One thing that really bothered me about religious communities in the UK was kashrut issues. And functions. In any United Synagogue (which was my affiliation), there was a rule – catering. Or catering. Or… catering. There was never an option for people bringing in anything from home. If you chose to cater a kiddush or event yourself, it had to be in your home, and you ran the risk of the half the community not turning up and the Rabbi wouldn’t touch a thing.
Hardly the stuff of community.
What I found even more divisive, was the more personal issue of people helping each other out in a more intimate way. If somebody had a baby, or had fallen on hard times, and you wanted to help out by bringing them food, unless they knew you personally, it was a no go. There seemed to be some sort of weird link in people’s heads. Women with hair-covering = kosher food. Woman who does not do tzniut clothes (e.g. me) = can’t be kosher. Even though I grew up with this notion, I still found it depressing years later. I found it particularly irritating if I went to a hat-wearers house and witnessed them in the kitchen, making kashrut errors. What to say?
Well, why not move to a less religious community? I hear you say. Well for one thing I liked to see myself as modern orthodox(ish). And in the UK that generally equals United Synagogue. And for another, I think the food issue has got worse over time. In the old days, food was food. You bought flour, sugar, eggs, milk and it was – flour, sugar, eggs and milk – exactly what it says on the tin. Nowadays manufacturers put all sorts of weird things in food and the issue has become one of trust. I always believed that this “trust” issue, might be understandable in terms of eating a cracker or a biscuit with dubious contents, but I was very careful not to apply it to people. If a person invited me to their home, and their kashrut standards were lower than mine, I went. I ate. I trusted that they would not give me something that I shouldn’t eat. What sort of person would do that intentionally? As for unintentional, well as far as I know there is leeway on that.
Israelis, it seems, are a little more chilled out on this issue.
We recently celebrated “Chag Eshchar” – the 26th anniversary of our yishuv. And here was the refreshing change. Anyone could bring food! It was a dairy function, people bought simple foods to bolster the catering, and the result was a real community event. No questions asked. I suspect there were a handful of people who perhaps did not eat everything, and a handful of people who felt nervous to offer their services if they did not have a kosher home, but the general atmosphere was relaxed and accepting in a way that I personally have never been a part of in the Jewish world. They also had a ceremony to welcome new residents, new babies, kids graduating and joining national service, performances by the children and of course, the yishuv song. Then everyone has a good old knees up to the DJ, and the kids had a wild time jumping about with their parents on the basketball court. (I definitely had a lot more energy back in the day). Great fun.
A new family recently joined our yishuv, and were faced with the rather daunting task of having to arrange a barmitzvah just weeks after their arrival (yikes). Again, the community stepped up. There were many contributions to subsidise the catered kiddush, and the range of food really added to the simcha, people just wanted to help. Many of them had probably not even met the family, or at least only briefly. Nobody stood there asking who made what. Nobody judged. The result was the entire community munching away happily outside under the trees. It’s true what they say – food really is a bonding experience.
A friend of mine once told me about a very religious community in Israel, where they created THEIR OWN RULE that no family could ever invite anyone else for meals, on the grounds of dubious kashrut. Everyone eats with their own families. Good God. How hideous. And think of divorcees, singles, or people otherwise alone with children for a shabbat…. how did we ever reach this stage?
One of the (many) explanations/rationales for the strange and intricate laws of kashrut is that perhaps it is supposed to prevent us from assimilating. After all, if you can’t share something as basic with food with someone, you have to work a little harder to find a common interest. I have always wondered how marriages of 2 people who don’t like the same food survive???!
If this rationale is along the lines of what God intended, than it’s truly unbelievable that Jews have once again, managed to extend this concept to divisiveness among themselves. I am sure it weakens us as a people. A community must have some level of trust, otherwise it cannot function as a real community. I am pleased that we have found a truly pluralistic l’gamrei community that operates with trust, respect and a real sense of what is important in life.