on who you ask. And these are just questions about food- I havn't even mentioned the myriad of questions I had regarding the kashering process. I was overwhelmed. Could I keep kosher and maybe keep the Sauterne? What about the bonito flake? What part of being kosher was I giving up if I did?

Many people keep kosher because that is how they grew up. For them, it may be easy to do what they saw their parents doing- what they have always done. For some, the reason is because "G-d said so". They most likely can consult a rabbi and get an immediate answer, one with no shades of grey. For people like me, people who had developed a distinct preference between clams casino versus oysters rockefeller by sixth grade- becoming kosher is a major lifestyle change- and one that may at first feel about as natural as riding a bike in a scuba suit. When I think about what was done in my house, I think of using nutcrackers and picks to get at the good part of the crab claw, or watching my Dad experiment with beer and vinegar in the water for steaming littlenecks.

I struggle with getting the answers that are correct and appropriate for us, and our lifestyle. It also doesn't help that we are still "shul shopping" in our area, and haven't really committed to a specific congregation to understand what the norms of that community are. I asked the Rabbi at a conservative temple we sometimes go to- but I didn’t get an immediate response. I don’t want to make huge generalizations that are going to get me in trouble, but this particular conservative rabbi didn’t seem to regard the questions I had about kashrut to be pressing (he didn’t return my calls). So I called in the “big guns”- that’s right- the Chabad. They had immediate and absolute answers to my questions in a heartbeat- and were ready to be at my door with blowtorches as soon as I said the words “new at this”.

However, we are a work in progress regarding our own level of observance. We still dine out at non-kosher restaurants outside the home. We are not strictly shomer shabbos. So I also have to wonder... how does all this affect the level of kashrut in our home? We are pretty sure we are going to join a conservative, not orthodox, synagogue. But even that communality alone isn’t my “design spec”. We have family and friends, and we want to be able to accommodate a nice range of guests.

My mind flooded with all of this while I stared down at the beloved non-hechshered aged Parmesan Reggiano in my hand and thought about the wedding we were going to that Saturday afternoon... was I giving up the cheese to persue elusive guests that wouldn't dine in my home because I would go to such a wedding? Where should I draw the line to get the results I want, and at what point am I just giving up things that I don’t need to give up? What are the results I want? What to do? Whom to ask?

It was time to come up with what engineers call a "design spec". A "design spec" is prioritized list of your design goals, the fundamental reasons why we wanted to do this. We had to know what the driving reasons versus the nice benefits. This was important when coming up with household policies and standards. We needed to know what we would be able to give up, and to what end.

While we aren’t just making our kitchen kosher just for guests, the more generalized reasons, such as the personal and cultural, can be derived to some extent from any level of kashrut. For instance, you can expose your children to concepts of keeping kosher and give them a sense of Jewish identity by just saying “we don’t eat pork”. It is hard to come up with a "litmus test" for such a goal. Only my husband and I can determine if our level of kashrut is fulfilling how we want our children exposed to Jewish dietary law, if we are comfortable with how much cultural background we are providing in our home.

These reasons are important, but do not provide direct "design control" or help answer the kinds of questions I described above- such as whether to be “ingredient” or “hechscher-only” kosher. For us, the question of who we want to accommodate helped us narrow down specific policies on the nitty gritty questions.

My sister is an amazing resource for me in all of this (and many other things as well). She is orthodox and has kept a kosher home pretty much since she got married and moved out of the house we grew up in (20 years now?) She is active in her community. Over the past few weeks, I have her on speed-dial. But she can't answer many of these things. She can tell me what the orothodox standards are, what the conservative might be, and that I should ask my rabbi (which I don't really have yet)... so through her I could find out the "gold standard" and that there may be some wiggle room in other communities.

We realize that there would be some people that would never come and eat in our home because of our level of observance- or for other reasons. This is fine. We just needed to be clear about what we were doing and why.

I wanted to have our kitchen as kosher as possible even if we weren't as observant in all other areas of our life. I regard our overall observance as a work in progress. It can change. But I also think those decisions are not irreversible, and should not compromise the level of kashrut in our home. And some of these lifestyle choices are not simply solved in a quick conversation- as did our decision to kasher our kitchen. Bigger changes could come with time, but the process for such changes will be different, as will the motivation behind them.

As for the kashrut of our kitchen, I figure we can always become more lenient, but I have discovered you have to give up a lot of Tupperware and ceramics and possibly even china (gasp!) to work your way "up" to a stricter level. We wanted to start off with a pretty high standard of kitchen kashrut.

These design goals led us to following "conservadox" (nearly orthodox) rules regarding kashrut in the home. I will go into the details and policies in subsequent posts. And I will welcome commentary and correction to my understanding. But for now, I am sharing the tool of "design spec" for kashering your home- especially useful for us kosher newbies. I cannot stress enough how helpful it is has been to sit down and uderstand why we are doing this- and how these reasons directly translate into the policies we adopt.


Ari said...

Kosher Sauterne is available. http://www.kosherwine.com/cgi-bin/ProductInfo.asp?WineID=10097
At $72 per bottle, it isn't exactly cheap, but I don't know how much non-kosher Sauterne goes for.
I have a bottle, but I haven't tried it yet...

cwexl said...

O. My. Goodness.
I hope it's delicious and you drink it in celebration of something great.
When you do, please let me know how it is.

spotter said...

you can get it a little bit cheaper in teaneck