Kashrut Awakening: When a Lapsed Catholic’s Jewish Kid Turns Kosher

After marrying a Jewish woman, a former Catholic grapples with how to feed his daughter, who’s turned to religion.

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Illustration by Nurit Spivak.
Illustration by Nurit Spivak.
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

“I am not eating this,” my youngest daughter declared about a month ago, as if auditioning for the part of Veruca Salt. A plate of schnitzel, cottage cheese and couscous lay on the table, untouched by human hands (my kids have very poor table manners).

“What’s the matter, not hungry?” I asked, keen to avoid a food fight with a 10-year-old. (Never start something you can’t win.) “No Daddy, I am hungry,” she moaned. “But I can’t eat this − it isn’t kosher.”

Adrian Hennigan and his daughter Olivia Credit: Adrian Hennigan

When I was queuing up for the Holy Eucharist as a kid − they tasted of paper and melted on your tongue if you left them there long enough − I’d have said there’d be more chance of pigs flying than me having to take them off the menu on religious grounds. But life with children, unlike an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” is full of surprises.

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My days as a practicing Catholic ended years ago, lapsing even before my gym membership. My eldest daughter described my religious circumstances best while she was a first-grader at a north London Jewish school: “Well, I’m Jewish, my mummy’s Jewish and my sister’s Jewish,” she announced to her class one day. “My daddy isn’t, though. He doesn’t believe in God. He only believes in Notts County.” (Google us: The world’s oldest professional soccer team − 152 years of failure and counting).

A friend once described Catholicism and Judaism as the “glamor religions,” but I prefer to think of them as the g(u)ilt-edged ones. Although we agreed before marriage that the children would be brought up Jewish (their mother is English-Israeli), ours has always been a secular existence. And when we divorced a few years ago, religion was most definitely not a factor (musical differences, thanks for asking).

So given our secular lives (we moved to the capital of secularism, Tel Aviv, in 2008), I was amazed when my youngest dropped her kosher bombshell. At her age I used to spend Sunday mornings hiding under the blanket, praying my parents would forget they had a son and go to Latin Mass without me. Yet here was my 10-year-old daughter voluntarily opting for a more religious existence, even if only at the dinner table.

I was shocked by how many of the Ten Commandments my ex broke when I asked for her opinion on the new development, although I shouldn’t have been so surprised. My in-laws are with Alice Cooper when it comes to Judaism: Shul’s out, forever. And far from encouraging her decision, they’re more likely to question how long it will last, much to her chagrin (I don’t have the heart to tell her the only thing I’d ever bet on her finishing is dessert).

After I started researching what keeping my daughter kosher would involve, I immediately envisaged cutting corners (and not of the sandwich variety). For starters, I wondered if I could argue that, as most of the food I prepare is bland English cuisine, it could be seen as parve, even if it did combine meat and dairy.

And then there was the crockery. Would my daughter really notice if the plate she was eating chicken from had hosted a cheese sandwich the day before? Briefly, I marveled at online photos of deluxe fitted kitchens with two dishwashers (two!!! Such ostentation) and reimagined an old joke doing the rounds on the Upper West Side: “Where’s the dairy dishwasher?” “Oh, I gave her the day off.”

I knew my daughter wouldn’t care about any of this − she still thinks food magically appears on the table courtesy of the food fairy (I really hope the pizza delivery guy isn’t offended if he reads this) − but I realized that, ultimately, I would care. If she wants to interpret “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) as meaning she can’t have meat and dairy together, then I should honor that, with everything it entails.

Well, almost everything. If God had really wanted me to get new dishware for my daughter, He wouldn’t have made places like IKEA such a hellish experience. So instead, I boiled a few old plates and scrawled a big D on them. (Note to self: Next time, write the D on the reverse side.)

After my daughter first announced her decision (and, remember, we’re only talking a month here − she could be halal by the time you read this), I asked her to outline the rules as she saw them. I repeat them here in their entirety:

* No dairy for two hours after eating meat. I queried this, as I’d heard the duration could be anything between three and six hours, but she told me the two-hour thing was a special deal for kids. This, she assured me, was the regime her friends followed. (Yes, it turns out her decision is a peer group thing: God found her in the playground.)

* No meat for two hours after eating dairy.

* Shrimps are out.

* That’s it.

I told her the good news: She can eat meat straight after dairy. Then I told myself the bad news: She has no sense of time (it’s one of the things that defines childhood − along with the inability to know when a toilet roll is about to run out), and I would have to become her kosher timekeeper. This was proven immediately, when she asked whether the two-hour wait was over … a full seven minutes after she’d finished her last mouthful of chicken. She has subsequently found other friends who have a one-hour meat/dairy rule, so the wait’s been halved now, anyway.

She didn’t seem unduly concerned when we ran through a list of things she won’t be able to eat: eel, shark, whale, eagle, camel, kangaroo, bugs, etc. There really haven’t been many changes to her daily eating routine … although I don’t know what we’ll do with that lion casserole in the freezer.

I’ve been caught out occasionally. The other week, for example, I made her a chicken sandwich with low-fat mayonnaise, then had a crisis of kosher confidence as I tried to decide if eggs qualified as dairy. I ended up eating that sandwich, only later discovering that it would have been OK for her. I’m going to play dumb about bacon for a while longer, though, as I really love bacon sandwiches and am getting twice as many now (“What?!? It’s still kosher? Pass it over. And the ketchup.”)

The truth is, my youngest sees keeping kosher as a way of eating more healthily, which is the main reason I’m so supportive. But if she comes to me next week saying she wants to observe the Sabbath, I’ll respect that, too − I’ve been looking for an excuse to do nothing on a Saturday for ages.

Adrian Hennigan is a journalist and born-again atheist who has lived in Tel Aviv since 2008.

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