August 1, 2002
Keeping Kosher in an Unkosher World
Sitting on a plane traveling from Israel, via Canada, to Los Angeles, I couldn't help but over hear the conversations
floating on the air around me. I had been living in Jerusalem the past three years and was returning home to Southern California. My friends in Israel warned me I should prepare myself for a dose of culture shock. I had no idea it would start before the plane had even touched ground.
A man to my right was earnestly drinking beer after beer while bragging to his neighbors about who he knew in Hollywood and which parties he had been to in Beverly Hills. To my left I was treated to two young women, perhaps they were still teenagers -- it's hard to tell ages these days -- who spent the entire plane ride pouring over fashion magazines and discussing what they would purchase and where they would shop once in Los Angeles.
I knew I was returning to the land of Mickey Mouse, merchandising and marketing, but this was a bit much.
Before moving to Israel, I had been living a comfortably Jewish life in Los Angeles. Synagogues abounded, as did kosher shops and restaurants. But now I was returning to Orange County -- an area of Southern California I had always thought of as devoid of Jews.
As I settled into my new home, and attempted to get over the stark contrasts to my previous life in Jerusalem, I began reimmersing myself in the post-Sept. 11 political landscape of America.
This was easy enough to do following headlines that screamed about corporate mendacity, a tumultuous stock market and the travails of Martha Stewart.
The news appalled me and I had flashbacks to the 1980s when "greed was good" and Reagan's banking buddies were robbing America. Only this time it was my 401K on the line. I couldn't help but wonder, "Haven't we learned anything?"
Our sages tell us that everything is in the Torah -- even greed. Adam and Eve were told they could eat of all the trees in the Garden of Eden, except one. So what do they want? To eat from that one tree. There you go. The first sin in the Bible: greed.
If Adam and Eve, the only two people created by God Himself, could sink to such a level, how can we, mere mortal offspring borne of the womb, possibly hope to achieve a higher level of behavior? Adam and Eve were punished for their sin -- banished from their beloved Eden and sentenced to mortality. Yet we infuse greed into our daily lives and expect to go unpunished.
Living in America, but viewing life through the lens of the Torah, I often find myself thinking the way we live our lives is upside down. From the office we filch a few supplies and then expect a big year-end bonus; at the market we grab a few peanuts from the bin and expect to pay the lowest prices; we camouflage the defects of the car we're trying to sell and expect honest disclosure from others. The bottom line of all such behavior: greed -- the desire to have more than the next guy.
Some people, like a few CEOs I can think of, tell us that what we call greed is really capitalism. They lie. Capitalism, when working properly, enables. Greed disables. But if everyone is doing it, how can this climate every change? We look to the Torah for the answer -- one person at a time.
For those of us who believe in God, His all-seeing eye monitors our every movement. But what if this deeply entrenched belief is not present? Then imagine other eyes watching. Before swiping that box of paper clips from work, ask yourself how you would answer your children, when putting them to bed that night, if they asked what you did with your day.
As Jews we are not just role models for our children. We are supposed to be role models for the world. How? By being greedy. We are supposed to be greedy when it comes to good deeds. While words like donate and volunteer may be foreign to us, words like honesty, integrity and responsibility shouldn't be.
When all is said and done, we don't take our money with us after our passing from this world, only our good deeds.
When I got off that plane at LAX, I was worried about how I could continue to live the life I had built for myself in Israel.
On my quest to live a Torah-observant life in Orange County, I found a lovely little kosher shop not five minutes from where I'm living. And tucked in between the many churches that line the streets here, I have found several synagogues. I have Jewish neighbors and even found some Torah classes.
It didn't take me long to realize that yes, I could keep kosher in an unkosher world.