This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
Kosher kosher kosher!
That refrain lingered in my ears loudly, even years after I left the tight-knit Hasidic community I grew up in.
The necessity of keeping kosher was instilled in me in the most powerful way from a very young age. It wasn’t enough if the food had a kosher symbol on it. It had to be from a specific rabbinical supervision. The company Paskez (owned by Orthodox Jews) wasn’t considered good enough for our kosher standards. “OU” was a definite no. “OK” was only okay for non-Jews.
I was told: “What you eat is what you become.” If you eat pork, you become a pig, meaning you’ll start behaving like one. If you eat from a kashruth certification that isn’t permitted by us, you won’t be accepted by us.
It’s really hard to explain the guilty feelings that followed me around for years. Not long ago, on one of my trips round the world, I stayed at a house full of Gentiles, always keeping in mind that I was different, that I was Jewish. My heritage is engraved in me like a tattoo inked on skin, hard to get rid of.
It was a rainy Tuesday. Everybody’s stomach was growling. After debating with each other what to munch on, we came to a peaceful conclusion: we‘d order five various pizza pies. I made sure to let everyone know that I was Jewish and couldn‘t touch pepperoni pizza or pizza with bacon. So, they ordered one cheese pie specially for me.
The pies were delivered. My friend spread the boxes out on the counter while I was busy in my room. As I walked towards the kitchen, I could smell the delicious aroma of the heavily crusted pizza. A friend of mine started joking with me: “I know you’re Jewish, that’s why I prepared a special pizza with bacon in it for you.” I giggled and continued my way into the kitchen. It was dimly lit, but the delicious smell was like a bright light to my eyes.
I rushed over to the open boxes, opened a box of plain cheese pizza and took a slice. It smelled a little weird, but I didn’t want to come off as a complainer. The odd smell was probably coming from another box.
I finally took my first bite. Interesting. Maybe it’s a little burnt, I thought. I took another bite, and I just couldn’t take the taste.
“What’s wrong with this pizza?” I asked my friend. “It tastes disgusting.”
He asked me to show him which box I took my slice from. Then he burst out laughing. “I told you I prepared pizza with bacon for you!” he said. I ran to the trash can spitting out everything I had in my mouth. My Jewish guilt kicked in. What do I do? I feel like a total Gentile. Maybe I should make myself vomit, get it out of my system before it goes into my bloodstream.
I did get pissed at my friend for joking about a topic so sensitive to me. At the same time though, I decided to let it go, understanding that someone who didn’t grow up the way I did would never be able to comprehend my inner-Jewish guilt. I decided to laugh along with him, and it helped me to grasp the stupidity of guilt.
We grew up being taught that inside every person resides a good spirit and an evil one. The good spirit will always lead you in the right direction, and the evil spirit will try to lead you astray. It’s a constant struggle – and extremely exhausting.
But that day, I realized that I just didn’t have energy for this anymore, that I had to get rid of these spirits once and for all. Enough of this senseless fighting. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, especially when I did something unintentionally against my Jewish upbringing.
So I start talking to these two divergent spirits inside me: “I’ve been nice to both of you all these years. I let you stay inside me rent-free. But now it’s time for you both to leave. This game is over.”
Surprisingly, they did. I asked G-d to forgive me for eating bacon, and for the first time, I felt a heavy burden lifted off my shoulders.