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What Jews Do

What Jews Do

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The route of every Jew who becomes observant is unique. One of the turning points on my journey occurred at a large Iowa university with a minuscule Jewish population, where during my freshman year of 1963–64 I was the only undergraduate female who identified herself as Jewish.

Among my roommates during my first term was a junior taking a child development class on cultures. She decided to join the committee researching the Jewish culture because she had a ready-made resource to interview—me. As a fourth-generation American descendant of Reform Jews who emigrated from Germany before the U.S. Civil War, I didn’t know much about Judaism, but I did my best to answer her questions. The relief that I felt when she finished questioning me was short-lived, however. Every term after that, the child development professor gave my name to the committee studying Judaism. To meet this challenge, I would have to learn something about my heritage.

The college library had two shelves of books on Judaism. I started at one end of the upper shelf and began reading. They gave me basic information about Jewish history, tradition and beliefs. With the help of the books, I managed to get through the questions during the winter term. Then, in the spring of my freshman year, I met Janet.

Janet was a Southern Baptist from a small town in Iowa. Like many students at college, she came from a family for whom church was a major focus. Her beliefs guided her behavior in all aspects of her life.

I was the first Jewish person she’d ever met. She told me that she had chosen to write about the Jewish culture because she wanted to learn about the origins of her faith. Could she come with me to synagogue?

The town had a small Reform congregation that met Friday evenings in the parlor of one of the churches. I agreed to take her, and as we strolled through the quiet streets, she asked me about my religious life. “Where do you eat?” she asked suddenly.

Mystified, I gave the name of the dorm dining hall.

“How do you manage?” she asked.

“What do you mean? I just eat.”

With an edge to her voice she said, “How can you ‘just eat’? We get ham, pork or shellfish three or four nights a week, and most of the rest of the time there’s meat and milk at the same meal.”

“Oh,” I said confidently, “You mean kosher. I’m Reform, and we don’t keep kosher.”

“You don’t keep kosher? But from everything I've read, kosher is one of the cornerstones of Judaism. Why don’t you keep it?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know; we just don’t.”

Janet stopped and turned to face me, hands on her hips. I can still picture her standing there in the light of a street lamp, dressed the way she would for church, in a navy suit, a small white hat and white gloves. She looked me up and down as though I were a bug on a pin. Then she said words that still reverberate through my mind: “If my church told me to do something, I’d do it.”

In the long silence that followed, I rolled the words over and over through my mind. And I wondered, why did the Reform movement say keeping kosher wasn’t important? I decided to find out.

The next day I found, on one of those shelves of Jewish books, a history of the Reform movement. Breaking bread with others, said the book, is a universal gesture of friendship and goodwill. Keeping kosher prevents Jews and non-Jews from breaking bread together; thus it prevents casual communion between “us” and “them.” When Jews stop keeping kosher and eat non-kosher with their neighbors, anti-Semitism will end and Jews will be fully accepted into mainstream society.

I thought of the Jewish history I’d been reading, of Moses Mendelssohn and the Emancipation; of my mother’s family, which hadn’t kept kosher in at least four generations; and I thought of the Holocaust, which began in Mendelssohn’s and my great-great-grandparents’ homeland, Germany. I turned to the title page of the book and saw that the book had originally been published in German, in Berlin, in 1928.

Maybe in 1928 German Jews could say that eating with non-Jews would end anti-Semitism. But they were about to be proved disastrously wrong. Could I continue to eat in a non-Jewish fashion, when the reasoning for permitting Jews to eat non-kosher was based on a complete fallacy?

If my church told me to do something, I’d do it. Janet’s words took one end of my Yiddishe neshamah (Jewish soul), and the book’s glaring fallacy took the other end, and they shook me until I had to sit down, right there on the floor beside the library stacks. When I stopped shaking, I knew that until I could find a good reason, a true reason, to not keep kosher, I had no choice. I was a Jew, and the Jews kept kosher. It was that simple.

My complete transformation from a secular Jew to a Torah-observant one took many years, and many more lessons in faith. But my first big step began that Shabbat night, when a Christian girl challenged me to stand up and act like a Jew.

Originally published on the OK Kosher website.
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Hanna B. Geshelin January 13, 2017

Reply to Mlk I'm the author of this piece, and here's some more background that might clarify it for Mlk. I don't know if Reform now recommends people keep kosher. If you read a history of the Reform movement, in the early years, and still up through the 1980's, Reform Jews would deliberately eat treif--temples would hold communal meals and serve spaghetti and meatballs with parmesan cheese, or a ham-and-cheese casserole, dishes that were popular with the non-Jewish world. In 1979, at a restaurant's window table I saw the local Reform rabbi eating a shrimp cocktail. This was the environment when I had this experience. I had heard of "kosher" but was told it was an anachronistic practice kept only by pathetic people who needed "God" to take care of them, being too weak to handle life alone. This is why it was such a shock to me when Janet made her comment about what Jews do. Reply

Mlk Brockton Ma January 11, 2017

Kosher Dorm living does not mean that you have to not keep to your Jewish diet laws Even Reformed Jewish people according to my knowledge aren't allowed to eat ham pork bacon or any meats or certain fish that is not allowed . No matter Reformed Orthodox Hasdic we still have the same diet laws . Reply

Robert M. Blevins Seattle March 17, 2016

That is an interesting and unique story. I was happy to read it. 'Give me a K! Give me an O!...' You can fill in the rest. Reply

Jeff Kahn Lumberton, NC October 21, 2012

keeping kosher Your loyalty to your faith in keeping kosher... Let's just say I'm a little faklempt! Grab on to some more of your heritage just like you're doing now. Don't ever stop! Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC April 3, 2012

Re: Actually, the idea that pots are affected by the foods they are coooked in is Biblical in origin. After a battle with the tribe of Midian, the Jewish people are told to purge out utensils...

I should also note that one of reasons given for the popular tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot is that their pots were not kosher after they were first given the kosher laws. Reply

Carolynn Taub Stearns Hillsboro, Oregon April 3, 2012

What Jews Do Great article. I think G-d works to bring us light in the way each person needs. We are all different. What will " Click" for one, will not be effective for another. The Key is the effect, the result. "Janet's" comments, are what Hannah needed to hear at that time. That is a gift. It brought her closer. One more for us, rather than one more lost. Say Thank You and B" H. Reply

Susan Levitsky March 27, 2012

Because God said so Actually, we keep Kosher with blind faith. Any reason other than God said so, is wrong. He never gave us any health reasons, which may also be true, only that we are holy to Him and don't eat certain things.
The Rabbis have made it into a much more complicated thing than what God said. For instance, he never said, "Before you leave Egypt, rush out and buy two other sets of dishes and pots and pans."
I originally read this article a long time ago and frequently quote from it when discussing Kosher with other people. Reply

Anonymous February 8, 2012

To Anonymous from Fairfax With the rise of secularization and anti-Semitism it can become very easy for one to forget what Judaism is about- knowing that there is only ONE G-d and "the rest is commentary."
When one possesses self-delusional beliefs and draws false conclusions out of thin air, but at the same time tries to teach you morality you can't help yourself but stop and think about the validity of their statements.
Self-righteousness and a lack of reason don't lead you to anywhere... Reply

DALILA san rafael, ca June 10, 2009

Well done,I AM REALLY GLAD OF WHAT YOU DID.You should all be proud of who you are...god's people Reply

Anonymous Kanata, ON May 20, 2009

Kosh, by Gosh Hi, my parents were non-religious all of my life, but the word and concept of kosher were used around the house and the community by them and all of our friends all of my youthful years.
The teen years take so much time for studies that there is little room for church-going. But the practise and interest in healthful foods and very clean living (even though my Mom cooked bacon and ham) steered me toward other concepts in Judaism.
I never have pork myself- if you care about good food you go vegan, as I have been for forty years.
I feel that the concept of kosher eating should by now have been universally accepted, and that only good has come of the ideas and practises. Reply

Rachel June 28, 2008

From a Baptist Sunday school to Judaism Yehudis wrote "I can honestly say it was the truth of Torah and the beauty of practicing Judaism that has, thank G-d, given me a chance at life as a Jew by choice."

That was so similar to how my journey to Judaism started Yehudis. My family was Methodist and since there was no Methodist Sunday school to attend in the community we moved to I was sent to a Baptist one. One of the teachers there sat with all us children in a big circle. She gave each of us a verse from the bible that spoke of the "Pearly Gates" and asked us to describe what that verse meant to us. We were encouraged to be open about our various interpretations. She then explained that each of us understand words differently and to have respect for other's opinions. Years later that teaching helped me connect to my Jewish neshama and I am proud to be a Jew today. Part of my journey to Judaism was because of that teacher. Reply

Hanna Geshelin Dallas, TX June 8, 2007

Author's Response As author of this article, I am surprised that so many readers thought that the moment described was the end of my spiritual journey. As Yanki Tauber points out, it was the moment when I realized that what I had been taught was false, and that I needed to learn more. In the nearly 40 years since then I have continued to learn, grow spiritually, and increase my observance. I continue to be grateful for my Baptist friend for starting me on this amazing journey. Reply

Yehudis Monsey, New York May 9, 2006

I was a baptist, now a frum Jew I was a Baptist, a graduate of a fundamentalist bible college, married to a church pastor. If my church told me to do something- I did it. I learned complete, cheerful and instant obedience to authority. I was told that the Bible is G-d's Word, and I believed it. During my early adulthood in the 1990s I began to question fundamentalism but I still believed in G-d. I looked to the original language of what l called, the Old Testament, a language that l was discouraged from studying by my church, because only pastors should learn it. I can honestly say it was the truth of Torah and the beauty of practicing Judaism that has, thank G-d, given me a chance at life as a Jew by choice. I am more liberated now as an orthodox Jewish woman than l ever was as a Baptist pastor's wife. Reply

Anonymous owasso, ok April 26, 2006

"ack like..." I applaud you for your courage and commitment to Judaism and our people!!! May HaShem bless you for your love of Him. Reply

Elizabeth Rasche Gonzalez Chicago, IL August 11, 2004

"What Jews Do," re keeping kosher Clearly this article hit a nerve, judging from the comments re "doing what my church told me to do." I certainly empathize with all the folks who found this a questionable reason for adopting a particular mitzvah, given our long tradition of Talmudic debate and questioning.

Surprisingly, no one questioned the chutzpah of a Southern Baptist roommate in commenting on the author's Jewish observance and finding it lacking! Implictlly, in fact, the Christian student passed judgment on Reform Jews in general at that time. Wow!

The whole story speaks well of the young Jewish woman, who was open to the message (and ultimately, in fact, to transformation). To draw on the teachings of yet another religious tradition, it does seem that "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Reply

Yanki Tauber June 1, 2004

Shallow action? Tzvi sees a nice jab at the Reform movement, but there's more to Hannah's article than that. To me, the article is about how a young Jewish woman comes to a recognition that: 1) She's Jewish; 2) Jews keep kosher; hence 3) She should keep kosher. Mr. Anonymous from Fairfax VA calls this "to blindly follow the leader." I call it attaining the maturity to say: "This is who I am, this is the deepest part of me. So am I going to wait until I've got all the 'reasons' figured out before doing the things that make me who I am? Or do I act out of a sense of trust and faith in my inner voice, and proceed to explore the hows and whys from a place of involvement and commitment, rather than from a place of alienation and detachment?"

Certainly, the teachings of Chassidism emphasize the "the depth Judaism has to offer." But the "depth" has true meaning only when the essence is there. The mitzvot are the essence of Judaism; the philosophy is the flavor of the essence. Action without understanding is missing something; but understanding without action is missing everything. The former is like eating the apple without tasting it; the latter is like chewing the apple and spitting it out. Which is the "shallower" experience?

You can start with the philosophy and eventually get to the essence. But if you start with the essence, the philosophy will be so much more meaningful. And real. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, ON May 30, 2004

Re: To the Editors I also cringed a little at the words, "If my church told me to do something I would do it!" But look, that's what the lady said.
What seems most significant in the article is the "argument from obsolescence". This is neat: Once upon a time it was thought that kosher eating was obsolete. The author here discovers that the reason the Reform movement discarded kashrut is what is obsolete--having been tested and discredited. In fact, there are quite a few Reform rabbis today who have become proponents of kashrut.
As for the "blind obedience" line, swallow the fruit and spit out the seeds. I mean, there's a limit to how much the editor can censor. Reply

Anonymous Fairfax, VA/USA May 28, 2004

To the Editors: I feel that the slant taken by the author in her article borders on being propoganda. How could an organization that works towards helping Jews DEEPEN their connection to Judaism and G-d title an article: What Jews Do, and thematically liken it to: Following the authority. Please explain that to me?

I also dislike how the article brought the Holocaust into the issue and indirectly: assimilation. Though the view presented in the book it referenced is to me and many others erroneous, the implicit connection between the Holocaust and observance made by the author is troubling. To completely seclude ourselves from the world society is to limit the good God enables and commands us to do, but by completely assimilating we would lose a very precious heritage.

In conclusion, Chabad's choice to post this article is hypocritical (no pun intended): Showing this shallow face of action as 'What Jews Do' is in direct contradiction with the depth Judaism has to offer. Reply

Anonymous Fairfax, VA/USA May 28, 2004

It is important to Question Though I respect the views of the writer and commend her for her observance, I feel that the views presented in this article are in contradiction with those of this site. This article makes the simplistic conclusion that we should do what the authority says. I do not advocate a casual and sweeping disregard for all mitzvot; indeed mitzvot add great richness and meaning to life, not to mention that they are spiritually fulfilling and bring one closer to G-d. However, to blindly follow the leader is very unJewish. To do something just because one is Jewish denies the great depth that Orthodox Judaism has preserved. Thus does this article's presence on this site bother me. Many classic Jewish texts speak of different levels of action, and this type of motivation is among the lowest. There HAS to be and IS something deeper than doing it because it's required. I believe that this person would attain a higher level of understanding when they question... Reply

Shushanna Avon Lake, Ohio via chabadtoledo.com May 25, 2004

Kosher I like the idea that I was once taught, about how keeping kosher is a way that I identify myself as a Jew, and as having a special relationship with G-d. I enjoyed the article, and I am glad that you were able to hear the challenge and not just critisism. Reply

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