Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Confessions of a Shiksa Foodie

I just want to get this out there before you tag along with me much longer. You have to know what a crazy woman I am and here goes my biggest confession yet to date:

I love food.

Yep, that’s it. I don’t think you understand the sheer amount of joy I get from eating. There is hardly anything better in the world than relishing each flavorful bite of a wonderful meal. My favorite candy is a secret weapon that only two people in this world are privy to, and my happiness levels skyrocket whenever I encounter anything potato. Bottom line, I’m pretty sure there’s a little fat kid living in my stomach who does a happy dance every time I give him something to munch on.

One of the things I struggled with when I went home this break was being surrounded by mouth-watering, non-kosher food. Bacon with breakfast. Christmas ham cooking in the oven. And dear Lord, those loaded potatoes. Mind you, I also helped make some of this food. And it stayed faaaar away from my mouth.

I find the laws of kashrut and the kosher lines that I draw tend to crisscross, intersect, and get a little fuzzy. Sometimes, I make choices that I regret and am later ashamed of. I present you with three such cases.

Last year- I wandered into the dining hall, looking for dinner and not expecting much. I was ravenously hungry, but I knew better than to think I would see anything worth eating. I end up making about 50% of my meals on campus and was still clutching the remains of my lunch in my hand. I was just getting ready to turn around and make myself a sandwich back in my dorm.

And then they brought it out.

The most delicious, steaming tray of pasta I had ever seen produced by my school’s cafeteria. Long linguini noodles bathed in some sort of creamy sauce. It looked like a picture out of an Olive Garden menu, and I trailed after, casually stalking my prey-soon-to-be-dinner.

The server placed the tray in the heater and propped a little name card in front. “Lingiuni pasta with clam sauce.”

Clam sauce. My hand was halfway to the serving spoon already. Immediately, the excuses began flooding my mind. Well, it’s shellfish not pork I can make this one exception once if I say a brachot over it maybe it’s still good? I debated with myself for a quick five seconds before scooping it into a to-go box and making off with my spoils.

Fast forward two months- I’m out to eat at Red Lobster with four Jewish friends. They know that I am converting but not yet Jewish.

They all proceed to order from the menu and begin recommending dishes to me- shrimp bathed in this, crab alongside that, etc. I want to pipe up and say that I keep kosher, but I felt as though it wouldn’t be taken well. My friends, who have been Jewish their whole lives, don’t want to hear that I am keeping kosher and won’t eat their food. They might think I am trying to out-Jew them.

So, I put on a good face and order the crab something or the other. Mmm, delicious I tell them. I resent myself a little with each mouthful.

Jump to two days ago when I ordered roast beef and accidentally got a ham sandwich instead, which I did not realize until I was back in my office. I’ve been carefully budgeting lately because I have a limited amount of money, and there’s a while until my next paycheck comes in.

After the first bite I realized two things- 1. Ham is not as good as I remember and 2. I’m going to finish this sandwich and even bring home the leftovers so that I’m not wasteful.

It was that night that we talked about the laws of kashrut in my conversion class, and I slunk down into my seat, guiltily thinking about the half a ham sandwich crouching in my fridge and whatever remains still sitting in my belly.

I’ve been thinking about the laws of kashrut and why we keep them. Certainly not because health is still a concern- the animals are now cleaned and prepared just as any other would be. Certainly not because G-d will smite me if I do not (if I die from a lightning strike tonight though, y’all know what happened). And certainly not because the high priests tell me to. Darn it, I thought. Why do I keep kosher? What happens if I don’t?

All the mitzvot are here to help. Here to help us lead better lives, interact peaceably with others, and treat our bodies right. I thought about all the stupid exceptions, all the times that I’ve slipped up and felt like I was doing this Jew thing wrong. I love good food and want to enjoy it. Feeling guilty about what I’m eating just sours the whole meal. So how can I make peace with my desires and my morals?

I don’t really have all the answers. Each day I try to redefine who I am and what I put into my body. It’s not easy. When I cook for myself, I have no problem making kosher meals because I only buy kosher ingredients. It’s eating out and eating at home that still trips me up.

All I know is that G-d doesn’t want perfection. He just wants goodness. Keeping kosher helps me achieve goodness because it makes me mindful. It keeps me honest. It reminds me to be careful about what I put in my body. As long as I’m doing that, it’s all kosher with me.

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Not Quite Ripley’s: Hidden Righteous Ones

When I think of legends, I think of King Arthur. I think of knights that could have been, men that might have been, and ideals that were certainly real enough to be tangible. Legends shape the world we live in today and linger on in traditions and rituals.

Our visiting rabbi talked about Jewish legends this past week, and he said you could believe it… or not. Up to you.

He focused specifically on legends surrounding Jewish wedding traditions. While many people are familiar with wedding traditions, we don’t always know why we do them. We have a modern interpretation attached to each symbol, but Louis Ginzberg offers us a world of demons in exchange for our own fanciful explanations. According to Ginzberg, Lilith plays quite a large role in our weddings. For those of you who have not heard of this demon woman, type her name into Google. You’re in for a treat.

Getting married under a chuppah? Breaking the glass? We claim that one symbolizes the home to be and the other represents the destruction of the temple and the sadness of the Jewish people. For Ginzberg? The chuppah is a circular, enclosed space to keep the demons out. A veil hides happiness from wicked ones, white  shrouds a living form and masks the true nature of the occasion… And a shattering glass wards off all lingering demons at the sidelines, allowing the married couple to make their quick exit.

We’ve abandoned these old myths for prettier stories. Even as I heard them, I thought to myself It’s just a legend. But isn’t there always a part of us, the small part enthralled by a ghost story, that wants to believe? We hold out hope for fictional characters because their emotion and their struggles are so very real to us.

It’s just a legend and you don’t have to believe anything.

But what if…

There’s always a what if.

There’s another legend in Judaism, one that our rabbi did not cover but I learned about recently, about the tzadikim nistarim, or hidden righteous ones. Some simply refer to them as the 36 men who will save the world.

They don’t “save the world” in a superman sense, but they represent the best of humanity, spare G-d’s wrath, and uphold righteousness. At any one time, there are 36 men living who care for the Earth, and as long as they are alive, G-d will not destroy the world.

And they don’t even know who they are.

A true lamed-vavnik (as they are sometimes called for the Hebrew letters that represent the number 36) is too humble to even consider that he may be one of these special men. If he becomes aware of his true identity, he either dies or the task passes on to someone else. No matter how ugly or cruel the world becomes, as long as these 36 men live, the world will be spared.

This concept of the few righteous sparing the entire world goes back as far as Abraham’s bargain with G-d for Sodom. If 10 people could be found in the city that were good, the Lord would spare everyone. Abraham won the argument but lost the city.

The morals of Abraham’s argument and this legend shape who we are. We never know when we might meet one of these men (or women) or if we might be one ourselves. So, we live AS IF we are one of the hidden righteous by being the best people we can be. Our actions perpetuate the teachings of the legend without necessarily admitting that we know 36 really awesome people who just happen to be keeping us alive. And did I mention? Legend says that one of these 36 men could become the Messiah.

So believe it or not, the lessons of legends impact how you live your life.

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