Why do I still keep kosher Its food for thought

Recently, a friend of mine who had kept kosher all his life decided to stop. I don’t have a problem with his decision, although I did feel a strange sense of disappointment when he told me. And it took me a few weeks to figure out why.

At first, I thought I was disappointed with him for giving up on a tradition just because it was a little difficult. But as time went by, I realized it wasn’t that.

I was disappointed in myself — for not really knowing why I still keep kosher. I feel like the last holdout in a giant battle — and finding it increasingly difficult to explain why I’m fighting for my side. I can’t stop fighting, I can’t switch sides — but the reasons why are less and less clear.

I don’t eat meat, and it’s easy for me to justify — both to others and to myself. The reasons I have are concrete. I can cite sources, numbers, facts about the meat industry’s impact on the environment and the global food supply. Even if you can’t give up steak, it’s not a stretch to admit that it’s probably not the best thing for the earth (or for your body).

But keeping kosher … well, that’s a different story. Long ago, maybe it made sense for hygienic, tribal and other reasons. But does it still?

When people ask me why I keep kosher, I tell them the truth: It’s mainly because of tradition. I don’t think pork is inherently unclean, or that God will strike me down for eating an unagi roll. I have, on the rarest of occasions, even eaten something totally nonkosher (and nonvegetarian), like whale. How often do you get a chance to try whale?

Of course, keeping kosher is easy for me. Since I don’t eat meat, getting kosher meat and not mixing meat and milk is a nonissue. I eat fish, but it’s not hard to avoid the few unkosher sea creatures such as swordfish (too expensive), shrimp (do you know what’s inside that “vein”?) and octopus (ew).

But sometimes keeping kosher has felt like a bit of a burden. I’m a native of Maryland, and have never had a Maryland crab cake. Seriously. People can’t believe this. How hard would it be for me to have just one? Just to know what it tastes like?

I talked to my recently de-kashered friend the other day about his decision to stop keeping kosher, in an attempt to understand my decision to continue.

“Kashrut isn’t the linchpin of Judaism for me,” he said. “For a lot of people it’s a constructive framework that they can build their social lives and homes around. I realized it would be really nice to have the flexibility to go out, get lunch with friends, have a barbecue with friends, and not have to worry so much about it.

“It seemed contrary to my upbringing to put so many restrictions on myself. The restrictions are limiting me, and they’re making me dislike Jewish practice. They’re making me resentful.”

But what about tradition? I asked. What about Judaism?

“Judaism says ‘lo yotzei min haklal’ [don’t separate yourself from the community], and it was a big leap for me,” he said. “But there are two communities, really. I see myself, like most American Jews do, as straddling the secular and religious worlds. I thought it would be nice to stretch out my ‘secular sea legs’ and explore how I could fit into the secular community a little bit more.”

I have to admit, he had a point. But strangely enough, in talking to him about why he no longer keeps kosher, I realized why I do.

My life is already very secular — much more so than how I grew up. Keeping kosher is one of the few things I have that connects me to my earliest origins in Judaism.

I may not do all the traditional things I once did with my family — such as having Shabbat dinner every week, saying all the blessings, or going to shul. And sometimes that pains me. But by keeping kosher, there’s something I do every day that brings me back to my roots.

Maybe I have it easy, not eating meat, and maybe I’d feel differently if I did.

But for now, I’m at peace with my decision. Though maybe, just maybe, I’ll still try a crab cake someday.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected]