June 2, 2005
If we are what we eat, then at this moment I'm a big fat Gordo's burrito with extra cheese. But I'm a veggie burrito because for the past several years, I've been cultivating my own brand of kosher. I like to call myself "kosher style."
It's a phrase that's apt to confuse, so let me explain. No pork. No shellfish. No conscious mixing of meat and dairy. I'll eat meat out, and though I pass on cheeseburgers at Barney's, I wouldn't ask Alice Waters to hold the butter in preparing my filet of beef ? la ficelle (assuming ficelle isn't bacon). My theory: Unless I see dairy, it's kosher enough.
I have plenty of friends who keep more strictly kosher than I do, but even some of them make exceptions -- like bouillabaisse in France or lobster in Maine. I deviate when I'm the guest in someone's home, and the options are slim -- my rationale being that it's better to not shame a host than to stick to my half-baked rules.
There are those who may cringe at my interpretation of Jewish dietary laws, but it's not like I eat this way because the Bible tells me to. Nor do I see it as a mitzvah commanded by the God I'm not always sure I believe in. And it certainly isn't because I grew up this way.
It began with a request from a Holocaust survivor who once advised, "Order kosher meals on airplanes, because the day you stop ordering them is the day they'll stop making them."
Forgoing regular airplane food was a sacrifice I could make.
I remember the first time a flight attendant called out, "Ravitz, kosher meal?" Heads of passengers whipped around to look at "the Jew," and there I sat, donning my jeans, fleece and baseball cap, looking like any other 20-something American.
I didn't want the attention, but when it came, I kind of liked it. That nasty little packet of excessively wrapped, overcooked -- and yet simultaneously frozen -- meat sparked conversation. People would ask me about my kosher meals: "I've always wondered what this is all about."
I even got confessions: "You know, I recently found out my grandfather was Jewish."
I felt like an ambassador for my people, called forth to enlighten flight passengers over stale rolls.
Soon I was changing the way I ate on the ground, pork products being the first to go. Then I struggled to relinquish shrimp, New England clam chowder, steamed mussels. California rolls were missed, until I found salvation in "imitation crab." Then came the meat-and-dairy conundrum, which wasn't that bad, barring the loss of chicken Caesar salads and my mom's grilled bleu cheese steak. The mere thought of it still makes me drool.
At a crawfish boil I attended in Alabama this summer, people around me snapped off heads, slurping the prawns' insides, while taking turns asking me questions.
"What, you don't like this stuff?" "You allergic?" "What's wrong with you?"
I stammered, embarrassed by the repeated calls of attention. "Well, you see, I sort of keep kosher."
I blathered about split hooves and chewed cuds before someone interrupted, "But why do you keep kosher?"
I gave the best answer I could come up with: "Because it reminds me of who I am."
In September, Sophia Café, a new kosher restaurant, opened on Solano Avenue in Albany, walking distance from my home. When I first spotted it, I was floored. How could a glatt kosher restaurant survive in a place like this? It's not like the Bay Area is a bastion of religious observance.
I walked inside and got my answer.
There was the visitor from Los Angeles who said her son passed up going to Cal because kosher food was so hard to come by. There was the woman planning for observant houseguests from the East who will need places to eat. There was the father in an Orthodox family who kept thanking the owner for his restaurant's presence.
The mashgiach, who oversees kosher practices in the kitchen, said it's the only glatt kosher restaurant in the East Bay. He also said it wouldn't survive on kosher eaters alone.
I have a feeling that a certain Holocaust survivor would have something to say about that. Lucky for me, the restaurant's meat was served hot and without wrapping.
Jessica Ravitz completed her masters in journalism at UC Berkeley and currently is a staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.