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FRONTAL FREE: Beyond Kitchen Judaism

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

This post isn’t about keeping kosher. A long time ago, around the time of the birth of standards for kashrut in the United States and formations of unions of kosher butchers in American metropolises, there emerged the idea of “Kitchen Judaism”. And while this term means different things to different people, it also evokes different connotations to different people. Because of this, I’ll tread lightly and try to be clear in my usage.

I keep kosher in my own way. At home, I keep separate milk and meat vessels and only bring kashered meat into the house. Sometimes I bring unhekshered cheese home. Sometimes we get pizza and veggies and eat it on paper plates. And when we go out to eat, we restrict ourselves to eating only dairy and fish, unless we’re at a kosher supervised restaurant.

To some of my friends and family, I’m not strictly kosher enough. To other relatives, they’ve no idea why I’d restrict myself at all, as life’s too short and is meant to be savored. But in either case, I’m judged to a certain extent on the basis of my preferred religion-based eating habits.

And that is what I mean by being defined according to Kitchen Judaism.

So often, the politics of Kitchen Judaism prevail in American Jewry. For some of us, keeping kosher may be the last vestige of publicized Jewishness. If I went about my day among strangers and never ate a thing, it’s possible they’d never know I was Jewish. After years in day school, then public high school with a Jewish population over 90%, it wasn’t until college that I lived with and worked with and sang and celebrated with so many non-Jews. And every time the topic of food came up, it became clear to many that I was a Jew, defiant in my dietary practice. From then on, the onus was on them as to how they’d treat me knowing I was Jewish, regardless of whether my level of observance and practice was active or passive. They knew who I was as defined by my level of kashrut, and things would be forever changed for us all.

As a teacher, I believe the Hebrew school classroom should be a bastion of inclusion and sensitivities, of embracing the differences among Jewish students. Kitchen Judaism has no real part in Hebrew school, Conservative or Reform or otherwise. This is not to say that synagogues won’t have policies on food. Nowadays as we all know, sensitivities to kashrut stand side-by-side in most institutions with tree nut, peanut, pollen, dander, and other allergies, with fears of sickness or anaphylactic shock almost superseding fears of using the wrong fork with the cheese.

To me, the concept of Kitchen Judaism is more than divisive, it’s irrelevant. I’ve had students who, after a month of lessons about Passover and the Seder and the Exodus story, come to class during the Chol haMo’ed intermediate days of the holiday and whip out a bag of corn chips for snack. I’ve been to a congregational seder done potluck style, where more than one volunteer brought pasta salad. I also have a very early memory of going to home of an Orthodox friend for a Sunday dinner where they put fake soy bacon bits on the salad. That one confused the hell out of me. But I digress.

My point is that arguments of Kitchen Judaism tend to do little more than alienate us from each other. Rather than allowing us to learn from each other and explore our traditions, they set us up for disenchantment, with each other, our community, and even our own ways of belief. But as a “conversation piece,” Kashrut can become wonderful tool for generating discussion among your students.

In fact, everything in life can be used as a springboard for conversation for kids in class, at home, or anywhere I want to teach about being Jewish. And this is not about relating some object to a story in the Torah or a specific custom that some follow and others don’t. Try to get away from talking about any one thing. My goal is always to get the students to talk about themselves, their experiences, observations, and burgeoning beliefs and ideas in what it means to be a Jew.

I had a sixth grade for a while where the shul was near a 7-11. I’d stop to get a drink to bring with me but sometimes grab something else as a conversation piece. One time early in the school year, I brought in some aluminum foil. I got them talking about keeping kosher, then about how you know if something is or is not kosher, and finally talked about hekshers, the symbols put on food packages by organizations certifying the products as kosher. I pointed out the best-known Orthodox heksher – the “O-U” symbol – was on the roll of foil.

Then I stopped talking and waited. Within 5 seconds, half the class had their hands up. Of course the foil is inedible. So why should something you can’t eat necessitate a symbol used for foods? The conversation turned away from customs of kashrut to the more esoteric: why do folks keep kosher; how else do you express your Judaism openly; where do you think kashrut will be or be changed when you’re in high school or college or maybe married with kids? [Incidentally, these kids would be in their mid-30s now, so maybe I should’ve had them write down their answers. Idea for another blog post.]

Start a conversation somewhere with something, be it an object, an article, song lyrics, even a piece of liturgy tied to an upcoming holiday. But then use that something as a means of generating discussion by the students, among the students, one at a time. Get them to see what they have in common, how they differ, and where their ideas are coming from. Value each answer on its own merit, reminding the class that these are opinions, life experiences, beyond the scope of anyone’s judgment.

We’re here to teach and learn, not judge. And if we can get past the Kitchen Judaism and see the value in our individual traditions, whether they reflect a family history or sense of renewal, these kids will learn not only what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century but, more importantly, what it means to build a Jewish community in America today.

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