My older brother, Jake, was called to the Torah almost 19 years ago to the day. As he chanted in Hebrew to our congregation, he wore a yarmulke on his head and a tallit around his shoulders, while a photographer snap-snap-snapped photos, which we can no longer find.
I still remember the bagels: everything, sesame, pumpernickel, onion, poppy seed—but not blueberry, which we didn’t believe in—piled as high as the clouds. Cream cheese, scallion–cream cheese, more cream cheese, more scallion–cream cheese. Lox, herring, whitefish salad. Oh, the whitefish salad!
But this is all besides the point.
As Helen Leneman writes in Bar/Bat Mitzvah Basics, “bar mitzvah is not what you have” (i.e., bagels), “it is what you become” (i.e., an adult). Bar mitzvah means son of the commandment. According to the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, when a boy turns 13, he becomes responsible for the religious doctrine. (Bat mitzvah—daughter of the commandment—wasn’t a thing in America until 1922.)
Though Jake was wearing a suit he’d outgrow in a year, had neon braces, and no facial hair, he took this adult thing seriously. Sometime in the months before the ceremony he announced that he was going to adopt a kosher diet, for a year, to get closer to God.
“But what about bacon?” I asked.
The night after he became a bar mitzvah, my family threw a rager at our favorite sushi restaurant. The adults drank sake. The teenage boys talked about—what do teenage boys talk about? And I strategically sat next to a platter of shrimp shumai, which I shoveled in my mouth by the handful.
I almost offered one to Jake when I remembered, things were different now. More for me, I thought.
“Kashrut (kosher) refers to the Jewish dietary laws outlined in the Torah and Talmud,” Leah Koenig writes in The Jewish Cookbook (which published in September and has already been deemed Genius). “Throughout history, these traditions have shaped the way Jewish people cook and eat.”
Kosher dietary laws are as numerous as they are complex, but here are the big ones: Don’t combine meat and dairy—in a dish (like a cheeseburger) or at a meal (like a burger with a glass of milk). Don’t eat shellfish. Don’t eat blood (think black pudding). Don’t eat any mammal that chews its cud (ask Google, I don’t want to get into it) but doesn’t have cloven hooves (say, a camel). Don’t eat any mammal that doesn’t chew its cud but does have cloven hooves (for example, a pig).
In especially observant kitchens, cooks keep separate dishes, utensils, appliances, and tools for meat, dairy, and pareve (foods that aren’t meat or dairy, such as eggs, fish, grains, fruits, and vegetables).
My mom had zero interest in an especially observant kitchen. While some families say a prayer before dinner, she liked to remind us that we were welcome to “eat it, or don’t!” In other words, I cooked dinner, you didn’t, if you don’t like it, make yourself a bowl of cereal.
So she and my brother found a middle ground: My mom would not distinguish dishes, utensils, and appliances, nor would she go out of her way to buy meat from a kosher butcher (two things he wasn’t adamant about anyway). But she would adjust family meals to separate meat and dairy, omit shellfish, pork, and any other off-limits animals.
Until my Nana Ethel got married, my whole family was kosher. This was 94 years ago. As my grandma tells it: Ethel and John were newlyweds, Ethel made brisket, John wanted buttered bread, one thing led to another, and the next thing you know, they were frying Taylor ham for breakfast, like heathens.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
But what gets me most is the Taylor ham, aka pork roll. According to anyone from New Jersey, including myself, pork roll is the greatest breakfast meat of all time. It’s savory, fatty, and salty, with a Spam-like texture and circular shape. You fry it in a pan, like bacon, until its edges are crispy; then, if you’re my grandma, you pile it on an even crispier English muffin.
After learning about how my family’s kosher traditions disintegrated, I couldn’t help but think about a book I read a few years ago called Matzo Ball Gumbo. In it, Marcie Cohen Ferris documents how Jewish food traditions and Southern ones contradict each other at every turn:
“Southern Jews were tempted by regional foods that are among the most delectable dishes in the world but also the most forbidden by Jewish standards.” Think pulled pork, shrimp po’boys, lard biscuits, and so on.
And so Ethel was tempted by Taylor ham, and temptation won. Her mother, Bertha, was so distraught about this that when Ethel cooked Taylor ham, Bertha left the house, and only came back in when it was gone.
As he does, Jake achieved his goal, and stayed kosher the whole year after he became a bar mitzvah. And the year after that. And the year after that. And to this day.
For the five years that my family lived together until Jake left for college, our cooking changed. We tried turkey bacon, which was upsetting, which led to no bacon at all, which was also upsetting. We stopped preparing roast chicken with butter, tried margarine, didn’t like it, switched to olive oil, realized we liked this best of all. We switched from pepperoni to anchovies on our pizza—everyone actually ended up happier with that one.
What used to be the hardest meals, the holidays, turned into the easiest ones. Sure, you’re preparing food for a bunch of people (I don’t know if you’ve ever fried multiple rounds of latkes in one go or assembled a seder plate from scratch, but it’s no joke). On the other hand, we didn’t have to worry about who could eat what. On those days, we were all on the same page—Jewish, in one way or another.
When I asked my brother why he stayed kosher all these years, he told me, “At the time, I was trying to get more in touch with my faith, and find ways to integrate religion and heritage into my daily life. Now, that connection to Jewish culture is much stronger than seeing it as a matter of strict religious ethics. There are lots of rules in Jewish texts that I don’t follow, and plenty have a more obvious moral basis than not eating pork or oysters.”
Ironically, it’s a similar reason why I don’t feel the need to become kosher. I’m proud to be Jewish, mostly because when I make the same brisket or latkes or potlagel—or, yes, Taylor ham—that my grandma and great-grandma made, I feel close to them.
And I like knowing that, even though it pissed off her relatives, Ethel ditched what didn’t work for her, and kept what did. That’s the sort of Judaism I can carry on.