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Instead of bringing us together food can sometimes become a reason for rifts.
A commotion outside the bakery on Agrippas Road, on the night right after Passover: A bearded man, clad in black, yelling at a group of Israelis, men and women, some in knit kippas and headscarves, some not, who are trying to buy fresh pita, eager for the first flavor of unleavened and not in the mood for the yelling: “It isn’t kosher!” the man gestures wildly, “It’s too soon after the holiday is over! This bakery is not kosher!”. He points at a sign on the wall: “Fresh pitas may not be purchased before 8:05pm on April 1. It takes about 30 min. to prep and bake a pita. signed: The Rabbis.”
It’s 8:15.
The bakery owner is not there to reply, the Arab workers busy packing pitas into plastic bags don’t even look up and a few of the startled customers are, Israeli style, shouting back, showing him their watches. He refused to relent – the bakery has been open since 8pm! It must be shut down at once.
We walk away from there, amused but also really not, nibbling a fresh pita and trying to make sense of all this food related mania and where ancient rules for dietary well being have become so Kafka-like ridiculous and so very unappealing. All the flavor taken out of simple pleasures, with too many regulations, too much supervision, separating us instead of adding another chair at the table.
Passover is just such an example of kosher gone wrong – on steroids.  The holiday, like so many others, is grounded in the art of eating – the flavors are what give it meaning, the taste is where our memories reside. But also the ongoing slavery to the wrong kind of stuff. The ultimate gastro-judaic obstacle course sets up each year unpleasant tiffs and family feuds sparked by different traditions of what one does or doesn’t eat and how. Quinoa, for instance, the latest addition to the “kosher for passover or not’ saga is banned by some, blessed by others and ignored by most. But at least at one Seder that I know of – an entire pot of it was thrown out because the hosts feared the hostile reaction of a cousin. Really. It’s not like there aren’t lots of hungry people among us! For THIS we left Egypt? For pseudo Bible thumping hunger games??
Far beyond the norms of actual nutrition, dietary restrictions define our most private and public norms of living, which is, most likely, their very reason for existence.
You could argue that Kosher (Or Halal, etc.)matters because God said so, or because that’s how social walls protect and mould an ethnic identity. But for me it’s simply a device to be more aware of the  daily duty of conscious nutritious intake. It’s about discipline, it’s about gratitude, and it’s about control. The religious prohibitions were inserted to make it more scary to some folks, but really, it’s just the gravy.  The main dish is more conscious eating.
Maybe it all began with that first bite of forbidden fruit – and all this kosher stuff is the reacting to boundless desire?
I grew up 100% kosher, tested the boundaries during my teens and army years, gone way off, and am now somewhere in the 85% vegetarian camp, kosher-ish. I only really started understanding the power of dietary restrictions when I went on a rigid – and successful -low-carb diet about ten years ago. AH! I remember thinking as I carefully removed the slices of bread from my tuna sandwich, with carbs clearly marked as the new Treif: THIS is why we have dietary restrictions in the Torah – it isn’t about some god-like menu – it’s about the disciplined practice of careful eating  – conscious, healthy, enviromentally aware. The law is there to serve the greater human need for better living – and for survival on the planet. The eco-kosher
movement is totally a step in that direction. My friends at Hazon are also doing amazing work in this area.
In this week’s Torah text, Shmini, Leviticus 11 lists the famous do’s and dont’s of kosher cooking – rabbit out, chicken in, etc.
We are what we eat – and what we are not allowed to or choose to avoid determines who we want to become.
Laws are important for the health of a nation, but sometimes laws become an obstacle to life. With all due respect to Kosher and to Kosher for Passover – and even with respect to the yelling Jew outside the bakery on post passover night: dayenu.
The obsession with minutia is driving us away from the real bottom line, the big picture, the healthy diets of disciplined pleasures that will nourish our bodies, satisfy our souls and help us be in better sync with the rest of the planet. Food is there to bring us closer to ourselves, each other, the divine. We must make sure it isn’t used so much as a tool for oppressive separation. There are enough food disorders in our lives already – let’s figure out a way to make the Jewish diet one that doesn’t promote more suffering, but brings more joy into our lives – one bite at a time.
How privileged we are to be having this conversation.
Bon Appetit.
Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

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