Although my parents were both Jewish, I was not raised in a Jewish home. I have no memories of my biological father, and my mother became a Christian convert and remarried a non-Jewish man when I was very young. My siblings and I were raised as Christians. That said, I still was lucky enough to have the incredible influence of my maternal grandparents—Orthodox Jews who lived their entire married lives (more than 60 years!) in an apartment at the corner of Crown Street and Brooklyn Avenue in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

II visited them each summer, participating in their Jewish life visited them each summer between the ages of 5 and 12, participating in their Jewish life and absorbing their beliefs. While my grandfather was at work, my grandma and I stocked their kosher kitchen with food from delis, and the meat and fish markets of Crown Heights. That kitchen was no more than 80 feet square, but somehow, the kosher rules were maintained.

There were several sets of silver, several sets of pots and pans, and several sets of dishes—each designated for meat or dairy, and further separated for everyday use and for Passover. The double cast-iron sinks held two bars of brown soap, one with a pink letter and one with a blue letter. Because I visited as a very young child, I no longer remember which soap was designated for meat and which for dairy, but my grandma knew.

That little kitchen was the hub of their apartment. There the laundry was washed and hung on lines near the ceiling by my diminutive grandma who had to stand on a stepstool to do so. There kosher meals were prepared on the tiny gas stove. There the menorah was lit on Chanukah. And there my grandmother lit Shabbat candles, her head covered with a dish towel, her hands first drawing the light upward and then covering her face as she prayed.

The author's grandparents, Ida and William Sterling.
The author's grandparents, Ida and William Sterling.

Recently, I had my first experience preparing kosher food. Rabbi Yosef Goldwasser, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Mobile, Ala., had agreed to offer Torah studies to the small Reform Jewish group I belong to on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. As I love to bake, I wanted to contribute my challah and homemade pound cake. I didn’t know how I would be able to meet glatt-kosher standards so that the Chabad rabbi would be able to share in eating the food, but I wanted with all my heart to try.

The rabbi soon came to my home for a visit, and we discussed how to make sure every kitchen item used, everything the food touched during preparation, and every ingredient met the stringent requirements. I put both my gas ovens through a self-cleaning process, bought a brand-new stock pot in which to immerse the bread pan and the mixing bowl in boiling water, bought new measuring cups, spoons, and a few new utensils to work with, and bought a new loaf pan for the cake. I even bought a large separate container in which to store my kosher baking items.

On baking day, the rabbi returned to my home with his beautiful family to oversee the koshering process. The rebbetzin, Bina, laughed and teased that I was halfway to having a kosher kitchen of my own.

I rolled out the challah dough on aluminum foil to make sure it didn’t touch the counter, filled the pieces with a delicious brown sugar and cinnamon mix, and braided the bread. I filled the newly acquired cake pan with the pound-cake batter, and baked both the bread and the cake in the koshered oven. In the end, after the first Torah study, the rabbi was able to lead our group as we said the blessing before eating the food together, and he was able to partake of this bread made with my hands.

And I? I made the most importOn baking day, the rabbi returned to my homeant connection yet in my journey of discovery of my heritage and my people. The joy I feel at having made this leap in learning how living a Jewish life is immeasurable. Embracing each new Jewish experience is like thanking G‑d for who I am.

My journey to discovering how to be a Jew is fairly new. Growing up without the foundation of a Jewish life is confusing, and taking steps towards living a Jewish life in these circumstances is difficult. But over the years, I have felt a deep yearning to become the Jewish woman my heart was leading me to be. It meant becoming part of a Jewish community, starting to study Hebrew, learning prayers for Shabbat candles and food, participating in Torah study. It meant reading about Jewish history and Jewish life. And it meant making a concerted effort to rediscover and incorporate what makes me Jewish—not only because of my parentage, but because with every step I take towards my Jewishness, my Jewish soul, my neshama, rejoices.

My lesson in keeping kosher was not just a lesson in cooking. It gave me a feeling of rightness and completion. Who knows what is next for me? My Jewish education proceeds apace.