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Finding the Kosher Path Out of Egypt

March 18, 2010 By:
Edmon J. Rodman, JTA
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Beginning at Passover, a shift in diet, as the Haggadah suggests, can lead a person down a path of change, echoing the exodus from Egypt. Photo by Edmon Rodman

With lots of matzah -- boxes and boxes of the flat stuff -- are you kosher for Passover? What about the day after; then what happens?

Last Passover, I began a personal exodus that saw me depart from the diet I'd been using since my early days. What better time to do it? Passover is a celebration of "going out" from Egypt and a search for identity that can be found on the way.

At Passover, each of us is commanded to eat and drink, but in prescribed order from a very particular menu. But last year, the prescription had a side effect.

Call it K.P. syndrome: eye and brain strain from searching labels marked kosher for Passover. For whatever reason, as I sit down to seder this year, it will mark a one-year journey that has caused me to part ways with things I loved.

At the first seder, I'll mark one year of not eating treif, nonkosher food, and of extending the choice of kashrut that my wife and I have kept in our homes since 1980 to the last frontier -- restaurants.

The Haggadah asks us to take the exodus personally; to project with imagery, tastes, questions and song the feeling that we were there.

Did I come away last year with the line: "The more one tells the story of the departure from treif, the more one is to be praised?" No. But the seder did inspire me to turn a page.

Last year, after going through the process of preparing the house for Passover -- bringing the dishes from the basement, even koshering a few pots -- I confronted something a friend said to me several years ago: "Edmon, your dishes are more kosher than you are."

That hurt. Yet dishes were easier to change than I was. Not that I didn't try.

Though I grew up in a Conservative home, my family did not keep kosher. Not until my second year at college, when I lived with some more observant guys, did I give keeping kosher a try. But outside our apartment, I ate what I wanted.

When we married, my wife wanted to keep a kosher home, so I signed on. I ate treif in restaurants, though that changed over time.

First, no bacon or pork. Then shellfish, too, when at a New Orleans restaurant, one of our 8-year-olds declared, after I ordered a shrimp dish: "But daddy, that's not kosher."

Still, it was not simply a coincidence that I began my exodus from treif at Passover, the holiday that more than others puts Jews at odds with American gastronomy. The unleavened thing, I think, after eight days of struggle, flattens the field of choices, opening up a new perspective on our eating habits.

It starts with no bread. What does it mean? You simply turn it down everywhere. And then you also forego other foodstuffs containing leaven. Even those who don't usually pay much attention to this can become obsessed for a week with the holiday search for substitution.

That's why after eight days, two seders and a book full of blessings, I was on the exodus road, leaving behind the world of unkosher steaks and BBQ and brochettes. Once on the road, I found these objects in the mirror do appear closer than they actually are. Even in the Bible, the children of Israel recall longingly the leeks and onions and, yes, the meat of Egypt.

It has not been an easy journey. Though we eat in kosher restaurants as often as possible, we eat in nonkosher ones as well. On every menu there is a kind of treif Haggadah, with its own order of temptation:

Appetizers: "Does that have meat?"

The soup: "What kind of broth is it in?"

The entrees: "Can you leave the meat out of the ---- (fill in the blank)?"

Not that I didn't get lost on my journey. There was the night in a dimly lit Italian restaurant when my eggplant parmigiana was mixed with another diner's veal parmigiana. I discovered the error at first bite.

My journey this year is not for everyone. For years, it wasn't even for me. (Barbecue sandwiches, in particular, remain a plague of temptation.)

As I prepare for another Passover, even before hearing the exhortations of the Haggadah, I hope to imagine myself trekking in the desert with B'nai Yisrael -- a ben horin, a free person who freely made a choice to go kosher.

I'm on the road out of Egypt, and I'm not going back.

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