Sunday, January 3, 2010

The adventure of a kosher kitchen

Some changes happen at imperceptible rates, others are more visible and seem to avalanche upon us or act like walls, mountains, fortresses of separation. My decision to "go kosher" and the consequential steps of that decision have been both. Did anyone truly take note when I started to exclude shellfish from my diet? (But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales--whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water--you are to detest. Leviticus 11:10) After years of being an on-again off again vegetarian who generally avoided all seafood- including the scaled and finned variety- I could barely even call it a sacrifice. And the most widely known non-kosher animal? An emblem of all things not kosher in the American mind? The pig? I've pretty much avoided the consumption of this creature after my unappealing introduction to pork skins- which are indeed deep-fried puffed-up pieces of skin of a pig. (Thanks, Dad.)

Of course, there is the idea of kosher meat, which is defined not only by the type of animal (Every animal that has a split hoof not completely divided or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you Leviticus 11:26) but also by the type of slaughter. (Not to go into too much detail, but the general way a cow is slaughtered in the US, by sliding down a ramp and having rods gorged through it's eye sockets and into it's brain doesn't quite make the kosher cut.) Again, with my already vegetarian tendencies (At 7 I thought I was having the best hamburger of my life, until my mom pointed out that I forgot to put the meat patty in it.) the avoidance of non kosher meat, regardless of country, shouldn't be too difficult. (However, I decided to wait to adopt this step until I made aliyah to the land of kosher meat.)

Here's my personal challenge: Separation. I must admit that this very common theme in Judaism (the 7th day from all other days, the Jewish people from all other peoples, and meat from dairy.) I alternately struggle with these ideas of separation. Shabbat (literally "seventh" in Hebrew) is a joy to separate and make different. No work allowed, sorry, God said so. (For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. Exodus 31:15) It might sound a little extreme at the moment, but please separate a moment now to say thanks to the creation of what you now know as the weekend. For me, it is a full day dedicated to family, friends and food- with no TV, Internet or phones.

But the separation of food is challenging. It's not only challenging for the new habits, double (or triple, thank you passover) sets of dishes, multiple labeled sponges, dish rags, etc. It's challenging because separation of food means separation of people. One could argue that keeping kosher reenforces Jewish communities- a person is obligated to find a kosher butcher, etc and thus, the community. But what of more worldly yet observant Jews who don't want giant barriers in friendships with non-Jewish friends? I know that many Jews find this balance- I just spend Shabbat with a lovely family whose grandfather is a world renowned physicist. He and his wife have managed to keep kosher in many places around the globe and seem to do it with upmost joy. Surely an inspiration.

But back to separation. This is a part of kashrut (or kosher laws) that many people are less aware of. And, one of the more challenging aspects, at least for me.

The Rabbis have taken this pasuk (verse in the Torah) and ran with it. It has become that no meat is eaten with dairy. If physical separation were not enough, a temporal one is also invoked. After eating meat one must wait somewhere between 1 and 6 hours (depending on one's family's tradition) before consuming dairy. (I've opted for 3 hours. It seemed the happy medium.) And, a Jew keeping this commandment needs, so say the Rabbis, separate dishes, pots, pans, utensils, etc. in order to avoid any accidental mixing.

So labels are a good idea.

Side note- food in judaism is divided into four categories- traif (unclean and inedible), meat, dairy and parve (being edible but neither meat nor dairy. Fruits, vegetables, eggs and fish fall into this category.)

Also, all the dishes must be "kosher" or permitted. The Rabbis ruled that certain materials absorb the flavors that were in them. Ceramic dishes must be new- one they have touched both meat and dairy, or anything traif, they're done for. So, before leaving Bangladesh I sold all my ceramic dishes (okay, that was a sacrifice) and bought three new sets- meat, dairy and passover. Metals and plastics must be boiled.

But, pots and pans that have used to cook traif meat or mixed meat and dairy- they get a blow torch treatment; which took place in my living room. (Let's just say I wasn't the calmest person on earth with the blow torch being waved around my living room. )

After all the fun of burning and boiling, glass and metal items need to be taken to a mivkah for dishes. (a pool of water that has a natural source) and have a prayer said over them and be dunked. I happened to do this around midnight with the help of a guy a never met before but who insisted he wanted to be helpful. (Another guy, who helped me move my furniture put us in touch.) He was, indeed, very helpful.

So now, I'm in the process of washing everything (by hand). Basically everything is getting submitted to the soapy sponge. (Color-coded of course.) And I'm labeling my kitchen items. (Because, you KNOW I do not want to repeat any of this process again!)

And I've borrowed a book to help me out with the technicalities of separation.

As far as the more personal aspect of separation- like my favorite pastime of cooking with friends- I don't think there is a book to help me with that one. I am inspired by Jews who observe kashrut (keep kosher) and still travel to their hearts desires. I originally planned to avoid this internal confrontation for a while by hanging out in the land of kosher kitchens and restaurants for an extended period of time before voyaging back into the not-so-kosher world. But, I'm Texas bound in 8 days. I guess finding my equilibrium (albeit a temporary one) will happen sooner than later.