Daniel Winter • New York, NY
I was born treyf, having gestated for the proper amount of time in Poland, in the belly of a Holocaust orphan who survived by pretending to be Christian. I can only guess how much kielbasa she ingested, digested and had requested during the process. Making a guess based on how much I was given to eat as a child at my parents’ table, it was probably as much as they could afford. Meat in post-WWIISoviet-era Poland was not to be taken for granted, but by the mid to late 60s in Lodz, the city of my birth and childhood, kielbasa could almost always be had.
When at around 11 or 12 years of age I mistakenly asked for a ham and cheese sandwich while playing at the home of a Modern Orthodox friend, I learned instantly about the concrete nature of kashrus, as opposed to the purely theoretical, abstract kind I had been exposed to while learning about my Jewish heritage as a child. Without a doubt, if you ask me for a sense memory regarding shame, that very moment of realization that I had requested a dish that was beyond the Pale far surpasses anything else I’ve ever experienced. It would have been better had I asked that the lady of the house serve lunch au naturale. That, at least, would have gotten a laugh, rather than elicited a feeling of horror from that I should even suggest that such a forbidden meat could be found in a good Jewish home, never mind be paired with dairy between two slices of bread.
My gentile father’s status as a graduate of a foreign medical school made things a bit more complicated for us in the United States. He struggled with the required medical examinations, in English, of concepts he had already learned in Polish and Latin. He took a series of jobs which led to periodic migration from the east coast to the heartland of America. To me, the only Jew in my junior high school in rural western Pennsylvania and again in my high school in rural Michigan, denominations of Judaism didn’t matter when the synagogue I went to was the only show in town.
It wasn’t until I went to college and headed to the campus Hillel House that I became exposed to the fact that separate services for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox were held. I was forced to make a choice. So too with the food I chose to eat. I was no longer at my parents’ table, where dietary decisions were not my own.
The radical nature of existentialism includes no position on religion, despite the oppositional placement most doctrinaire atheists and religion-ists of all stripes impose upon it. Nationalism is a relatively new invention when it comes to human governance and it’s track record leaves much to be desired. The State of Israel is a particular example of the continuing evolution of what it means to be a nation, and in the world today, the default setting is a universal conglomeration of nations. Clearly, the universal when it comes to nations is embodied today in the United Nations and just as clearly, the UN has no clue how to make decisions about Israel in an honest fashion.
This mirrors how I feel when it comes to deciding for myself on the matter of kashrus. Witold Gombrowicz defines existentialism simply, with all due respect to Kierkegaard, Hegel and Husserl, as the opposition between the concrete and the abstract. The Temple, during those times, was a concrete expression of the abstract. The gas chambers and crematoria of Europe were concrete expressions of the abstract goal of making the world Judenrein (free of Jews). In a post-Holocaust world of nations, the Law of HaShem (God) no longer gets to tell me what to do when it comes to what I eat. My diet, as with all things that exist regarding my corporeal being as opposed to abstractions regarding my undeniably eternal soul, is a decision to be undertaken by me, caught in that dynamic tension between the concrete and the abstract.
But then, there are my children. Twins. Their mother, my ex-wife, a secular suburbanite, took it upon herself to keep kosher while pregnant and breast-feeding. I supported her in that decision and while we didn’t go to the extent of kashering (making kosher) the kitchen and therefore did not go all the way when it comes to making the abstract concrete, there was a significant and intentional departure from our default diet. Yet, at a certain point after the twins had been weaned, without discussion and with apparently no deliberation on her part, she returned to the non-kosher, pork-filled diet with which she had been brought up and by default, imposed it upon them. We did not recognize it at the time but this marked the beginning of the end of our marriage. This was her unilateral destruction of the concrete family unit which had been brought into existence by my faith in the abstract as a guide for family decisions to be made in an unforeseeable future.
While Israel may be at a crossroads when it comes to reconciling the oppositional forces of secular government and the question of church and state vs. the religious extremists and their legitimate question of military service and religiously based pacifism/conscientious objection, it is a question that cries for a particularly Israeli answer, from within the body of the people. This particularly Israeli answer, whatever it turns out to be and if understood and applied honestly, will have universal implications. The world as a whole is at a moment of crisis/opportunity requiring an evolution of consciousness when it comes to militarism.
I, on the other hand, only have to decide whether or not to have bacon or sausage with my eggs. Regardless, I always find eating dairy and beef together problematic. There must be something in my ethical/moral compass that finds the idea of slaughtering the calf in the milk of its mother more repugnant than the idea that the sparks found in pigs are as unredeemable as my soul.