Barriers to Breaking Bread

by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

There was a flurry of emails — back and forth, over several days– with the host insisting that nothing was too much trouble.  She wrote, “I make menu changes for everyone. I once had a dinner with 7 major religions and 2 extreme allergies.  No one died or had to go to confession afterward. What can’t you eat?” I thought that my response was clear, but I discovered later that it was not explicit enough.

You see, I keep kosher and I adhere to pretty strict rules within the system of Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws that originate in the Hebrew Bible as part of a holiness code.  Their original context is important: this code created definitive boundaries for eating, along with other daily activities, to draw a distinction between the Israelites and their neighbors.  The earliest Jews were not permitted to break bread with “others,” the inhabitants of the land, whose practices and customs were different and deemed — in many cases– abhorrent.

Kashrut is not necessarily about eating a healthy diet, which I also strive to do. But like my healthy diet, it does restrict me from eating certain foods altogether, eating some foods together with others, and eating certain foods at certain times.  This system of eating gives my everyday life tremendous meaning, as it helps govern my food choices.  At the same time, it also affects where and with whom I can eat.

The night of the dinner meeting I arrived a few minutes early, the Imam walking in just after me and the Pastor, and the Pastor’s wife. The host led us all into the kitchen, letting me and the Imam know immediately that she had cooked the beef roast before the pork roast, using different utensils.  The Imam, a generally easy-going fellow, smiled and thanked her.  The rabbi, a more intense personality, felt a panic triggered in the brain begin to seep into her stomach.

Softly, but deeply, I exhaled a long and steady breath.  The nausea subsided.  I told my host that I couldn’t eat the meat, only salad and vegetables.  I explained that although she had gone to the trouble of using separate utensils, the meat itself was not kosher, not ritually slaughtered.  I thought to myself that I was already bending the rules by eating rice and vegetables cooked in her non-kosher kitchen, but I didn’t get into those particulars with her. I had made a conscious decision to enjoy a meal of fellowship with others, whom I no longer considered to be “others.” I had chosen to compromise my personal observance of ritual law in pursuit of fulfilling an ethical imperative to love my neighbors.

In the face of such warm hospitality and genuine friendship, Kashrut seemed to me exposed as a divisive barrier to establishing community, rather than an enlightening channel to practicing holiness. I exhaled gently a second time, smiled and complimented my host for preparing a bountiful array of side dishes in the manner of a true Jewish mother.  The Imam led us in a prayer, in the kitchen, inviting God’s grace to our gathering. My Lutheran sister poured me a glass of wine, and invited us all to the table, where we sat down to break bread.

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.

You can read more of her work on her blog, Pamela’s Pekele (http://rabbipjg.blogspot.com/), where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.

And for more information about Gottfried, visit her website: http://www.pamelagottfried.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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