What Box Does Jewish Go In?

By: Rachel Eisen

I wrap the hanukkiah in a sweater and, just for good measure, wrap it again in some scarves. Part of me doesn’t want to put an item like this in the box that’s likely to end up labeled “Living Room – misc.” It’s not really miscellaneous, but it fits physically, if not thematically.

The last time I moved was two years ago. I left my first “grown-up” apartment when my roommates moved out of town, first living in a summer sublet then finally in my own place, a one-bedroom just for me. It was at this time that I started keeping kosher. I’d been spending the end of my college years and my first year out of college trying to figure out just what exactly being Jewish meant to me. Despite working professionally in a Jewish setting, I hadn’t quite put my finger on what my own Jewish life was. In an effort to make sure that what I was and wasn’t observing had concrete meaning and reason for me, not simply because I grew up doing – or in my case, more likely not doing – those things, I’d been learning about and exploring new rituals. I finally had a kitchen that was all mine, not my family’s, not shared with my roommates, not someone else’s in a borrowed, temporary place. I began studying some of the laws of kashrut with the rabbi I worked with and felt drawn to the idea that this is a conscious way of marking daily, seemingly mundane moments as Jewish. Keeping kosher was just one of the practices that I was beginning to incorporate in my life.

Now I’m moving again, and my kashrut is still a work in progress. If it was easy for me to “keep kosher” before because I didn’t eat that much meat to begin with, it’s now become one of the main concerns of my move. I’m heading to a new city to start a new adventure with a new person – I’m off to the Boston area to start graduate school, and in addition, I’m moving in with my boyfriend. He doesn’t personally keep kosher, but we’re going to keep a kosher kitchen. Here’s the catch: he likes to cook meat. Suddenly I’m faced with a new set of challenges. Last time I moved, I didn’t have anything except what was in my bedroom because when I’d lived with my roommates, they’d already furnished the apartment. So I bought my own kitchenware and dishware. No previous usage. Now we’re combining our respective kitchens. All these questions keep coming up: What does “keeping kosher” mean for us? How are we going to kasher our dishes? How are we going to run the dishwasher? What about the oven?

These are questions I never encountered before. In trying to decide what we want the rules of our kitchen to be, I’ve discovered that this whole “keeping kosher” thing is even more complicated than just separating milk and meat and not eating treif. To be honest, I didn’t even know that cheese could be not-vegetarian until recently, and I’ve been spent several days researching and reading rabbinical opinions on whether I should only buy hekhshered cheese (and, more importantly, figuring out what it all means for my verging-on-unhealthy obsession with fancy pesto imported from Italy and made with parmesan, by definition curdled with calf rennet). Do I want to look for a hekhsher on what I buy? Or am I comfortable just reading ingredients?

I place my tallis bag on top of the fabric-swathed blob that is my hanukkiah. I realize these items actually do kind offit thematically in the “living room” box (if not the misc. part). After all, in these past few years, I’ve decided to make Judaism not just a secondary identity, but rather my primary one. They are part of my “living,” if you will. Along with figuring out all the kitchen stuff, I have to figure out how to be Jewish in a new community, meaning, if we’re really honest, without the fallback of working at a Jewish organization where much of my observance is made easy for me. I’ll have to make the effort of coming home to light the hanukkiah because I can’t just do it at work with my students. I’ll have to decide where to attend services because I can’t just do it as a part of my job.

So maybe the kashrut questions are just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe what I’m really asking myself is how much of what I say is “my Judaism” these days is tied to my community? And how much will it change in a new place with a new day-to-day routine? I haven’t thrown out the stockpiles of pesto I have just yet. After all, in my job I work with students on their “journeys.” I even wrote something for this very blog recently about journeys and about how I prefer beginnings to end points. So this is just another leg of my journey. Maybe you should ask me how I feel again in two years.

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