Keeping Kosher Down South — But Not Necessarily By Choice

On the way home from the health clinic yesterday, my cabbie declared how much he loved his lord and savior. While delivering his Sermon on the Mount, he resembled the star of the 1971 movie Shaft—a leather cowboy hat, a skinny beard and moustache and exclaimed, “you should get in touch with Jesus to avoid the devil lurking behind TGI Friday’s.”

In the backseat, I was reading the obituaries from the Roanoke Times: “Geraldine Smith won the battle with cancer and is now up in Heaven with her Lord and savior,” and “Gomer Lynn, man of character, was laid to rest with his lamb and prince this past Tuesday.” I know this is the South — I even accept this is a Christian country.

The following day, however, I got saved from being saved by a Pakistani cab driver who said that the Shaft cabbie shouldn’t proselytize—”we are all entitled to our beliefs.” I mentioned fundamentalists in Pakistan on TV who went ballistic. The cab driver, who spoke in a Southern Virginia-Pakistani accent, replied, “government members get their effigies burned because impoverished constituents have nothing better to do — they are unemployed and riot in the streets full time.” He delivered this tirade against religious militants as locals peered at the renegade Jew and her Muslim chauffeur.

While I am not a devout person per se, I went to the basement of the local Lutheran church (our synagogue is under construction), and encountered Yiddish Yankees from Brooklyn, the Bronx and New Jersey. Thank God, I thought to myself, I have found my people. A lady wearing a yarmulke whispered, “I can’t believe my grandchildren say, ‘y ‘all we reckon Granny’.”

At the services, a South American rabbi, who was visiting our congregation, said, no matter how old you are — 92 or 96 — you can always give up shrimp, lobster and pork. He said the Torah warns, “Don’t trip a blind man”—well we know why we shouldn’t do that. But with shrimp, lobster and pork, it’s faith-based reasoning.

The rabbi also said you don’t need two sets of dishes. Stay away from pigs and crustaceous beings. The truth is: I can live without the high cholesterol of pigs—they are intelligent albeit feral creatures used in genetics experiments at Dartmouth University. I also get grossed out when I see mollusks, crustaceans and echinoderms swimming in Chinatown’s merchant aquariums — why would I want to partake of these oversized microorganisms?

And a man at an AA meeting got offended when I shared my pork abstinence, insisting the Old Testament is stricter than the new one. “I don’t have to give up pork to find Jesus,” he shouted, citing his faith in The Gospels. He rambled while the AA leader was blessing our food at a picnic; though this is a no particular God organization, we are in the Bible belt. Thus, the man giving the benediction thanked Jesus. This made me very paranoid, so I emailed my rabbi that I didn’t want to stir the wrath of non-Jews, but AA is not only a “gentile” organization. He replied, “It doesn’t matter what non-Jews think — they respect you for your traditions and you respect theirs.” This was not the reaction I received, however, when tobacco-chewing sisters near Starbucks stared at my black hair and New York Health and Racquet Club t-shirt and Star of David.

Even rabbis are not without critics. My brother Earl, who doesn’t trust rabbis (he thinks they’re repeating “bullshit” from high-priced rabbinical seminaries), said, “just don’t eat pork because it’s fattening.” And, knowing I am a “women’s libber,” he insisted that “fat is not a feminist issue.” I wrote him back that fat is a feminist issue — that our patriarchal society breeds contempt for women with large stomachs whereas men can get away with potbellies and drinking Budweiser. He got irate and screamed through cyberspace, “Go for a walk around the block — you’re morbidly obese. Forget the rabbis. Forget the feminists. You’re going to get a stroke!”

Whereas my brother Harold, when I discussed the notion of pork, shrimp and lobster self-denial, quoted from a Holocaust writer who doesn’t believe in God and religion because God was not there to prevent the Nazis from sending Jews to the crematoriums. Just the same, Harold wrote, this man practices kashrut (kosher) to spite Nazis.

I even convinced my mother, who is ebullient I’m conversing with a rabbi (it’s like winning the lottery or marrying a Jewish doctor), to not eat pork (she loves sliced Capicola ham in submarines but maintains a kosher kitchen). I persuaded her not to patronize Chinese buffets with their red and orange dyes — she agreed (though I can imagine Mommy, in her white Volvo, sneaking into the Chinese buffet in Jackson, NJ, with a 20% coupon from the Asbury Park Press, pleading with the waiter, “Don’t tell my daughter!”).

I also bonded with a Muslim co-worker over halal and kashrut laws when I emailed her that “I would evict dead pigs from my kitchen.” In closing, I wished her a good Ramadan.

I finally came to the apocalyptic realization that there are no good Chinese restaurants in Roanoke, and if there were, I’d order succulent pork, shrimp and lobster. I am not in love with eggs and grits and sausage or the Thai restaurant downtown. I also know there is an epidemic of Chinese buffets throughout suburbia that has led me to abstain from these three food choices. But if Kroger’s has a sale on lobster, I may cook it myself.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Keeping Kosher Down South — But Not Necessarily By Choice

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