Kosher: Everyday Spirituality by Gevura Davis
One of the most common questions about living a Torah-observant lifestyle in the modern world is: “But isn’t it so hard?!”
The short answer is that, of course, it has challenges, but anything meaningful in life is challenging, because that’s how we grow as people. Through the hard work of life, we build ourselves into our best selves, similar to exercising, parenting and any meaningful relationship. On a daily basis, I don’t really think about the difficulties because it’s a lifestyle I love and find tremendous meaning in.
However, there are two major exceptions: when I am walking past the huge and enticing food court in an airport, and when I am packing food for family road trips knowing we will drive past hundreds of convenient fast-food shops along the way. These are the times I find keeping kosher extremely challenging.
I’m an adult, so I try see the bigger picture and make peace with the daily challenges of keeping kosher, hard as it may be. I’ve often wondered how my own children would experience these challenges. Would they grow to be resentful of their food limitations? Would they see our ancient laws as too limiting in the modern world? Would they try to cheat the system and sneak in non-kosher candy, similar to other little ways kids bend rules? Since I was blessed to became a parent 12-plus years ago, this is something I have worried about often. How could my children, growing up in America with all of the non-kosher temptations and options, feel inspired about keeping kosher and not resentful and limited?
The first time my fears started to subside, slightly, was when my oldest son was about five years old. All children are different, but this child loved candy. The highlights of his life (sadly) were Shabbat treats, birthday-party pinatas, and the candy man at synagogue. One day, he was at a playground and made friends with some of the other kids. For about an hour, as I sat on the bench, I saw him go around with his new friends, playing various games of tag and chase. They ended up for a long time under a play bridge in a little alcove where they were playing king of their castle. And, then it happened. One of the kids pulled out a huge bag of candy and started dishing out treats. I got up to quickly run and intervene to explain to my little son we had to check if it was kosher. In the 30 seconds it took to run over to him, thoughts were racing through my mind: how I would manage to divert his attention, or find a kosher alternative, or apologize profusely and sympathize with him how hard it was to be different? Before I was able to get to him though, an amazing thing happened. The other children put away all of the candy and they resumed their game.
Later, when we got in the car, I questioned my son about what happened with the candy. Very nonchalantly, he said he told the other kids that he was Jewish, that’s why he was wearing a kipah and tzittzit, and that we only eat certain types of candy because we have rules about what food we can eat. He didn’t recognize any of that boy’s candy, so he presumed it wasn’t kosher and that he couldn’t eat it. I had found my answer.
Since then, my children have been in dozens of situations where they have abstained from eating because of their commitment to kosher: pizza at friends’ birthday parties, free samples we walk past in the grocery stores, and many other challenging situations. They pass their airport and road-trip tests with flying colors. Every. Single. Time. From where do they get this strength, I often wonder? Part of it is habit, I’m sure. But, partly something deeper, I like to think. They understand, intrinsically, that our values are stronger than our desires.
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses reviews the laws of kosher with the Jewish people. Although the main reason we observe all of the Torah’s guidelines is because our loving G-d, the Creator of the Universe, commanded us to, nevertheless we also ask what lessons we can learn from each of the commandments.
The laws of kosher teach us many things. Discipline. Uniqueness. Everyday spirituality. Delayed gratification. Sanctifying even the mundane. Hard work for the greater good. The holiness of eating.
There are many, many wonderful kosher foods for Jews to enjoy, but there are also many things we are not allowed to eat, and that can be hard. But, as our JWRP Trip Leaders remind us, kosher is not all or nothing. There are lots of easy ways to incorporate these principles into our everyday lives, and your City Leader can help you take right-sized steps when you’re ready.
Here’s why it’s worth trying: through the act of abstaining from what we want, we learn an important lesson, one that I try to teach my children daily: we can’t have everything we want in life. Through the very act of self-restraint, we cultivate discipline in ourselves.
Yes, I would love to dine on Chinese or Mexican or any of the other options at the airport. Yes, I would love the convenience of being able to stop at a fast-food place along the road. Yes, my son would have loved to eat candy with his little playground buddies. But, each time I pull out my bagged sandwich instead, I am elevating myself, committing myself to values greater than me. And fortunately, so far this is a lesson my children are internalizing. They love being Jewish, and they appreciate that we have lots of amazing food to enjoy in this world, just not everything. We are different, it’s hard, and we love it!
Gevura Davis is Director of Women's Programming for Etz Chaim Philadelphia where she enjoys meeting and connecting to Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds.