Parashah Shemini

April 9, 2021Robin Krieger, Chai Society Member & FWC Co-Chair, Temple Shalom of Newton, Newton, MA


Why is my sister still kosher?

It never occurred to me to ask my sister, Toby, why she keeps a kosher home until I read this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, which discusses the strict dietary rules of kashrut. While we are taught all about these rules, it provides no explanation for the incredibly detailed and complicated rules of clean and unclean animals that are discussed in the portion– leaving it up to the interpretation of scholars over centuries. Was it for health reasons, or were the rules for the killing of animals more humanitarian? Or, was it meant to separate the Jewish people from other nations?

Shemini includes the line: “For I am your G-d: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy… For I am the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your G-d: you shall be holy, for I am holy.” Because these words follow the laws of keeping kosher, G-d’s holiness, and the Israelites commandment to mirror G-d’s holiness seems to be the reason for all the dietary restrictions. So, if not for being more holy, what was my sister Toby’s reason for observing kashrut and keeping a kosher home, when no one else in my family continued to do so? 

My paternal grandmother lived with us for many years and insisted our home be a kosher one. This was not what my mother would have chosen, but my father held firm. We remained kosher many years after my grandmother’s passing until my mother joined Weight Watchers. At the time, her kosher butcher who delivered to us, retired and she wasn’t willing to drive to the store in the next town because it was not convenient. Soon after, we noticed a new pot hidden in a cabinet, my mother’s “shrimp pot” for her non-kosher Weight Watchers recipes. I do not recall my parents telling us about this change and wonder what they discussed about this new pot behind closed doors. We were not kosher outside our home, and I loved BLTs at the Italian and Chinese restaurants we frequented. But shrimp in our house? Blasphemous! 

While setting up our home, my husband Ernie and I never considered keeping it kosher. Of the four children in my childhood family, only Toby, named after our paternal grandmother, and the youngest, continues this tradition. I imagine her kitchen is set up like my Eastern European ancestors’, dishes and utensils separated, and another two sets stored away to use during Passover. My sister knows and frequents every kosher butcher within a 50-mile radius, and plans her trips based on her available freezer space. She does this despite the expense and daily inconvenience.

When Toby was young, she rarely missed a Saturday morning Shabbat service at our Conservative synagogue. Toby graduated from college in Israel and lived in Jerusalem for a few years before returning home. As an adult, she has always had a kosher home, which means our family Passover seders are at Toby’s. Her seders are like our childhood seders but with more thought to involve those attending who did not grow up with our same traditions. When we couldn’t get together last year, I realized how much I missed the seder at my sister’s. Toby spends weeks preparing for Passover. She loves unpacking my grandmother’s Passover dishes and sets a beautiful table with all the necessary accouterments. Her counters are covered in foil throughout the holiday, hiding any remnants of chametz, and her cabinets are only filled with Kosher for Passover items. Toby’s kosher brisket might not taste better than mine, but it is made with symbolic and emotional energy my brisket lacks.

So, to my original question: Why is my sister kosher? When I asked, her first words, without hesitation, were “tradition” and “history.” She does not want to be the one responsible for breaking generations of our family tradition of keeping kosher. She loves the history of our religion, and by observing kashrut, she is reminded every day of who she is and where we come from. I love knowing that this is how Toby keeps our family’s history alive. My siblings and I chose different paths to practice our Judaism. Though the parashat equates keeping kosher with holiness, none of my siblings consider Toby to be more Jewish, only grateful she keeps our family tradition alive. L’dor v’dor – from generation to generation. 

Robin Krieger has just concluded her term on the WRJ North American Board, and is a new member of Chai Society. She is also the current Northeast District Area Director.