From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m kind of over keeping kosher. I didn’t grow up with all the Jewish laws, but I had some Orthodox cousins and knew something about what was kosher and not, and my mother didn’t like cooking bacon for us. In college I became more involved with Judaism and felt really at home being more observant. I started only eating kosher meat, which wasn’t too hard because I don’t eat a lot of meat to begin with (and a large portion of my friends were vegetarian).
Now, I’ve been living alone for almost eight months. I cook for myself. My family wants to do a Zoom thanksgiving where we each cook certain dishes and then “share” them while on Zoom. Sure, whatever. But finding a kosher turkey is hard, and for the first time in a while I realize it just doesn’t seem to matter. I’m sure a kosher turkey and a normal turkey taste the exact same. Am I a terrible Jew if I just give up? I keep thinking about buying a turkey and cooking it with butter under the skin, like all the recipes recommend. What would be a good reason to not do this?
Dear Over It,
I’ve been hearing similar sentiments from folks who keep Shabbat and live alone. It’s very hard to go at any sort of restrictive practice alone! And eight months is a really, really long time to be cut off from the communal norms and expectations that ground so many of our lives. So it makes sense that you are lonely and a little bit sad, and that rituals can feel pointless and dumb right now.
So what to do?
Well, first off, there are lots and lots and lots of really wonderful Jews who eat non-kosher food! So if you decide to buy a non-kosher turkey and experiment with a butter-based recipe, you would be in good Jewish company.
But I suspect you already knew that. From your ending question, it sounds to me like you’re hoping to be talked into continuing to keep kosher. I get the sense you’re not frustrated with keeping kosher so much as you are sad that this practice, which had become really meaningful to you, no longer feels meaningful. It’s sort of like falling out of love.
Keeping kosher is, of course, a personal choice you can switch on and off throughout your life. But like most aspects of life, it takes on as much meaning as we’re willing to give it. Building up an ingrained taboo is really hard, and once you break it, it loses its strength. For people who keep kosher and then stop, it can be startling how easily something that once seemed impossible — eating non-kosher food — can become no big deal. You know yourself, so think about whether breaking that taboo that you’ve established, which makes it really easy to wave away proffered shrimp cocktails at weddings, is something you’re okay with long term. If you decide to keep kosher again in the future, are you going to be tempted by a friend’s non-kosher chicken meal? In other words, are you okay with kosher choices getting harder for you if you decide to return to keeping kosher?
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You might also just want something exciting in your life. And to be honest, the idea of eating something previously considered forbidden is exciting! It’s a new experience, in a world suddenly very short on new experiences. So maybe now is the right time to ditch the kashrut thing. But it might be just as effective to seek out other exciting food opportunities. Maybe look up some kosher blogs for unexpected sides, or call a culinary friend for suggestions, or consider some new method, like deep frying the turkey. Maybe locate a speciality butcher who can sell you a kosher duck or goose, or something else unexpected, like venison. The inability to locate a kosher turkey can just feel like the last straw on an awful year where every single thing that brings you joy feels beyond your grasp, so if that feeling is motivating your desire to throw in the towel, then see if finding some other outlet for food joy might put things in a different light.
It might also help to infuse a different sense of meaning into the practice. For years, perhaps, keeping kosher was a practice that gave you communal identification. You could host kosher-keeping Jews in your kitchen, you were the kosher friend at outings, you shopped for Shabbat with all the crowds at the local kosher supermarket. Right now, living alone, keeping kosher doesn’t have meaning as a communal practice. It’s like rehearsing for a play that’s been cancelled. But it’s still something that connects you to the Jewish tradition! Keeping kosher even when it’s hard is a choice with deep roots in Jewish history. You are joining generations of Jews who kept kosher against the odds, often stacked much higher against them than this pandemic. So if you are looking for a reason to still find kashrut meaningful, maybe think about how you can reorient the purpose of the practice in your life.
Judaism, and life, was never meant to be lived alone. The first thing God describes in the Bible as ‘not good’ after creating the world and praising each day of creation, is Adam being alone (Genesis 2:18). It is not good for a person to be alone. You are — we all are — living through something indescribably difficult, and long-term, and the end is not yet in sight. Maybe not keeping kosher will be one way to help you get through it. Maybe you’ll find something else.
But this pandemic will end, and the changes you make will stay with you, so if you don’t really want to stop keeping kosher long term, then take some solace in knowing that you join a long chain of Jewish souls who kept kosher, even when it sucked.
For Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur — every holiday — I stayed home and away from my family. And now, my coworkers are complaining up a storm like you wouldn’t believe about not going home for Thanksgiving. I feel very unappreciated. How can I tell them off, nicely?
Yikes! Do not tell them off! Your coworkers are sad, and making some really hard decisions about how to balance both personal and national safety with not seeing their families. This is not the time to center your own pain in the conversation! Try to offer some wisdom or guidance instead, like explaining to them how you made Rosh Hashanah feel less lonely, or ways in which you tried to include your family in Passover celebrations remotely. I’m sorry you feel unappreciated, and that suggests to me that your workplace wasn’t very compassionate about how hard isolating has been for you during major Jewish holidays. There is a time and place to express that disappointment, but it is not now.
And anyway, by offering empathy and insight you’ve gleaned on how to do holidays at a distance, you will still (much more classily) remind them that you’ve had to do so several times already.
Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I keep kosher but should I just make a normal turkey?