I Want to Start Keeping Kosher: Where Do I Begin?
Dear Jew in the City,
Neither my husband or I were raised in households that keep kosher, but we would like to start. Do you have any suggestions for a military family who would like to begin keeping Kosher? The military lifestyle has us often living in cities far from observant Jewish communities and causes us moving frequently – every 2-3 years – possibly more frequently Thank you for all of the work you do!
Jessie from NC
First let me wish you a mazel tov on deciding to take on such a big mitzvah! Keeping kosher is one of the foundations of an observant Jewish home. OK, so kashering a kitchen isn’t too difficult. There are two main categories to consider: the kitchen itself, which includes the counters, stove, oven, sink, dishwasher, and microwave. And then the stuff you eat off of which includes pots, pans, plates, silverware, cups, storage containers, and cooking utensils.
The kitchen itself can be kashered pretty easily. If your oven is self-cleaning, one cycle should do the trick. Metal sinks need boiling water poured over them. Burners can be kashered by cleaning the grates and then letting the flames burn for a while. The dish washer could be more complicated. You should speak to a rabbi about all of this, but the dishwasher could be the most problematic.
Pots, pans, metal utensils, and glasses can also be kashered fairly easily. The question will be your dishes – which may need to be unused for a while – my mom was told to keep her dishes unused for a year and then they’d be considered a blank slate kosher-wise – or possibly replaced. But again, you should speak to a rabbi about that. Plastic containers will probably need to be thrown out.
It might seem like a bit of an undertaking to get this all going, but there is usually a Chabad rabbi who is willing to come to people’s kitchens and help them begin this very important mitzvah. I would suggest going to Chabad.org and finding the closest Chabad rabbi and seeing if he come and help you do this. They’re known for going out of their way to help people in your exact situation.
The hardest thing will be this initial process and kashering the stuff you eat off of. After that – kashering the kitchens of the homes you move into every two to three years should not be too time consuming. But having a kosher kitchen isn’t enough if you don’t know how to keep it kosher! So I would also suggest contacting PartnersinTorah.org and telling them you’d like to get a free study partner to teach you about kosher (and any other Jewish topic of your choice) before you make your kitchen kosher.
This partner will learn with you for up to (but it can be less) an hour once a week and can teach you the hows and whys of kosher. For instance, we don’t eat pork, shell fish, or mix milk or meat. Virtually all processed food needs to have a kosher symbol on it (though there are a few exceptions). Thankfully, there are so many foods available these days with a reliable hechsher (kosher symbol) – but if you live in an area with no observant Jewish community, you will probably need to get hard cheeses and meats shipped to you since such products are not normally carried in supermarkets unless there is an observant Jewish customers base.
Another aspect of kashrut includes not eating bugs, so your Partner in Torah can explain how to check for bugs in buggy vegetables, how to keep the things separate to avoid confusion, and what to do if something gets mixed up in a kosher kitchen, which happens to all of us at one point or another.
And finally, a note about growth: I’m not sure how un-kosher you were raised. I was raised eating everything tref under the sun. But I didn’t give it all up overnight, and I would suggest that if you’re used to eating pork products, milk and meat, and or shellfish, you pick the easiest thing to give up first, and then once you’ve mastered it, move on to the next thing. If you want your spiritual growth to be lasting, it’s best to take things on slowly. I’ve seen too many people take on too much observance too quickly and then lose it all.
Just like our bodies physically grow over time, so too, our spiritual growth should be gradual. Which means that you can make your kitchen kosher as soon as you feel ready to, but can still let yourself eat out in the meantime – not because you’re rationalizing that kosher only exists in the home and not out of it – but rather because you want this to be a commitment that you’re prepared to keep.
Oh, and if there are any non-kosher foods that you find yourself craving, I’m writing a food memoir right now which will include most the non-kosher foods I grew up enjoying, now re-created in a kosher way!
In the merit of taking on this important mitzvah, may your home be filled with blessings.
All the best,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)