My Family’s Kosher Compromise

All of this seemed very normal when I was a kid.

I grew up in a kosher home, sort of. We had separate dishes and cutlery for meat and dairy, only bought kosher meat and never brought pork or shellfish into the house.

But then there were also the house rules. We actually had three sets of dishes: the meat dishes, the milk dishes and the both dishes. It was OK to eat meat with dairy on the both plates, as long as the meat itself was kosher. We were allowed to eat non-kosher food outside the house. And our screened-in back porch was designated “outside,” so if one of us came home from a restaurant with non-kosher leftovers, we were allowed to eat them on the back porch using disposable plates and utensils. In winter, this would occasionally result in my father bundling up in his ski jacket and wool hat, and going out to eat his dinner on the back porch in twenty-degree weather.

All of this seemed very normal when I was a kid. As an adult, it’s something I laugh about. I realize that for many people, this convoluted series of exceptions means that I didn’t grow up keeping kosher at all, or entirely missed the point of keeping kosher. But what really interests me as an adult about my family’s system is the way it came about.

Over the years, I imagined it was all the result of a series of compromises between my parents. Both of my parents were born and raised Jewish, but my mother was raised more observant. Keeping kosher was important to her. If it were only her decision, we would probably have kept strictly kosher. My dad loves to eat, and enjoys tucking into a nice plate of mussels every once in a while. If it were up to him alone, we probably wouldn’t have kept kosher at all. I imagined that the kosher compromise evolved in stages, until they found a series of rules that met in the middle: Mom still got to uphold the traditions that connect her to her ancestors, and Dad still got to cook cheesy beef lasagna, as long as he ate it on the both plates. My brother and I still grew up with an understanding of what it means to keep kosher, and what it means to make personal decisions about both your relationship to religious ritual and your relationship to food. While my family never adhered strictly to Jewish law, it feels very Jewish to me that we looked at our customs and figured out how best to adapt them to our lives.

Recently, however, my cheerful imaginings about the compromise were brought into question by an actual conversation with my parents about it all. Or an attempt at a conversation. I asked my parents how our system of rules and exceptions had come to be, expecting a funny story. My mom rolled her eyes. “I was accommodating him,” she huffed, nodding across the table at my dad. Her tone wasn’t playful; she sounded genuinely annoyed.

“In my defense,” Dad replied, “I was accommodating her.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Mom said.

I dropped the subject.

Their negative reaction surprised me. I’d always thought of our family’s arrangement as a happy medium, a solution we could all feel good about. Because it was what I was used to, and because my parents have a solid relationship, I had chosen to believe that our house rules made everyone happy. But in truth, there was — and still is — a degree of tension and discomfort to our compromises.

I felt a similar tension when I first began to live on my own as an adult and had to make decisions, consciously or unconsciously, about Jewish customs in my own life. Today, I no longer have separate meat and dairy dishes in my home, though I do still try to avoid eating pork or shellfish. I sometimes feel conflicted about bending, or even ignoring, Jewish tradition. Sometimes I feel that I have drifted, that the restrictiveness of kosher laws is really the point of them. My feelings about my customs shift constantly. There is discomfort there, and the fact that there is discomfort reassures me that my Jewish identity is still close to my heart: Having to actively make these decisions, as an adult, forces me to think about them.

I’m getting married this year, and my fiancé is not Jewish. We’ve agreed to raise our kids Jewish someday, but the specifics of that are still to be decided. I’m sure there will be compromise — and discomfort. There will be decisions about which rituals feel most resonant and inclusive, and what modifications might be necessary. It will require conversation and thought. The idea is daunting. But I am excited for it. I feel grateful to have grown up with a model for this kind of compromise, to have seen both the possibilities and some of the pitfalls. I hope that when the time comes, I will feel at home within the compromises my family and I have made, even if they don’t make sense to anyone else. The important thing is that they make sense to us, and that we make them together. And maybe along the way, they’ll even give us something to laugh about.

Allison Har-zvi

Allison Har-zvi (she/her) holds a degree in fiction from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in New Jersey and works in book publishing.

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