This is a story about my Jewish heart, my daughter’s milk allergy and how I came change plates for Passover. First the Jewish heart. Like Pharaoh’s, mine hardened after the wrong kind of yeshiva education. In Rabbi D’s class I remember learning that if anyone ate hametz (food containing bread products) during Passover their lives would be inevitably shortened. I was confused, terrified that my father and his parents—two generations of year-round bread-eaters—were courting a death sentence. I bargained with God. My grandparents were already in their eighties-maybe, just maybe, they could be exceptions to this decree. There were always exceptions. And miracles. The principal of my yeshiva was quite clear about this after I was sent to his office for telling Rabbi D. that I thought an earthquake, rather than God, parted the Red Sea.
After that I stopped believing. Or so I thought. A ba’al t’shuva (one who opts for a life of religious observance) friend once told me that Jews don’t stop believing. Sometimes we leave for a time because like that long-ago route in the desert, faith is both circuitous and goal oriented. If I learned anything at yeshiva, it was that I was never lost—I was wandering.
I once wandered right into a Mexican restaurant on Erev Yom Kippur (the eve of the Day of Atonement). From my window table I watched what seemed to be a never-ending stream of Jews walking home from Kol Nidre (the Yom Kippur eve service). I felt like a failed spy when I was exposed by acquaintances that I ran into. One of them asked me point-blank: “Aren’t you supposed to be Jewish?” as if I were playing a part or going to a masquerade ball.
There was a lesson there. But I am a slow-learner. And in those days I was in the closet about my Jewishness. “A closet frummy (Yiddish term for an Orthodox, observant person) was how one friend described me. I liked my closet. I liked operating in the dark. It allowed me to do all kinds of things like eating out on ErevYom Kippur and skipping Passover altogether.
I ventured out of the closet a little bit when I got married. And then a little further when my daughter was born. Welcoming Anna into our lives brought all of the changes with which first-time parents grapple. We forever rearranged our lives according to her needs and marveled over the various ways she bonded us as a family. When Anna was five months old, we discovered that she had a profound milk allergy. Just one drop of cow’s milk could send her vomiting and cover her with hives. From that day on she became a strictly pareve (term for “neutral” foods containing neither meat nor milk products) kid.
For the first time since I left yeshiva life I was reading food labels. But despite all of my vigilance, sometimes she had an inadvertent exposure. That was when I realized that I had to go back—back to strictly kosher food, back to the places I associated with austere prohibitions. I had set into motion some form of the Law of Return in my life. It felt as if the Jewish world I found in bakeries, supermarkets and even restaurants had been waiting all along for me to come back. Now there was tangible salvation attached to that previously academic separation of meat and milk.
I was back, but I lurked instead of joining. In truth, there is a big difference in keeping strictly pareve (neither milk nor meat food product) and keeping strictly kosher. Making the change was too big a leap of faith for me. In some ways it still is. But I’ve decided to close the gap a bit this year by changing my plates for Passover. Like Passover food, changing plates further emphasizes Passover’s unique separateness. Changing a kitchen over, ridding the house of hametz is as much a spiritual venture as it is a spring-cleaning.
However, the advent of any spring-cleaning can be overwhelming. I have $400 worth of dishes and silverware in the trunk of my car and I am overwhelmed just by the thought of getting all of it into the house. I have never changed dishes in my own adult kitchen. I e-mail the news of my plate changing to a dear friend who became observant as a teen-ager. Sue has been there since my most heathen of days. In sending her the e-mail, I secretly hope that she is proud of me—but also that she sees through me, identifying my commitment even as I try to absolve myself of responsibility by saying things like: “I don’t know what has come over me” or chalking it up to some form of Jewish Darwinism by claiming: “This impulse is bigger than I am.”
I have books about how to do all of this right. But I don’t want to consult them this year. Feeling my way through seems right. Maybe it’s because of all those years in that dark closet. But I think there’s more to it than that. I now realize that I can be a believer without being a strictly halachic Jew (one who observes all of codified Jewish law). And I recognize that the steady rhythmic sound that I hear in my head is my Jewish heart pounding again.
Judith Bolton-Fasman is an associate editor for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life!-www.jewishfamily.com-in which this article first appeared.