A different kind of soul food with the Rabbi
by Sydney Bender
A person keeping a kashrut (kosher) diet is like a baker or chef working with a family recipe. In the culinary world, bakers have a reputation for following exact recipes; they are culinary scientists. Chefs, however, have more leniency when it comes to putting their own spin on food; they can substitute one ingredient for another, alter cooking methods and have more room to experiment with measurements. Yet both bakers and chefs can always produce an exact list of what they are serving and eating, just like people cooking and eating kosher food; it’s all food for thought, literally.
Keeping a kosher diet means it’s okay to change recipes and standard fare, as long as it follows the kosher dietary laws. There are some people, however, who follow every food law to keep kosher (similar to a baker following exact recipes), and although more meticulous in the cooking method, this person is no more or less religious; it’s all about individual relationships.
Each person who keeps kosher usually has a different diet than the next, because with this specific part of Judaism, it’s all a matter of degree.
Caryn Broitman has been a rabbi for 20 years. She grew up in the Boston area in a Jewish home and as a child, attended weekly Shabbat evening services at a Reform congregation. Her grandfather was a kosher butcher in Boston. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1983 and then went on to receive a degree from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1991.
Caryn spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and then returned to the Philadelphia area, where she met her husband, Rabbi Brian Walt, the founding executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America. But it was when she was a freshman in college, at the Harvard Hillel dining hall, where Caryn first made the decision to keep a kosher diet. Keeping kosher is a discipline requiring people to pay attention to everything they eat.
“I wanted to eat with my friends and they ate at the kosher dining hall,” Caryn remembers. When she first started observing kosher dietary rules, she learned that food was the glue to the culture in her religion and keeping kosher was more than just a set of eating principles. “For me, it’s a way to connect with my Jewish heritage and Jewish culture, and also spiritually it’s a way to bring the presence of God into our everyday physical lives.”
Along with the Torah and family, food is a pillar in Jewish Culture. Keeping kosher is a reunion with God, a way to connect spiritually while doing something habitual and routine. In the Bible, Caryn points out that it states, “For I am the Lord that brings you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God, you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11).
Eating is instinctive. It’s also a means of social connection. Caryn’s extensive background in Abrahamic religions, rabbinic literature and Jewish culture was a transcendent foundation for her to start keeping kosher, but her story stems from the fact that she simply wanted to have great conversations and eat good food.
Eating with her girlfriends in college introduced her to a world she already knew so much about, it was just a matter of keeping kosher. “Keeping kosher is also a way to look at processed food,” Caryn says. So she always reads ingredient labels and asks questions about menu items at restaurants.
Today, Caryn assures that keeping kosher has a lot of leniency in terms of variations. She still cooks and shares dinner with her family for Shabbat, yet now, Caryn sits down to eat with her husband, their daughter, Gayla, and their white poodle, Shlomi, who also keeps kosher.
Just like different denominations of Judaism, kosher laws are different depending on the person. There are no penalties for not keeping a strict kosher diet; it is all about individual decisions. Anyone can keep kosher, and a lot of people do without even knowing it (think: vegetarians). Caryn’s advice?
Question where your food comes from.
Pick produce from your own garden (or a friend’s). Start small. “I would encourage people to just take one thing,” like not eating milk and meat in the same meal, or cutting out shellfish from your diet, “and see how it feels,” she says. “Once you start, the rest will come naturally. You’ll notice a difference.”