Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bacon, Bacon, Bacon

I have kept kosher to some extent pretty much all of my life. I’ve had varying levels of kashrut observance, from keeping separate dishes to eating certain kinds of meat in restaurants. Right now, we don’t eat meat that isn’t specifically kosher, but our kitchen isn’t 100% kosher, either. We’re sort of in the middle on the “kashrut spectrum,” if you will, where at one end is zero kashrut - eat anything, cook anything, try anything - and the other end is 100% kashrut, with carefully checked and marked food, separate dishes, utensils, cookware, and appliances.

That said, I remember eating bacon exactly one time in my entire life. Bacon is simply not in my culinary vocabulary, nor is any other kind of pork, shellfish, or game. It’s just something I would never eat. I don’t remember what bacon tastes like. I don’t have a clue why scallops and shrimp and lobster are so popular. To me, crustaceans look like giant bugs, and mollusks like big bags of mucus, and why would anyone want to eat that?

The thing is, I watch a lot of Food Network. (A lot.) I’ve learned quite a bit about cooking in doing so, and I consider myself a pretty decent cook (if I do say so myself…). Just about every chef on Food Network cooks a dish containing one or more non-kosher elements in just about every show. As an example, I was watching a rerun of “Giada at Home” this afternoon, and Giada de Laurentiis made stuffed peppers with ricotta, peas, and pancetta. She rhapsodized over the crispiness and saltiness of the pancetta, reveled in cooking it, and I sat there with a blank stare, because I couldn’t even begin to imagine what her dish would end up tasting like. As far as the rest of the ingredients, I could totally see myself making that dish – it looked delicious – but is it the same without the pancetta? I’ll never know.

I’ve learned not to let it bother me too much, the ubiquitousness of bacon and other pork products in most of the major world cuisines. I still enjoy watching the cooking shows, and I mentally remove the non-kosher items from a given dish, imagine what it might taste like, and decide if I’d like to try making it. (I won’t go into how chefs seem incapable of cooking anything without both meat and dairy products in them!) I’ve found some really brilliant and delicious recipes this way, such as Rachael Ray’s pumpkin soup (YUM). Simply replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, or with a chicken-flavored, parve chicken soup base, and voila! Kosher soup. But I digress.

I understand that if you don’t keep kosher, bacon is pretty much a staple for breakfast, and bacon/pork fat are a perfectly reasonable thing to use to flavor your dishes. I don’t begrudge you non-kosher-keeping folks your bacon and pork. Really, I don’t. I don’t want any, but you’re welcome to eat it.

But recently I came upon a product in the store that I simply couldn’t get past. I couldn’t get it out of my head. That product is Kraft Deli Deluxe Cheese Slices, Bacon Cheddar. As far as I can tell, this is basically Kraft American Cheese with bacon in it. (I’m sure you’ve seen the idiotic commercials, with the “bomb squad” raiding a woman’s cooler, only to have the woman take the package of cheese out of the cooler, thank the bomb squad man, and happily put a slice of her bacon-cheese on a very nice looking sandwich.)

Is the American need for bacon so strong that it is now necessary to put bacon IN the cheese? See, this gets me on two levels. First, it’s bacon, as discussed above. Second, it’s meat and dairy together, which really doesn’t matter all that much, seeing as it’s bacon, except that I would never make a sandwich with both meat and cheese in it, so I simply cannot fathom the need to have a product which fuses the meat and the cheese into one simple slice.

On a similar note, I heard a commercial on the radio for turkey breast slices with bacon flavor. Apparently, the turkey is smoked along with the bacon, and you can actually see bits of bacon on your turkey! Wow!

I like turkey. I have nothing against it. But the thought of, well, contaminating it with bacon confuses me almost as much as the cheese.

I genuinely need some enlightenment, here. Is bacon that amazing that it needs to feature in every meal in the United States? What is it about bacon that makes people salivate so? And why, oh why, does Kraft need to put the bacon IN the cheese?!

Thursday, May 20, 2010


When I think about a community, I think about a group of people who live in the same general region and who have something in common, who rely on each other, help each other out, and share friendships, social opportunities, and generally support each other. Community functions to give people a sense of belonging, to offer assistance during illness, when a new baby is born, to provide services for the dead. Community is often built around a religious institution or place of meeting, but it can also be based on other shared interests or simple geography.

In Judaism, community is essential. There are prayers that can only be said in the presence of 10 Jewish men, a minyan, prayers that are said daily. Weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage require the same presence of a minyan. Many laws can only be observed properly in the context of a community, since one needs a place to procure kosher meat, kosher baked goods, and the various types of clothing and religious items such as Torah scrolls, mezuzot, tefillin, and other ritual items commanded in the Torah.

Thus, Jews seek each other out.

We belong to a small community of Jews who are brought together under the roof and wings of our local Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin. It is Chabad’s singular purpose to bring Jews together, provide services to the Jewish community, and generally increase the holiness of the Jewish people wherever Jews may be found.

The past two days, we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot. Yesterday evening, our Chabad hosted an event at which we heard the reading of the Ten Commandments, as is traditional on Shavuot, and ate a dairy meal, also traditional on Shavuot. It was here that I witnessed something that strikes me as odd. We are not one community. We are three.

I say this is odd, because if we are “the Jewish community of Oceanside,” that implies that we have some familiarity with each other, that we have interacted on some level at some time. But there were people at the Chabad house last night whom I have never seen before, but who clearly were familiar with and to the rabbi and rebbetzin, and who knew other people there, also whom I had never seen before.

What happens is this: There are the cohort who attend services regularly or semi-regularly on Saturdays. There is the group made up of Hebrew school students and parents, who may either not attend services or who attend services at other area synagogues. And there are those who generally show up only for major events, such as this Shavuot dinner, the Passover seder, the High Holy Day services. That’s why I say we are three communities.

Last night was the first night where I felt like we three circles had a chance to interact and overlap. The rebbetzin went around encouraging us to introduce ourselves to people we don’t know, and our kids played together even though they’d never met. Certainly these people must have been at other events, but I felt like those other events were in more formal settings, which didn’t foster this kind of mingling. It was nice to see that “the Jewish community of Oceanside” didn’t consist solely of the 10 or so families I was most familiar with! Indeed, I would venture to say that last night was packed!

I feel that in a more traditional Jewish community, such as a more insular Orthodox neighborhood, this “three communities” phenomenon would not be so obvious. It seems like it reflects American society in general, where we have our school circles and our work circles and our social circles, and they mostly don’t overlap or interact. If we see someone we know in the supermarket, we might explain that, “Oh, that’s a friend from work,” or “Yeah, that’s the mother of my son’s friend,” and those two people may never have met and never will meet. They aren’t part of the same community, the same circles.

But if we are a Jewish community, shouldn’t we be a Jewish community? Shouldn’t we all be at least vaguely familiar to one another? We are all from the same circle. We all attend Chabad of Oceanside at least some of the time. I think as the community continues to grow and find cohesion, we’ll find the circles melding into one great group. As it should be.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Minyans on a Plane!

Back in 2005, my husband and I were flying to Israel for the second time to visit his family. The interesting thing about flying to or from Israel is that there is a much higher percentage of Jews around than just about anywhere else you might be, except in Israel itself (duh). What’s nice about this is that at the appropriate times of day, the religious men on the plane gather in a convenient place to pray whichever prayer service it is time for. On the plane, or in the airport, they have the advantage of being able to gather 10 Jewish men easily, thereby collecting a “minyan,” the minimum number of people required to recite certain prayers, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish*.

Every time I’ve been in a place where there are informally at least 10 Jewish men around (as opposed to in services, where it’s planned that way), it’s been amazing for me to watch the men gather in a loose bunch, whip out their prayer books (or these days, their iPhones or Blackberrys when it isn’t Shabbat!), and daven (pray) the morning, afternoon, or evening service, roughly together.

So, back to the plane on the way to Israel in 2005.

When the men began gathering to pray the morning service, a woman on the plane stood up and gravitated toward the group of praying men, bringing with her a tallit* bag so that she could don her prayer accouterments and daven with the men. We assumed that she was a Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist rabbinical student flying to Israel to study. We don’t actually know, but she fit the profile. Anyway. The men didn’t want her to pray with them, and she got miffed and was complaining about being asked to pray somewhere else.

We watched this drama unfold somewhat bemusedly. It illustrates so well the struggle many American women from the less traditional movements have. We women want to pray, too! We want to wear the tallit and the tefillin and the kippah, join the minyan, and daven the morning service. We want the privileges that the men get by default.

But see, if you’re Orthodox, there are two problems with this philosophy. First of all, women don’t need to wear tallit, kippah, and tefillin. Thus, a woman doing so makes an Orthodox man uncomfortable. Second, though a Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist well-meaning woman wants to pray with the men, in a traditional Orthodox arena, women and men do not intermingle while they pray.

So, on the one hand, the woman on the plane had a right to be miffed. She had a right to want to wear the tallit and kippah and pray with the men. But on the other hand, the men had a right to be uncomfortable with her standing with them, and to request that she pray elsewhere on the plane.

Now, notice, they didn’t ask that she not pray. They asked that she not pray standing next to them. Whether they were in a plane, at the airport, in the middle of Jerusalem, or in a synagogue, they would not have wanted her or any woman to stand next to them while they prayed. It’s simply not proper. And no matter what, she wouldn’t count in their minyan.

If she wanted to pray her way, she needed a congregation or gathering of like-minded Jews, men or women, who do count women in the minyan and encourage them to wear tallit and kippah and tefillin. But it wasn’t really fair of her to insist on davening with a bunch of Orthodox men on their way to Israel. There, it became an issue of respect.

I think it’s interesting, too, that the men were respectful enough of her not to ask that she not pray in the way she wanted, but she was not respectful enough of them to know that she shouldn’t try to pray with them to begin with.

I run into this a lot, where what I want to do is in direct contradiction to my religious friends’ beliefs. For example, I drive and carry on Shabbat. We haven’t reached the point where we keep all of the laws of Shabbat. But I know that it is disrespectful to my more religious friends to make a big deal of it, so I make an effort not to carry or drive on Shabbat around them. They don’t watch me arrive or leave, and I try not to bring anything in or out of their house (except my kids and my keys). They insist on my using their diapers and wipes, on providing changes of clothes if my kids get dirty, and so on, so that I wouldn’t have had to carry anything with me. And on the flip side, if they want to give me something, they would never give it to me on Shabbat, because then I would have to carry it home. And I know not to ask.

In this same vein, the woman on the plane should have known already that she would not be welcome, and instead of trying to make a martyr of herself, or get upset about it, or stage a mini-protest, she should have respected that they were not of a mind with her, and she should have chosen a different part of the plane to daven.

* Tallit, tefillin, and kippah are the prayer shawl, leather strips and boxes placed on the head and arms, and the yarmulke or skull cap worn during the morning prayers. I’m not going to go into the significance or religious meaning of any of these items now, but Wikipedia has an article accompanied by pictures, if you’re curious what it looks like. (Men wear a kippah all the time.) Traditionally, women do not wear kippah, tallit, or tefillin, ever.

* The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners. Traditionally, one says Kaddish for a parent, spouse, child, or sibling who died within the past 11 months, and also on the yahrzeit, the anniversary, of their death. The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said in the presence of a minyan, 10 Jewish men who are all praying together.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hearing Both Sides of a Story

I don't usually post two days in a row, because, frankly, with two kids and a job, that's way too much of a commitment for me. Once a week has been working out well, and I hope that the intervening days don't leave you hanging too much.

No, that's not true. I hope that the intervening days make you very antsy waiting for the next post!

Anyway, something very interesting happened today, and it fits so well into the theme of this blog that I thought an extra post was warranted.

On Sunday, many of the Chabad communities in the Greater San Diego Area participated in a joint "Unity" Lag BaOmer celebration. (I'll probably write more about this next time.) There were bounce houses, arcade games, cotton candy, snow cones, a drum circle, and catered kosher food (burgers, etc.). I think a couple hundred people showed up.

I study on Tuesday mornings with my rebbetzin, along with another woman or two, depending who's available. Today, it was just me and C studying with the rebbetzin. C has several food intolerances and is in the habit of being very careful with what she eats, so that she doesn't spend the whole day throwing up or what-have-you. Which is reasonable. She can't have dairy or soy or gluten, primarily.

The kosher catering at the Lag BaOmer event included grilled corn-on-the-cob. C ordered corn and was asked if she wanted butter. She automatically said no, since when she hears butter, she thinks "dairy", and therefore doesn't want it. When she went to pick up her order, they asked if she wanted margerine. She asked whether it was margerine or butter, since the other guy had said butter, "because I can't have dairy." The woman who was handing her the order got extremely indignant and said something along the lines of "Of course it's margarine! We don't serve dairy with meat! I would never have butter available when I'm serving meat." C felt very bad that she'd made such a silly mistake. She hadn't been thinking, and she's so used to automatically checking exactly what she's eating that she didn't consider that, if this was a kosher meat meal, of course there would be no dairy in sight.

It affected her enough that she told us about it today when we were studying, prefacing the story with, "I made a faux pas." This is where things get interesting. C told it as though she felt very bad for making such a silly mistake and didn't understand why the woman had been so mean about it. The rebbetzin then said that the caterer had come to her and told her that someone had insinuated that her kashrut wasn't good enough, and was very indignant that someone would have the gall to question her on whether she was serving dairy or not! In other words, where C felt silly and a little insulted that the woman got so indignant, that woman though C was accusing her of trying to serve dairy and meat together and took C's innocent question as an insult! It's just coincidence that both women chose to tell the rebbetzin about it, so she could clear it up.

Rarely do we get the chance to understand why someone reacted the way they did in this kind of a disagreement. Rarely do we actually get to truly hear both sides. Both women involved misunderstood what the other wanted to convey, and both came away insulted when neither should have.

I just found this so incredibly fascinating. It reminds us to take a moment to examine our motivations before we jump down someone's throat.

The thing is, if C were religious, she would never have thought to raise the question, because she would have known instinctively that, if a bunch of Chabad rabbis have sanctioned the kashrut of this caterer, they definitely aren't serving any dairy. But because she's so used to having to police what she eats when she goes out, and she was thinking of this as "going out," her first instinct was to be sure. There's nothing wrong with being sure, and her impulsive question is completely understandable, especially since the guy she ordered from DID call it butter.

But on the other side, apparently the caterer was fed up with her kashrut being questioned and took it out on poor C, who really wasn't even thinking about kashrut at all! I think it's sad that Jews would question other Jews' kashrut in a situation like this one, but that's a topic for another post.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On Prayer

For the past week or so, I’ve found myself wanting to be able to “do more” for people, not in the physical sense, but in the realm of prayer. In Judaism, one thing women are especially encouraged to do is to recite Psalms on behalf of people who are ill or injured or otherwise in need of help. There are specific Psalms that are generally used as prayers for the sick, but one can also simply read straight through the Book of Psalms, keeping the sick or injured person(s) in mind while one recites.

Prayer works two ways. If one believes in G-d, then one believes that G-d has the power to heal or cure or repair. So, by prayer, one can request that G-d help a friend or relative or relative of a friend, or a stranger. But, also, by praying we feel like we are somehow contributing to the world in a positive way, by asking for help on someone else’s behalf.

I began to feel like I had quite a few friends who could use a little help on the prayer front. So I made it a point to read a few Psalms every day, including a few that are specifically designated as prayers for the sick. Today I got up to Psalm 25. I’ll read a few tomorrow, and the next day, and eventually I’ll have read all 150. Then, I guess, I’ll start again.

It’s amazing how you feel proactive when you take it upon yourself to do this. I take a few minutes of my day to make a heartfelt plea on behalf of a friend, a friend’s baby, a friend’s nephew, a relative, and maybe, in some small way, I can swing their pendulum in the right direction. I don’t claim to have a direct line to G-d, that I can speak and G-d will go, “Oh, well, if Jessica is asking, then of course I’ll cure so-and-so’s cancer.” That’s arrogance in its highest form. But I still think that there’s some kind of, I don’t know, prayer energy or something that G-d responds to, but we have to put in some of the effort.

This is actually true in most aspects of Judaism. G-d is willing to help, possibly, but you have to do some of the work. You don’t just sit there and let money rain down on you from the clouds. No. Maybe G-d gave you the intellect to go to Harvard and get the medical degree so that you can be a successful heart surgeon and make money that way. But you have to do the legwork. You have to use what G-d gives you. You can pray for parnassa, success, but if you don’t send out resumes or study for tests, you aren’t doing your part.

Obviously, I can’t personally work toward curing a friend’s cancer or helping a baby to become healthy so that he can get out of the NICU. I don’t have the necessary skills. That isn’t part of my G-d-given role in life. But if I can take a few minutes to think about those people, well, shouldn’t I?

I know that famous statistic, that 95% of Americans believe in G-d in some form or another. I have also read of studies that show that when people are prayed for, even if they don’t know about it, they have a better survival rate. We Americans are a religious people, even if a lot of us don’t want to admit it. There’s something about organized religion that some Americans find repugnant. I don’t know why. If organized religion can give us something like this power to pray, this framework for prayer, the community to pray with, and to pray for, and if that prayer can help other people, then I think that’s pretty darn good.

So take a moment to think of people in your life who could use a few prayers. Then open a Bible or prayer book to Psalm 20, or 30, or 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”), or to Psalm 1, and start reading, thinking of the people that you know while you read. How could it hurt?