My mom jokes that her temple growing up was basically a church. My dad was raised in a Kosher home (which I am sure he snuck his fair share of cheeseburgers into) and attended a Traditional synagogue. This matrimonial union led to my early Hebrew school days and Bat Mitzvah taking place at a Conservative synagogue. At this congregation, the thought that I had even tasted bacon was enough to appall at least 80 percent of my Hebrew school classroom and almost all of the administration.
At this point in my life, I really couldn’t have cared less. My go-to order at any Italian restaurant was linguini di mare: noodles with clams, mussels, calamari, and more. I was never fazed by sausage pizza and cheeseburgers and even though I never really wanted to admit to eating what was inside a steamed potsticker, I most definitely ate my fair share of pork.
Keeping Kosher was never anything that crossed my mind. That is, until I went to Israel for the first time. After spending two months studying abroad in high school on Alexander Muss High School in Israel or as I like to call it “the best decision anyone could ever make” (I know shameless plug, but really, I could write a book on why Muss is life changing), the thought of changing my diet for religious purposes crossed my mind. I remember a few people starting to keep Kosher upon our return to America, presumably to maintain their connection to Judaism and Israel. However, I still didn’t really understand why people kept Kosher and if I didn’t understand it, how was I supposed to do it? That seemed silly. The closest I got to connecting food to my religion was handing out tastes of the best Israeli pop rock chocolate at school and eating an unhealthy amount of hummus while I sobbed about missing Israel. Sounds about right. In all seriousness though, I really had to put thought into any lifestyle changes I was making and at this time, I was far from 100% committed. People say “go big or go home” and that’s kind of how I felt about any religious transformations.
After returning from Muss in April, I started college in August of the same year at George Washington University, which really was close to as Jewish as it gets with the exception of going to Brandeis or Yeshiva. Within my first month or so, I was a new member to a Jewish sorority, involved in Hillel, and enrolled in a class that ended with a free trip to Israel rather than a final. Count me in!
So in December of 2008, I was off to Israel for the second time within that year. I went on a program through Meor Israel, a Jewish learning community. For three weeks, we resided in a hotel in Jerusalem, studying at either Yeshiva or Seminary in the morning and participating in recreational activities in the afternoon, such driving jeeps(which was actually really fun) or paintballing (which is now one of the last things I’d ever volunteer to be a part of again). The trip was not only incredible because of the juxtaposition of these two worlds, but the learning opportunities were unmatchable.
It might sound nerdy, but I really do love learning. I didn’t know that much about Orthodox Judaism, even after studying in Israel for two months. I loved learning about the traditional views on essential themes such as love, marriage, self-actualization, prayer, gender roles, etc. Although I clearly didn’t agree with all of the information they shared, it was extremely intriguing to me and some of the lessons truly resonated with me. Plus, I had the chance to enjoy some of my first Shabbatons in Jerusalem and even attend a religious wedding. Moments like these truly made the trip, but there was one instance that was more life changing than I realized at the time.
I remember sitting in the back corner of a room for one particular presenter, who told a story of a religious Jew who was killed protecting Israel. Somehow, we learned that this individual’s one wish translated into asking everyone to pledge and commit to taking a step, however big or small, in their lives to further connect to their Judaism. Some ideas that I believe were communicated were lighting candles every Shabbat, saying the Shma every night, keeping kosher, etc. The speaker asked us to raise our hand if we can make this pledge and I was one of the only people to not raise my hand. If you’re reading this you might ask, “why didn’t you just say you’d do it?” and “that must have been uncomfortable.” It was highly uncomfortable, but I was flustered and didn’t feel as though I could really say that I was going to change anything about my lifestyle. At that point, I wasn’t sure I could “go big,” which changed when I got home, back to school.
One of my first nights back, I went out to dinner with a group of my sorority sisters to celebrate and kick off our second semester of college. They ordered a platter of chicken wings and I was the only one at the table who didn’t taste one. One of them asked, “Are you like Kosher now or something?” I confessed that I had been flirting with the idea, but I wasn’t really sure. I told them about the speaker and how ever since I didn’t raise my hand during the presentation, I had been thinking about what I could do, if anything, to remind myself of my Jewish heritage every day and honor this fallen solider. I told them that I was going to try to keep Kosher and if after a few weeks it was ruining my life or something, I would re-evaluate. Although that was a pretty absurdly dumb comment, it’s been about four years and three months since that conversation and I’ve been going strong.
My roommates at school during my freshman year had both begun keeping Kosher within the past few years of us moving in together, so I just started keeping it the way they did. That meant, more than just not mixing meat and milk and avoiding shellfish, pig, etc. I started only eating vegetarian out, cooking only Kosher meat, and waiting 3ish hours between meat and milk. I’ll admit that sometimes when there is fro-yo in the picture and it’s been 2 hours and 15 minutes, my willpower is not as strong as it should be, and there have been a few sporadic instances where I accidently took a tiny bite of something that wasn’t Kosher due to language barriers (No-pork and fish are not the same thing, Valencia!), but for the most part, I have kept my end of the bargain.
You might be wondering why this tangent of a story and journey is relevant, but the truth is that taking a step in your life to remind yourself of your connection to Judaism is a great idea. Keeping Kosher was a big decision, but I never regret that I made this choice. Taking any sort of step, however big or small, to remind yourself of your Jewish heritage is beneficial, in my opinion. It doesn’t matter if you finally going out and buy that mezuzah for your door (which, yes, I still need to do), decide to light candles every Friday, or even join a Jewish intramural league. Whatever your connection is, I would advise to try to strengthen it in whatever way you see fit.