Nov 19, 2010

Food + Class: What Would You Do?

I told a classmate back at the beginning of the semester that I was going to blog about this, and she was game, but I sort of put it off and put it off, and now I'm ready. Ready?

We're all put in situations where we have to have meals with non-kosher-keeping coworkers or friends. We're all also put in situations where we have to have meals with our friends and coworkers who do keep kosher, but maybe not the same type of kosher that we keep. This issue is compounded, especially, with family. Most of the time, it's doable to either talk those who don't hold to your kashrut into going to a restaurant where you feel comfortable, or having them come to your house, but it doesn't always work out that way. Sure, you can meet people at a coffee shop or a bar for a cup o' Joe or beer (of which kosher versions are abundant), but what about a classroom?

I'm in a class right now where every single student is Jewish, but of varying types of observance and views on Judaism. From the most cultural/secular to graduates of YU and, well, me. We're working on final papers/projects right now, which involve everything from gefilte fish and kugel to delis to Ovadiah ha'Ger. The point? Jewish primary sources (which means a document or even food) built around the idea of what community means.

For our final class, it has been suggested that we bring in gobs of food for noshing. This was brought up a long time ago, but with the impending end of the semester, I'm trying to figure out the best way to approach this with the class. Not everyone will eat the food that anyone makes. There's talk of making gefilte or kugel to bring in. I know in most situations, the best option is to just call up Murray's or something and get some food catered in, but it seems that people really really really want to make food and bring it in.

Sure, I can not eat the food, but I don't want to get into that kind of a situation, especially in an all-Jewish class. Comprende? 

So what should I do? How should I go about starting this conversation? Time is a'tickin' folks.


Bethany said...

I would send an email to the professor and express your concerns. I'm shocked that this wasn't thought of, honestly.

You're not the only person that wouldn't feel comfortable eating everyone's food. You could suggest having a "cooking" party at someone's apartment where you feel comfortable with their level of kashrus.

I don't think it should be that insulting to say you're not comfortable eating other people's food. It's not Kosher, it's not an insult, it's a fact.

Emily said...

I participate in a havurah with people of different levels of kashrut observance as well as varying types of food allergies/intolerances, dietary restrictions (other than kashrut), preferences on local and organic sourcing, etc. We have a pretty simple solution:
-Paper plates and serving wear (or, the die-hard environmentalists bring their own reusable)
-*Only* dairy/vegetarian
-Food tags to explain who made the item and what's in it (down to whether or not it's a kosher or vegan cheese, etc). We also sometimes do a food show-and-tell prior to our meal so folks can ask questions if they want (and they do!)
-The "pickiest" (bad word choice, but you get my point) typically bring in something to share and something they know they'll feel ok eating

It sounds chaotic and it sometimes is but it's really lovely. Has also stretched my thinking and challenged me to think about my own observances from both a kashrut and environmental standpoint.

Hope that helps!

alltumbledown said...

Since I work in a Jewish nonprofit where all the staff (minus a few interns) is Jewish, this is an issue I face often. We do potlucks for birthdays, holidays, when we're feeling distant from eachother (we work in two offices.) Since there are just 10 of us, I've found honesty to be the simplest policy. I make a dish, bring it in in a plastic container, and take from it first as invariably, despite my warning to use only the utensil in the dish, forks that have been in God knows what will make their way into the food. I eat the food that one other coworker makes, and the random bits of happens-to-be-kosher stuff (pita, hummus, etc.) I've asked my coworkers not to try and bring/cook kosher items, since they often have hechsherim I don't trust, or are cooked in semi kosher homes. They've even stopped telling me how bad they feel that I cannot eat everything, which to me is a sign that they've gotten used to it.

Esther said...

In my Grandfather's day, serving kosher food was good enough and all sorts of different types of Jews could break bread together without all this questioning of each other's level of devotion to the faith. Isn't the purpose of kashrut to bind the Jewish people together? Rather than binding people, I would argue that this persnickety extremism that many have descended to creates a needless and damaging social divisions between Jewish people. If you think about it, it's absolutely crazy that people aren't willing to eat the home cooking of someone within their own faith and would instead prefer that the food comes from an institutional kitchen, where it is invariably prepared by low wage workers who are probably not Jewish.

le7 said...

Esther - the point is for one person what is kosher for another isn't. Sorry, in today's age of processed, packaged food it is a reality. Most likely in your grandparents time, as with mine, kashrus in general was much less complicated. Everyone usually ate food cooked from basic ingredients at home. Bishul yisroel with packaged food items just wasn't a problem, etc.

Suburban Sweetheart said...

I'm inclined to agree with Esther here... but if I were you, I think I would probably express my concerns to the professor rather than try to make this point to the class on my own. It's valid, & perhaps there's some common ground? I suspect it will require compromise on all parts.

Daniel Saunders said...

Esther: the problem is, not everyone agrees on what's kosher. To some people it's 'everthing that isn't shellfish or pork.' To others it's more complicated, in varying degrees, especially once you get into the business of separate utensils etc. which lots of people who say they "keep kosher" don't follow. There simply is no universally agreed standard of kashrut, so saying "seving kosher food was good enough" isn't terribly helpful.

Chaviva: in an evening class where I was the only Jew, I simply ate the kosher food (of which there was very little). It seemed the easiest way of handling it. I didn't want to make any kind of fuss.

Batya said...

It seems to be that the definition of kashrut is the key. Kosher isn't a subjective label, just like conversion. Maybe you can tell them how much this means to you and what lengths you've taken to be a kosher Jew.

Either you go to a restaurant that is halachikly kosher or get the same catered.
Or you bring your own food for you and they'll bring and eat whatver they want to eat. Less hassle than checking and chosing one person's food over another.

Elisabeth said...

The best advice I ever received about this kind of situation: "if a Jew says something is kosher, it is. and if you can't see it, it's not there." Don't separate yourself from the community.

Sheva said...

Honestly I would leave the whole situation alone andbonly eat the food you have brought. If people ask explain that you are Gluten- Free and have to be careful with cross contamination. The reason I say this is the best route is you would be amazed about how touchy peop,e and how easily upset and offended people get when it comes to food. I have been a BT for almost 18 yrs and trust men have been in every horrible senario possible. In the end the keeping of the mouth closed keeps shalom and that is what is most important, because it is just food and not worth hurting someone over. I once brought my own CHolov Yisroel cream cheese to a kiddish of a close friends family. You would not believe the scene it started. I was even quiet about it, but people were offended they even said to my family in front of everyone"our kashras is not good enough for you" it created a real Chilul Hashem. We should of just avoided the whole thing and ate at
home. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

All I know is that I find it sad that living in Israel I can't share food with my friends of my own making as there are so many different levels of kosher, as you describe.

It's a true blessing of friendship to share food as a gift, a hello, a welcome, a kind gesture. I feel like this blessing has been undermined.

Even on an El Al flight, for example, where everything is automatically "kosher" by virtue of it being a state airline, you will still see at least three or four different meals being served (including the good old handbag special).

Suum cinque. And Shavua Tov.

~ Maya

The New Jew: Microblog on Facebook

Linda B said...

You've already got several variations on the answer here.

1. Bring it to the attention of your teacher for sure.
2. Eat what you bring or trust
3. Have it at a Kosher restaurant

Bethany said...

Elisabeth -

My reform family has insisted that the eggs at a non-Kosher restaurant buffet next to the bacon (where people used the same spoon) were kosher. I'm sorry - I trust non-religious Jews least when they say things are kosher. They don't care about Kashrut, and don't care if you accidentally eat something that's not Kosher. They don't think it matters.

G6 said...

This whole dialog brings to mind a similar situation that I had "way back when" I was a teenager and was invited to sleep over at a friend's house.
My father asked me to discuss certain kashrus requests with my friend. I told him that I was embarrassed and I feared her reaction.
My VERY WISE father told me at the time, that if she was upset by, or didn't understand my need to have this conversation, she wasn't the kind of person whose home he'd be comfortable with me eating in. In the end, she understood COMPLETELY and was NOT AT ALL upset, and I learned a VERY VALUABLE LESSON.
We all have different kashrus levels and we need to respect the needs of others without taking it personally.
Chaviva - don't be embarrassed to say you have different standards. You are not judging. If people choose to feel judged, that is a problem within themselves.

aml said...

I, too, am inclined to agree with Ester. The whole kosher business had gotten really out of hand. More of a divider than a uniter.

Just like a guy said...

Sorry, but that's nonsense. Since when was kosher about uniting people? Kosher is G-d's law, not some new-age hippy feel-good social-change thing.

Amanda said...

Like Nina, I have similar all-Jewish-but-not-all-the-same-Kosher-keepers in Jewish non-profit. I found that it's best just to eat what you can and what you're comfortable with, without making a big deal about it because people usually already "know" or can at least figure out your level of kashurt by your other elements of observance (either visible or what you talk about). My experience is that people don't get offended (though you might feel bummed out you have to miss out on something really delicious looking).

I do think you should watch out the term "I can't it eat," though. I think it's better in a situation like this where people mean well and will often try to accomadate you to say something like "I keep a pretty strict kosher and I'm not comfortable eating something that wasn't made in a home that keeps the same type I do." Try to avoid saying "can't" (use "choose not to" or something) and try to avoid "level of Kashrut" because it makes people feel bad (even though I use that kind of language at home and might think it in my head.

Let us know how you solve it!

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Firstly, I'm blown away by how many responses I got to this post in such a short amount of time. You guys are -- in a word -- awesome! I can't address everyone, but you guys are saying a lot of the same things, and I want to hit on some of your responses.

@Esther I feel your pain here, and I agree that modern kashrut often causes problems for a sense of a greater, global Jewish community that could sit down at any table from here to Istanbul and feel comfortable. But that's the reality of the situation, as, many said, with processed food. We're not talking basics here like fruits and veggies, we're talking gelatin and preservatives and G-d knows what else. Everyone has standards or a way they eat and live. Finding two people with the same standards is nearly impossible -- even in the same household! My husband is more comfortable eating certain places than I am, so a discussion is perpetual.

@Elisabeth I wish I could be as trusting as your mantra is. But I just can't. It's just how I can't eat something that someone says "I think it's gluten free" when they don't know it is. It isn't worth the risk for me, not for my body or my soul.

@Linda Thanks for summing up my options. :)

@TheRealShliach No matter what you think -- hippy or not -- food unites all cultures. What do we do on Shabbat? We eat a festive meal, of the finest food, to honor Shabbat. That's food. Food is the most basic of our needs among air and light, right? It makes sense that food would be the great uniter.

@Bracha I totally agree with you on the "I can't eat it" thing. It's easy for me to say "Oh, I don't think I can eat that because I'm gluten-free," but what happens when they say there's no gluten in it? I have to make up another excuse? I don't want to get fishy or shady.

IN THE END: I think from what you've all said here, my best option, out of everything, is to bring some food of my own, store-bought, that I know anyone and everyone will eat. Share it with the masses, and hope that no one notices I'm passing on what others have home-baked. Keep your fingers crossed, mmk?

Anonymous said...

Bethany, I find your comment to be insulting. You labeled Reform Jews as "non-religious." That's equally as insulting as I'm sure you would find it if a liberal Jew labeled you a closed-minded religious zealot for the same reason--a difference of opinion about kashrut. Because unless HaShem magically appears with a divine rulebook clearing up just exactly who's right and who's wrong, what we are all going on here is the opinion of Talmudic sages interpreted through the lens of contemporary, for-profit kosher authorities. In which case, while I respect your right to keep kosher your way, I ask you to keep judgmental labels out of it.

Just like a guy said...

Chaviva: Food is feel-good, kosher is not.

Elisabeth said...

Bethany: in the example you gave, with the bacon ... well, you can see it, so it's there, kwim?

And Chaviva, I hear what you're saying about the risk of having trust for people('s kashrut), in terms of "body and soul", as you put it. There is more than one risk here, however, which I think you're aware of (as you are obviously thinking about the issues here quite a bit) - and that's the potential embarrassment or other offense to your classmates that can be caused by how you go about this situation. Just look at how totally offended Chicagocareless was by Bethany's response to my comment. I think Bracha Tzipora's response has a lot of good wisdom in it.

(who is grateful that Gd's laws DO unite Jewish people in new-age hippy feel-good social-change ways)

Just like a guy said...

Which is merely an ancillary benefit thereof.

pura vida said...

No one is going to care whether you do or don't eat anything in the spread unless you make a fuss about it, grimace, look critically at someone based on what's on his/her plate (or at the plate itself), or otherwise exude judgment, pity, etc. Will your classmates notice? Maybe. But so what? They've already noticed that you cover your hair. It's not gonna be a shock when you take a pass on food.

And if you get the feeling someone's passing judgment on you, brush that dirt off your shoulder. You don't know what they're actually thinking, and really, do you care? If you do, you shouldn't!

In any event, observance is not a platform on which they, or you, should stand. Debate is one thing; attack is another. To suggest by word, deed, implication, or otherwise, that another's observance is imperfect is inexcusable. This principle reaches beyond the kashrut landscape.

Bethany's advice is remarkably misguided and insensitive. I'll stand on that platform any day.

No Biggie said...

Sounds like you're over-thinking it! Don't worry. No-one will care if you don't eat their food, they'll understand that your level of kashrut is more stringent than theirs.
Just prepare something you can eat and share, and partake of whatever packaged/purchased foods have hechshers you trust.

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