Why Are You Keeping Kosher and Torturing Your Parents?
“Why are you doing all this?” they asked. Here’s what I wish I had answered.
My husband and I recently visited his elderly parents in their Florida home. As we prepared for our trip, we discussed with them plans for our keeping kosher while there. His mother fretted over the prospect, saying that she felt “haunted” by the specter of our keeping kosher.
We had recently become more observant. My husband is Jewish but had not grown up observant. I had gone through a conservative conversion many years ago but had recently become a candidate for an orthodox conversion. His parents, who are staunchly – almost militantly – nonobservant, were clearly feeling threatened by our move towards “the other” (i.e., “the dark”) side.
During our visit, we made every effort to keep the laws of Shabbos, and we made some rookie mistakes, being outside of our regular routine. Then came Saturday night when his parents were hosting their monthly progressive dinner.
The table had been elegantly set. By design, two of the place settings were not like the others. We had separate (plastic) plates and utensils and separate (plastic) glasses. And we had a wholly (holy?) separate dinner and wine. But the feeling of separation extended beyond our Jewishly-observant guided choices.
As we munched on a few raw vegetables during the appetizer course, one woman waved at the elaborate dishes and urged, “Go on, try it. It’s not going to hurt you.” We politely declined. Glances were exchanged among my in-laws and their six guests. I think they knew we meant no insult and that we appreciated their efforts to create a beautiful meal, yet feelings about food and separation run strong.
As the appetizers were cleared, my in-laws and their country club friends sat facing us. One of them leaned forward and asked, “So why are you doing all of this?”
The whole room went quiet.
I could hear the follow-up question: “Is all this really necessary?” along with the underlying belief that it was absolutely unnecessary.
This what, I wondered. Keeping kosher? Becoming more observant? Reverting to outdated religious customs bordering on fanaticism? No matter what I might say, I could hear the follow-up question: “Is all this really necessary?” along with the underlying belief that it was absolutely unnecessary, that it was folderal, nonsense. So why are you going to all this ridiculous trouble and torturing your parents with this unusual form of heartache?
They had clearly discussed this among themselves previously. They were all staring at me and, while internally I cringed, I looked back at them with a carefully-controlled mildly positive expression on my face. But my brain had turned to mush. I have no idea how much time passed – 10 seconds, maybe 20 – during which I just sat, pleasantly mute on the outside, but on the inside frantically scanning the scattered remnants of thoughts haplessly flapping around in my brain.
Later, in the privacy of my unassailed mind, I took a closer, slow-motion look at my thoughts during those interminable 20 seconds.
They can’t imagine a valid reason for limiting culinary pleasure, unless perhaps it’s a diet for weight loss or special health concerns. They want to save their poor, dear friends (my in-laws) from their inconsiderate children by helping to pick apart whatever misconceived reasons said children might have for wanting to keep kosher.
I felt that putting forth any reasons at all would likely lead, at minimum, to some uncomfortable conversation and, at most, to some surreally inverted version of the Inquisition.
They are older, mostly in their early 80s. If they feel threatened, even subconsciously, will cognitive dissonance get the best of them? Will they need to protest whatever I say to justify all the investment they have put into their values and lifestyle choices for so many years? What if they feel that, for most of their lives, they had lost out on something critically important and incalculably precious?
A hovering, indeterminate sadness dampened my ability to reply. The meal continued and everyone was pleasant enough. The topic of kashrut or Jewish observance was not raised again but a residue of sadness pervaded the evening.
I think now that the sadness stemmed from the awareness that they were all Jews, every one of them. How ironic that the mitzvot that help keep the Jewish people united were here, at my in-laws, keeping Jews from other Jews.
I wanted to bridge the gap. I wanted to help them understand where I was coming from. But I knew that I would need to be articulate, as these were highly educated people. I knew that I would have to convey the significance of “this crazy stuff” to me and to my life: how food is now so much more than physical fuel and pleasure and has ramifications for the soul, how clothing can point to so much more depth in a person by concealment, how every moment is an opportunity to do what God wants me to do and fulfill my purpose for having been created. But I was caught off guard and my anxiety level soared, creating a whirlwind of inchoate thoughts.
For me, living according to the Torah has brought meaning and awe into every part of my life.
After giving my mind a few days to calm down, here is what I wish that I could have said in more ideal circumstances:
For me, living according to the Torah has brought meaning and awe into every part of my life. Everything around me, everything within me, and every moment of my life – it either exudes meaning or is waiting to be imbued with a meaning that only I can give it. And I can give it that meaning only by following instructions that originate way beyond me. By becoming small and subservient to God’s will, I join with something so much larger and greater than myself that I expand far beyond who I am when I choose to serve myself. Loving and serving God becomes the point of everything.
Yes, this Torah-observant lifestyle and this set of beliefs are based on the idea that the Torah comes from God, that He revealed Himself to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago. How can I know that? There are books out there that can speak to that much better than I can, but I can tell you that the more I learn about the Torah and the more I study it, the more depth I find. And the people who have studied it most, the Torah scholars, are the people who find the Torah the most unfathomable of all.
Albert Einstein reportedly said that “you can live your life as if nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle.”
To look at everything, including the mundane, and see the meaning, the purpose, the potential for holiness is an awe-inspiring experience. Being a partner in elevating the mundane to the sacred is a God-given obligation and privilege, one that elevates the lives of those who accept it. And one that I think can link Jew to Jew deeply and dynamically, to the benefit of the whole world.
Nonsense? Far from it. May we all be blessed to find the deepest connection with God that is possible and invest our lives with such sacred meaning and purpose.
And in the meantime, please pass the other bottle of wine….