I am just about the last person you would think has a kosher kitchen. I grew up in a treif-loving family and confess to still devouring bacon and shrimp whenever I can find them. Yet inside my own kitchen it’s a different matter altogether. There I abide by Jewish dietary laws. I even run my dishwasher a half hour between the milk and meat cycles, even though I consider this a shameful waste of water in our parched nation.
It’s been four years since I kasherized my kitchen in sole deference to my then 14-year-old son who had become religious. I am head of the household, financial provider, shopper and cook which means that I can do whatever the heck I want in my own kitchen. I could have told Daniel that and added the words many parents use when confronted with a teenager making demands: “When one day you have your own home, you can do whatever you want.” I wouldn’t criticize any parent who, when faced with a baal teshuva teenager, took that attitude, but it wasn’t something I felt I could do.
Rather, I saw kasherizing the kitchen as a beautiful gift I could give Daniel, during a time when I most wanted to make him happy: in the wake of his father’s death. It was a gift I knew would be more appreciated than a new cell phone and which would be understood as coming from the deepest regions of maternal love. I thought also thought that kasherizing the kitchen would be a good distraction during a time of grief.
It wasn’t easy that day I had to pay a group of religious men to cart off the contents of my kitchen. They weren’t careful doing the packing, not that I could really blame them. For them these plates and pots were just tainted surfaces upon which dietary Jewish laws had been violated. They didn’t know that when the kids were young my husband found our ceramic dinnerware set for ten in a store in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, where he was visiting on business and somehow managed to lug them back in hand luggage. They didn’t know that I used the glazed cake pan, purchased in a medieval town in northern France, to make chocolate chip cakes for school picnics or that the white bowls with birds purchased in Budapest were favored for salads. All this kitchenware was intimately tied with my family history and I couldn’t be sure all of it would return intact.
“I really appreciate this, mom,” said Daniel as he prepared to go off with the men and the packed boxes.
The items came back, of course. Most of them anyway. A few Roman plates and bowls were broken. For a while, I thought about their small fragments swirling in the mikveh drain and then I just dropped it. They were, after all, just objects.
After the plates they came for my refrigerator. Actually, it was just Daniel alone who took on that task. Standing alongside a garbage can, he examined every item and held up the ones that I had to relinquish: Forest fruit jam with no label purchased at a kibbutz in the Golan; Kraft marshmallows which are superior to their Israeli counterparts; diet Laughing Cow cheese which I brought back from the United States and loved to smear on crackers as a guilt-free snack. I argued for keeping certain items like my brown rice syrup which was clearly pareve, even vegan. But Daniel was having none of it.
“And if you think this is bad, wait until Passover,” he warned.
Was I now living under a dictatorship? Had I entered a land in which Big Kosher Brother was scrutinizing my shopping and cooking? Yes and yes. And I had agreed to it all.
Organizing the kitchen was the easy part; enforcement was infinitely tougher and ongoing. When my son was around he acted as the mashgiach, reminding – no, hysterically yelling — that I was using a milk knife on a meat cutting board. But then he returned to his boarding school and I was left on my own. There was no one around to monitor my actions and I realized how trust is at the essence of kashrut and how easily it can be violated. Who would ever know if I eat a cheese sandwich off my kasherized Roman plates which were meat?
Yet I just couldn’t do it. Kasherizing the kitchen had been a gift to my son and to break the rules was the equivalent of taking that gift away. He would not know. But I would know. And yes, maybe even some power greater than me. That isn’t a chance I’m willing to take.