Personal Stories: Becoming Kosher

If WE Can Do It, So Can You!!
Naomi Lazerow

I was raised in a home where I was told, “you’re Jewish.” That was the extent of my Jewish education. On the Jewish holidays, we went to my grandmother’s and ate the appropriate foods. On Passover we ate matzah but didn’t have a seder. My mother, a widow with four small children – my three younger brothers and me – lived in a non-Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore. We stood out as different, even though we didn’t really know what made us different. My husband Carl was raised in a very assimilated family and attended a large Reform Temple. Needless to say, when we married, we never would have predicted we’d have a kosher home some day.

However, things gradually began to change when our children were old enough to attend Camp Shoresh in Frederick, MD. Under the Direction of the Orthodox Rabbi, David Finklestein and his assistants, Phran Edelman and Tammy Reischer, Shoresh is a very special camp. Campers not only enjoy good old-fashioned fun activities, they learn and live Judaism. The hand-picked counselors are some of the kindest, most polite and helpful teenagers and young adults I have ever met.

As the summers passed, my oldest daughter Lanie became more involved in Judaism. Eventually, she wanted to attend a Jewish Day School. Although we didn’t think we could afford the tuition, generous donations and scholarships allowed us to enroll her for four years of high school. In her freshman year, she decided to keep kosher and observe Shabbos. That meant keeping kosher in a home that wasn’t kosher. Not an easy thing to do, but she managed. Lanie kept separate dishes and I bought her kosher food. When we visited a friend in Martha’s Vineyard for Passover, she even kept kosher there. Although it wasn’t easy to find kosher for Passover foods in the Vineyard, she managed. All of us tried very hard to help her. Gradually we became more familiar with the laws of kashruth. After several months of attending day school, I noticed how happy Lanie was. While I was so grateful to everyone who supported her in her efforts, I realized there was more we could do at home . We knew that by making our home kosher, we would be thanking all those who had helped our daughter.

I spoke to our Rabbi, Morris Kosman, who encouraged us to go forward. In June of that year we took the plunge. The high school provided us with detailed instructions about how to kosher a home. Our Rebbitzen, Mrs. Carol Kosman was also extremely helpful. We removed the non-kosher foods and utensils from our kitchen and then began the process of cleaning. I actually enjoyed getting rid of my plastic containers and some kitchen items. Replacing old items is not something I would have done otherwise. But purchasing new kitchen items was like getting married again. My friends even surprised me with a very wonderful ‘going kosher’ shower, now one of my most favorite memories.

When I was ready, Rabbi Kosman came and koshered in boiling water all of the kitchen items that I didn’t have to throw away. We then made the 45-minute trip to the mikveh in Baltimore to immerse all of our old and new dishes, utensils, pots and pans, etc. It was hard work, but it was also a lot of fun and very exciting. It is now six wonderful years of keeping kosher.

Each year I find more and more kosher products in our local supermarkets. We cheer whenever an old favorite like Oreo cookies becomes kosher, or when I find a new kosher product we enjoy. Before we became kosher, food was ‘all the same’. Now, finding a kosher symbol on a product makes us happy. When we were not keeping kosher we could eat whatever we wanted. There was no difference between one item and the next; nothing was special. Now that we keep kosher, we enjoy being discriminating about what we buy, cook, and eat. Before I prepare a meal, I must think about what I’m doing. It elevates all of us.

In order to purchase our meat every month, I drive into Baltimore. I actually look forward to these shopping trips to Baltimore’s Jewish community since they keep us connected. I often bump into our old friends whom I might not see otherwise.

Several of our friends watched us go through the process of becoming kosher. They were thinking, “if we could do it so could they.” I have now helped Rabbi Kosman kosher at least five homes. Each one was exciting. And it’s fun to have more families with whom to exchange ideas and share meals.

Keeping kosher in our home has been a family journey that has kept my husband and I and our three children connected in a very special way.

“I Did It!”
Ann Stiller

“I finally did it,” I say to myself. After a year of seriously thinking about it, a year that followed several others of feeling completely overwhelmed by the idea, I took real steps. The “it,” as you might guess, is kashering my home. Not that I’ve finished, but I’m well on my way, having gone through two – one supervised, one unsupervised – boiling sessions and made about five trips to the mikvah to immerse my dishes, pots, utensils, etc.

All the work fades away in the face of the pleasure I’m having in my new kitchen. The dulling routine, the undifferentiated tasks have been replaced by new challenges and a new sense of consciousness. I don’t just reach for any old dish; I ask myself, “Now what am I eating? Which dishes do I use?” And in the supermarket, looking for hashgachas (symbols of kosher certification) is more an adventure than a burden. The closest experience I’ve had to this newfound self-awareness in my kitchen is my year in Paris, when everything about ordinary days became sharpened because I had to speak and understand French and live in a foreign culture. My kashering project has a long way to go and I make mistakes, but the road toward perfection (in this case, perfection means feeling sure enough of the kashrut of my kitchen to invite a friend for dinner who keeps kosher) doesn’t seem unfriendly or undoable but rather a chance to learn and take pleasure in how far I’ve come so far. One major source of that pleasure is my 35-year-old non-affiliated son’s interest in, crucial help with, and adherence to the rules of kashrut.

I try to think of what specifically helped me: a course on kosher at Baltimore’s Etz Chaim Center and an important handout from that course, a local Rabbi who sent someone to help me and who called me up and gently prodded me along when I hadn’t gotten in touch with him for nine months, the financial means to buy the new things I needed, a strong son to help with lugging everything to the mikvah.

In closing, I’d just like to say that as I think about the past year, setting my kitchen on the road to becoming kosher is the act that has given me most pleasure and sense of accomplishment. Good luck to anyone who sets off on this road in 5763!

Making the Transition to a Kosher Kitchen
Sara Lonstein Gilbert
Excerpted from a presentation at the JCC, Denver Colorado, August 1999

Eating kosher is now a big part of my life. Over the past several years, my family and I slowly made the transition to becoming kashrut observant. Keeping kosher has added meaning and value to our practice of Judaism, as well as enhanced our Jewish identity and sense of self-worth.

When one gets to be my age, one truly understands that all of life is about relationships — with family members, friends, colleagues, and God. As a life-member of Weight Watchers and a dieter who has tried every diet in the book, it has been a long-standing joke that I’ve been trying to improve my relationship with food. Little did I suspect that my food choices would ultimately enhance my relationship with God and my community.

My childhood home had been kosher until I was two years old. While my mother never cooked pork and we never drank milk with our meat meals, we did have bacon and eggs or a ham sandwich every once in a while. I never knew exactly why we had two sets of silverware. I just thought that we used one set in the kitchen and the other in the dining room. It never occurred to me that it was a vestige from the earlier days.

I attended Hebrew school for a few years and even became a Bat Mitzvah. Although I must have been taught the rules of kashrut there, I honestly thought keeping kosher was something only Orthodox people did. And I didn’t really know any of them anyway.

My husband, Michael, was a lobster man. It wasn’t a special occasion, no matter in what land-locked part of the country we found ourselves, unless he ate lobster. I don’t care for seafood, so while I would eat my beef en brochette, I’d wait, seemingly for hours, while he’d wrestle every morsel of lobster meat from the claws and shell. Throughout Europe, he would eat mussels on the street and savor every local dish. Spanish paella was a favorite. Who would ever imagine that one day we would have a kosher home?

As I look back, I recall we made the decision to eschew pork products. I don’t recall the reason. It must have been that pintele yid deep inside that somehow led us to make ourselves distinct, in this small way, from the rest of the world around us. We said no to ballpark franks, pork and beans, Keebler crackers made with lard, and McDonald’s egg McMuffins. That was our first step. It may not have been earth-shattering. We certainly did not, would not, call ourselves “kosher.” But we did have an awareness about the food choices we were making.

To those who may be considering making the transition to kashrut observance, I strongly recommend taking small steps. Each of us has a lifetime to grow in all kinds of observance. Sudden and radical changes, I believe, can be too overwhelming and difficult and thus only short-lived. The transition to kashrut observance deserves, and even requires, a great deal of thought and self-examination. At times it may be difficult, generating feelings of self-denial and suffering. Go slow! There are many small steps you can take. Judaism is about evolution. As one grows in practice, one can grow in understanding, commitment and real change.

My husband and I raised our family in a beautiful, religiously diverse neighborhood. Our children attended public schools. Our friends included neighbors, fellow PTA parents, Girl and Boy Scout families, soccer and softball team members. We were invited to many parties, picnics and outings. My children learned to ask,” What kind of franks are these?” “Do you have something other than Oreo cookies?” (in the days when they were made with lard!!) “Will you take that ham off my sandwich?”

After birthday parties and cook-outs, neighborhood Moms would report, “Your son asked about the hot dogs. Next time I’ll be sure to buy some all-beef ones for him.” “Your older daughter took the pepperoni off her pizza. Your younger daughter ate only celery for lunch. What responsible, mature and disciplined kids you have.”

Sometimes I heard, “How could you put your kids in such a situation?” “ How can you make them feel so different from everyone else on the block, in the troop, on the team, in the class?” But our kids had internalized the message: “we are Jews and this is what Jews do or don’t do. And this is what everyone in OUR family does or doesn’t do. Everyone has their differences. We tolerate and respect those differences. We are very proud of the way you are and the choices you make.” I truly believe that learning to say ‘no’ in a variety of situations, (and in the process upholding our family’s standards and expectations regardless of whether they set them apart from their friends), taught my children a valuable skill that has served them well throughout their teen years and into adulthood.

Our first step had been no pork products. Our second step was giving up hamburger pizza. One evening my older daughter came home from Hebrew school as I was putting the pizza on the table for dinner and asked, “Mom, how can you do that?” She was right. I no longer could. It was time for one more step: no dairy products would be served with meat. That meant reading the ingredient panels on all packaged foods, looking out for whey and other dairy chemicals in the hamburger buns, and giving up Chicken Florentine, Beef Stroganoff, and Veal Parmigiana. What a sacrifice!!

When we visited our friends’ homes we’d explain, “Only plain chicken for us.” No more ordering milkshakes with our Burger King burgers. We were different. Different from the rest of the kids on the soccer team. Different from many of the Jews we knew. But it felt good! And our children were handling it just fine. Occasionally there was some whining about a cheeseburger. Perhaps it was a test. Perhaps it was self-pity. But we all stood firm and I honestly thought that that was as far as I would ever go. Kosher style was fine for me. I defined myself as a Jew out in the secular world. I was not a ‘far-out’ type person. I was different; I sacrificed somewhat. That was right for me at that time. That is how we were for several years.

Then, my husband decided to give up shellfish. No more lobster. No more oysters Rockefeller. No more shrimp sundaes in Las Vegas. I was very impressed. If course, it didn’t affect me at all. But it was another step.

Our children were serious religious school students. Occasionally they would suggest we try new practices like Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, attending services daily. As a teenager, my older daughter attended Camp Ramah. Upon her return home, she reported that “a summer of kosher eating was just fine! Perhaps we could try it.” “No,” I told her, “it’s certainly commendable, but not for our family or our lifestyle.” As a professional volunteer in the secular community, I entertained often in our home or ate out in restaurants. Only one or two of our friends kept kosher at that time.

Then there were the supermarket advertisements for meat. I liked the prices at the new supermarket. How could I possibly give up the convenience of running in to pick up a steak for a quick dinner? How could I give up the terrific sales on turkeys for Thanksgiving? Corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day? There must have been some reason I found myself drawn to those full-color meat ads, the quality and sale prices I thought I could never pass up. Deep inside, I was readying myself to do just that.

One cannot make a major transition alone or in a vacuum. I don’t remember our friends like Rabbi Eli and Sheli Braun or Linda Sigel-Richman, or others saying anything specific to us. But somehow, they were there. They must have been silent role models. They kept kosher. Others kept kosher. Maybe we could keep kosher, too. United Synagogue’s publication on kashrut was extremely helpful. Its philosophy was appealing; it’s guidelines doable.

We decided to dive in. We hadn’t eaten pork products or shellfish for years. We didn’t mix meat and dairy. We were nervous, apprehensive and insecure. But, after seriously considering koshering our kitchen for over a six-month period, we were ready for the next step. I started to shop for new dishes.

Passover seemed to be the best time to make the change, under the guidance of Rabbi Braun. We piled everything from the kitchen onto the dining room table, cleaned fanatically, made piles of plates and Rubbermaid for Goodwill, and then brought in everything new for Pesach. When Pesach ended, we just continued buying everything new for our kitchen. Amazingly, we now had a kosher kitchen! We were members of a self-selected, fun, intimate club. Our kosher friends ate in our home. We joined a kosher co-op to have meat delivered from out-of-town. We complained about meat prices. We shared recipes. It was good.

And what was even better, if we were making such an effort to obtain special food, at a greater expense, how could we not recite a blessing before we ate that special food? Consequently, we began to say ha-motzei before each meal. And – that led to bentching when we had finished eating. Our lives became filled with an awareness and sense of God’s presence unlike anything we could have imagined.

Nonetheless, our journey was not complete. We continued to eat non-kosher meat outside our home. Given our involvement with secular organizations, that seemed a sensible decision at that time.

Then, our older daughter completely gave up eating treife meat. She had become involved in United Synagogue Youth, attending their conventions and traveling with them to Israel. Our younger daughter spent a summer at Camp Olin Sang Ruby, a Reform camp in Wisconsin. She had elected the kosher meal plan; at mealtime she found herself in the company of the rabbinical students who also ate only kosher. The kitchen was extremely respectful and accommodating of her needs, providing her with the same foods, e.g. chicken, beef, hot dogs, as her friends were eating in the dining hall or on overnights in the woods. When she returned home, she explained that if the camp kitchen could go to so much trouble to provide her with kosher meat all the time, how could she put anything else in her mouth now!. WOW! Were my husband and I impressed! And, we were almost convinced. Two of the five of us were now strictly kosher.

Our oldest daughter provides one more story in our family’s journey. When her history class celebrated the completion of a major project with a pepperoni pizza party, her teacher, Mr. Cosby, asked to speak to my daughter after class. Why hadn’t she enjoyed the pizza, he wanted to know. Although he had heard about her eating restrictions, she then explained her kashrut standards to him and gave him a brief lesson about kosher eating. He asked her about its effect on her social life. Mr. Cosby must have been impressed with her responses. Our 17-year old’s self-discipline and self-confidence to be able to say no to a hamburger was good preparation for adulthood. She had valuable skills with which to go out into the world, to make wise choices for herself in the face of a multitude of temptations and dangers which surely would cross her path. What admiration we had for her!

At their brother’s college graduation dinner several years ago, my two daughters sat at the steak house watching everyone else devour large steaks, as they ate salads and baked potatoes. They uttered not one complaint. On the drive home to Denver from St. Louis, we made our usual stop in Kansas City for Arthur Bryant’s world famous barbecue. Again, three of us savored our beef sandwiches while the girls munched on French fries, (which they had checked to be sure they had been prepared in vegetable oil). Again, no word of complaint.

That was it for me! I was totally inspired by my children! If they could watch the rest of us indulging with complete peace and equanimity, it was time for me to take the next step. That day in Kansas City, at Arthur Bryant’s, was the last time I put treife meat in my mouth. A few months later, my husband came to the same decision – no more treife meat.

That is where we are today. Our steps were slow and deliberate. We only made changes when we were ready. Our transition occurred over several years. We didn’t always know what the next step would be. But the climb had been fulfilling and worthwhile. A new understanding of holiness and sense of community had opened up to us. It wasn’t always easy. We made mistakes along the way. Caution: begin with inexpensive dishes you won’t mind tossing when you put a hamburger on a dairy plate, as I did without thinking one evening, rushing to serve dinner.

What has made our efforts so rewarding is our newfound sense of purpose, awareness and accomplishment. Being a Jew means spending one’s life learning and growing. Becoming kosher is at once concrete and spiritual, mundane and very special, detailed and expansive. The ties it has created for me to generations past, as well as to those in our community and around the world who sustain themselves with the same awareness and understanding as I, are strong and inspiring. As Rabbi Samuel Dresner writes in The Jewish Dietary Laws (The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Commission on Jewish Education), “observing Kashrut demands sacrifice, self-discipline and determination, but what is really worthwhile in life that does not?”

Our Family’s Journey to Kosher
Jay Meyers

My experience of Judaism included Friday night Shabbat dinner, candle lighting and High Holiday services. I attended Sunday school and Hebrew school in order to have a Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation. My wife Bari had a similar Jewish upbringing; however, her family’s tradition was Conservative and mine was Reform.

Three years ago Bari and I moved to Baltimore. Initially it wasn’t easy meeting people but after joining Beth Israel Congregation we began making new friends. As time passed, we connected with the Orthodox community in Park Heights and began reading books about our Jewish heritage. Our exposure to families observing Jewish traditions coupled with the insights we gained from our readings led to our decision to keep a kosher home.

I spoke at length with Rabbis Jay Goldstein and Shlomo Porter who were happy to help us. Rabbi Porter came to our home to kosher it. What an experience that was! Ten minutes before he arrived, a lamp fell over and hit my mouth, breaking two teeth. While holding a towel to my mouth to contain the bleeding with one hand, with the other I helped Rabbi Porter put dish after dish into the large pot of boiling water. My 3-year old son Max watched us with a curious expression on his face. It seemed to say “What was Daddy doing to his home?” Finally Rabbi Porter and I were finished.

Now we were ready to eat in our newly koshered kitchen. The first two weeks were the hardest. It was a challenge to remember in which pot to cook the hot dogs and which spoon to use with the bowl of cereal. Now keeping kosher seems like second nature. When we go marketing, Max yells at the top of his lungs, “Mommy, is this food Kosher?”

Saturday has become a different day; it is now Shabbat. I no longer go to work. Instead my family and I go to shul, and then come home for a nice Shabbos lunch followed by the important “Shabbos nap.” We close Shabbos with the ritual of making Havdalah. Max likes to hold the Havdalah candle and smell the spices. It really is a letdown when our holy day is over. This holy day makes our family different from those who are not Jewish. We have fifty-two holy days each year.

Overnight, our friendships seemed to multiply. People we didn’t even know called to introduce themselves to us. It was really nice. Occasionally we spent Shabbos in our new friends’ homes and got to experience a “complete” Shabbos. Now I feel more spiritual, closer to G-d, than I have ever been. Bari feels the same way. This makes us both very happy.

Each week I try to attend three minyanim to be there for someone who has lost a loved one. Bari and I attend weekly classes with Rabbi Daniel Freitag at the Torah Center in Owings Mills. While the learning has been a great experience, we realize how much more we have to learn.

Our family and friends who don’t keep a kosher home look at us as if we are from another planet. I tell them that they too are Jewish. We are just being more observant. Our new lifestyle works for our family. I don’t preach to others because I don’t like it when others pressure me. We see the process we’ve begun as a lifetime endeavor. We know we still have much to learn.

I would like to include the names of those whose families have enriched our lives and made us happier: Rabbi Shlomo Porter, Rabbi Jay Goldstein, Cantor Roger Eisenberg, David and Aliza Rothenberg, Neil and Ruth Kotzman, Shrage and Tova Friedman.

Deciding to Keep Kosher: Our Daughters’ Heritage
Brian and Karyn Gold

Deciding to keep kosher was part of a bigger picture. We wanted our two young daughters to have a strong Jewish education. Since we were living in Carroll County, MD., far from the Baltimore Jewish community, this was not accomplished easily. Nevertheless, we embarked on a journey which eventually led us to becoming Shomer Shabbos and kosher.

Our journey did not begin as a “spiritual quest.” We simply wanted our daughters to know and love what it means to be Jewish. We wanted to give them a real reason to marry Jewish men someday. Because of our strong feelings, we began to study, taking classes at the Etz Chaim Jewish Learning Center in Baltimore, and learning with a partner from Tele-partners in Torah, a New York based program. (This is a wonderful organization that links people who do not live in metropolitan Jewish centers with a partner who is carefully matched to their needs.)

The next logical step in our journey seemed to be keeping kosher. The first thing we did was to begin learning the basic guidelines for keeping kosher and to separate meat and dairy products. Next we began to purchase only kosher food products. With the help of Rabbi Shlomo Porter, Director of Etz Chaim, we eventually kashered our Carroll County home.

The transition to “kosher” was not as difficult as we had anticipated. Initially, keeping kosher required extra thought and planning; now it has become second nature. Family events and celebrations often presented a challenge; they required us to make a conscious choice about what we ate. The solution seemed to be to bring food from home. When we take family vacations, we also bring along our food. Over time, we’ve perfected our system. For example, we pack a half-baked pizza from the kosher pizza shop and then finish baking it at our destination after kashering the oven. Today, it seems perfectly natural to keep kosher.

Synagogue attendance was another facet of our journey. Initially we found a congregation in our community. However, we eventually came into Baltimore every other Shabbos. Different families in the community graciously opened their homes and their hearts to us. For one year this was our Shabbos practice. Six months into this routine however, we decided to sell our custom-built home in Carroll County and move into the Baltimore Jewish community.

Today our daughters attend a local day school and day camp. Happily, our entire family is continuing to learn how to live a Jewish way of life.

More Experiences
Excerpted from “A Hunger Satisfied” by Shani Itzkowitz, Baltimore Jewish Times, May 2, 2001

After a trip to Israel nearly five years ago, Marlene Daniel was inspired to explore kashrut…She quickly learned that the transition to keeping kosher must be made in a series of super-tiny steps. Take it slow, she was told….Ms. Daniel has kept her kitchen completely kosher for more than four years. Within even that amount of time, she says, she has eased over the many awkward hitches she initially encountered. “I do things more automatically now.” She appreciates no longer having to think where on the kitchen counter she can put down a fork. “I think Kashrut is a learning laboratory for other dimensions of living a good life. There’s a magic to being very conscientious about what we’re eating. What just amazes me about Judaism is that we can take something that’s so mundane and make it meaningful. It makes my relationship with HaShem central throughout the day, not just once a week during services.”

In his junior year at Johns Hopkins University, Eli Fenton kashered the kitchen he shared with four other students. Mr. Fenton says he observes kashrut “because I believe that G-d gave the Torah, and if my Creator asked me to do a few simple things in return for my existence, I’m more than willing.”

Lisa Schiffman, author of “Generation J” writes of her search for meaning as an unaffiliated, post-Holocaust, thirty-something Jew,” extensive research on the laws of kashrut, and a tour of the grocery store in quest of tiny, encircled letter k’s, helped me to realize that “if I became kosher, it would be about finding holiness in the small, mundane places I usually missed. It would be about being aware.”

Kim Isaac, a young married mother of 4-month old Jacob Meier, realized that “if you want your child to grow up Jewish, you have to model some sort of Judaism in your home.” After kashering their kitchen she reported, “I see it (keeping kosher) as another part of my growth in understanding different aspects of Judaism.” Her husband agrees. “I’d like to gain a sense of spirituality, tradition and a recognition of Judaism in our home.”

For some, the hardest part about kashrut is separating meat and milk, while for others it is the prohibition on wine. Every individual’s challenge depends on his “personal biases.” For the Isaacs, the toughest part has been dealing with a fear of offending people who do not observe kashrut. “Even when we have a barbecue, we have to think about it,” says Mr. Isaac. “Sometimes you say ‘bring watermelon’ and they bring watermelon and (non-kosher) chocolate cookies. Generally though, the couple says observing kashrut has been simple. The expense of kashrut has not been an issue, says Ms. Isaac, noting that one can choose to purchase an inexpensive set of new dishes. The Isaacs’ decision to keep kosher links them to a lifestyle commitment made generations earlier, says Mr. Isaac. Ms. Isaac’s great-grandfather, who was killed in Auschwitz, owned a kosher butcher shop in Berlin.

I grew up thinking those leading religious lives were brainwashed and needed external structures because they couldn’t think for themselves,” says Stephen Baum, a high school teacher raised by committed Zionists who viewed religious practice with suspicion. At age 35, a growing sense of religious self-awareness propelled him to begin learning about Judaism. He recalls thinking that “there must be a reason we’ve been doing this all these years, not just inertia and arbitrariness.” Once Mr. Baum began eating kosher, he says, he could “tell the difference – spiritually – in myself. I really felt more open and closer to G-d and I didn’t go in with those expectations.”

Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg helped ease a couple’s uneasy feelings of hypocrisy – how could they keep kosher while not observing Shabbat? – by explaining that each of the 613 mitzvot is a jewel. We simple carry as many as we can, said Rabbi Wohlberg.