April 20, 2007

Yes, No or Maybe - Part 1

Once we answered "why", and had our household policies set and making sense (well, at least to us), it was time to start "Yes, No or Maybe."

I started with the cabinets. All the food was scrutinized, and divided into three groups- Yes, No and Maybe. In terms of food, "Yes" for us="Yay, it has an OU, or a circle K! I recognize this trademarked hechsher, Yay! I can keep *this*!"... then I might clutch the package of food exuberantly, like it was a lost puppy I just found, and happily put it back into the shelf. "No" foods involved reading every printed word on the box, then frantically turning the box upside down, examining all six sides, reading the ingredients and sighing. For a few special foods, it may have involved squinting at the registered trademark symbol, wishing the "circle -R" was a "circle-K". Maybe at 2AM one night I wondered if someone might put a hechsher inside the box... but to my credit I never actually dismantled a box. Really. Nor did the "circle-R" become a "circle-K". All the "No" foods went into a large box labeled "Treyfe" (Actually, I spelled it "Traif"... hey, I'm a newbie. Cut me some slack).

Finally there is the "Maybe" category. For me, there were unpacked goods- raw nuts, craisins and rice... or some expensive gourmet items that I set aside to ask a rabbi about ("I will ask the rabbi about these Bonito flakes... but first I will have to explain to him what Bonito flakes are...")

I started with one cabinet of food and worked my way across the kitchen. My kitchen is tiny, so this wasn't as major a feat as I make it sound. All the non-kosher items were put in the box to give to a non-Jewish friend of mine. Boy was she happy (and confused) to get all this food. She also wanted to know what Bonito flakes were. SIGH. I am quite into exotic foods, so this part was a tiny bit painful. Fortunately, my husband is amazing at finding the unfindable on the Internet, and he kept e-mailing me links to things like kosher miso paste and Reggiano Parmesan.

Then, I put all the kosher products back in the cabinets and found I had s_o _______ m_u_c_h ______ s_p_a_c_e..... I then put the questionable items aside in one little shelf in a plastic Ziploc with a post-it with a "?" on it. I jotted down the items to ask the rabbi.

I did the same thing with our "pantry" (we have our extra food stored upstairs , as there is no classic pantry in our itty bitty kitchen).

Then the fridge. I had one drawer quarantined with "?" items, and set aside space for the "to give away" treyfe. I also put a plastic bag around the treyfe and wrote "treyfe" on it- (well, actually "traif")

And then the spice rack.

And then the freezer. This was the first time I really considered consuming much of the food instead of giving it away. I don't think this is a terrible idea, but some process in me had started that made it feel somehow... counterproductive.

And then I did "Yes, No and Maybe" to the liquor cabinet.

And then... the wine. Deep breaths. This was hard. And this was the second time I really considered consuming the non-kosher goods right there, on the spot. Sequentially in this case. But I just ended up separating the wine out so that I could bring the non-kosher wine to non-Jewish friends. We still have a few bottles left to give away, but they are out of our wine rack and we do not drink these in our home- they are viewed as gifts and we will not bring any more non-kosher wine into the home.

Fortunately, I started the treyfe hunt along with the chometz hunt from Passover (the previous week) so it went by quickly. Plus, have I mentioned that our kitchen is tiny? Once I was done I had a Dr. Brown's Black Cherry soda and went to bed pleased. Phase One- complete.

If you are doing this, celebrate completing this step. And don't hit your husband with the non-hechshered Pillsbury crescent rolls when he brings them in the day after you give away the big box of treyfe.

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.

Drinking from the firehose

It all started about 4 weeks ago. We decided we wanted to have a kosher kitchen. I may be using the term "we" loosely, but maybe not. Originally, it was my idea, but it wasn't a hard sell. My husband's parents and sister keep a kosher home, and it didn't seem like such a big deal to him.

While my sister keeps kosher, I didn't grow up in a kosher home myself. From what I have seen it looked pretty complicated. My experience had been limited to trying to help someone clean up and having them dive across the kitchen in slow-mo, shouting "Nooooooooo!" as I almost put a glass dish in their sink. I grew up in a family whose Friday night meal was most likely Peking Duck- out at Hunan Palace. While we were Jewish, my father's true religion, and passion, was for shellfish- blue crab, specifically. He eventually bought a summer home just to be able to enjoy catching and eating them. He was not thrilled when my sister became kosher, and until recently, when I thought of keeping kosher the first thing that I thought of was his sad little expression sipping the coffee with the non-dairy creamer at my sister's house after dinner. So it was a quite a leap when I opened this up for discussion with my husband. Yet he seemed unsurprised, and even open to the idea.

But the discussion and thinking that led my husband and myself to keep kosher isn't what inspires me to start this blog. The discussion and thinking part were short and matter-of-fact. We were leaving a friend's daughter's Bat Mitzvah- a leisurely drive home. We had a casual, rational chat about the possible benefits of a kosher kitchen for us. From the that point I only remember manic fragments- a black hatted man with a blow torch, an incredible shopping and cleaning spree, phone-stalking my orthodox sister with endless questions, midnight ponderings, color schemes and credit card bills, soul searching regarding the relative importance of take-out, eel sushi and out of town guests... many raised eyebrows on familiar faces and several discarded kitchen items and Tupperware strewn haphazardly about...

And voila- At about 3 PM last Friday, a day short of 3 weeks later- I was admiring my shiny, tiny kosher kitchen. I was happy. I was proud. And I had never done this before.

It is only 1 week later, and I am still getting used to some new habits. I am learning. There are always a few dishes or serving utensils on my fridge, awaiting a verdict, a remedy. But being older than the average newbie, I know that being a newbie at something is a special status. It is something to record and remember. People often pass through their newbie status- being a first-time parent, a freshmen in college, a new classroom teacher- and then, a year later or so, they are no longer quite so green. A year later, you can't imagine how someone can actually *think* about how to change a diaper. A year later it's inconceivable how you used to get lost finding the student center. A year later not only does your voice no longer break when you are teaching for 8 hours straight, you don't remember how *not* to prepare for a class you are about to teach. In fact, I think remembering as much detail as possible about being that beginner phase makes one better teachers once we do master something. But right now I am not looking to teach anyone anything. Right now I am too busy drinking from the fire hose, wondering how to kasher the firehouse, and looking for the hechscher on the firehose.

I just want to record my own learning process and kosher-facation. Maybe I will be able to look back and sympathize. Or see just how far I have come. Or sigh, and say- "what a crazy month *that* was", while I devour my bacon double cheeseburger (I sincerely hope that's not the case). But wouldn't it would be amazing if I find someone else, someone who didn't grow up quite so Yiddishkeit, and isn't orthodox, but nonetheless just happens to be standing in his or her kitchen, holding a spatula in one hand, looking at it, then back at the counter, then back at the spatula again... confused... wondering...