When I was in the eighth grade, my mother decided to kasher our kitchen. Each summer, after my sister and I returned from Camp Ramah, which was our first experience with kashrut, we’d asked if we could become kosher. In 1985, we were getting ready to move into a house my mother, a realtor, was renovating. This included gutting the kitchen. She decided that was the perfect opportunity to become kosher.
I continued to keep kosher in college until I moved into my first apartment. I eventually became a vegetarian, and didn’t see the relevance of keeping kosher, since I wasn’t eating meat.
I’m still a vegetarian, as is my daughter, Logan, but today, my position at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging as religious and cultural education coordinator includes educating staff members on the laws of kashrut. I have a good working knowledge of kashrut procedures and the meaning behind them, but I felt conflicted teaching people about something I was not practicing. No matter the age, students have a way of knowing if a teacher is sincere. I can be enthusiastic about teaching trop (cantillation) to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, as I regularly chant Torah on Shabbat. Teaching about kashrut was different — I was explaining what should be done according to Jewish belief, but not practicing it myself.
A conversation I had with Handmaker volunteer Molly Senor really stuck with me. She explained that she keeps kosher so that anyone, regardless of their level of Jewish observance, could eat a meal in her home. Many years ago, my mom had said something similar when she decided to kasher our kitchen. It was important to her that anyone, even our congregation’s rabbi, could enjoy a meal in our home.
I decided I had to “walk my talk” and kasher my kitchen. Laora Litin, a local observant woman, made herself available to answer my many questions and steered me to a helpful website, kosherquest.org. I also looked at links from the Chicago Rabbinical Council website, which has how-to videos on the hagalah (purging) process, which involves not using an item for 24 hours, then submerging it completely in boiling water. Items that couldn’t be kashered had to be replaced; surfaces that couldn’t be submerged, like counter tops, had to be cleaned then rinsed with boiling water. Some unwieldy items, like my oven racks, I torched with a flame. Throughout the process, which took about a week, I had to keep reminding myself why it was important to me, as it was an enormous amount of work.
The most challenging part of the process came when I was about halfway done and needed to make lunch for Logan. I had a new frying pan, knives and cutting boards, but my plates and silverware were not kashered, nor were all of the countertops. I ended up covering the counter with aluminum foil and serving her lunch on a paper plate. I couldn’t wash the knife or pan after the meal, though, because I hadn’t finished kashering the sink.
Keeping kosher will probably be more challenging for Logan than for me, as it is a new practice for her. Having spent many of my formative years in a kosher home, I have an awareness of checking items for a hechsher (kosher certification), while Logan is still learning how to determine if something is kosher. During the process, I kept referring to a long list from kosherquest.org that identifies items that do not need a hechsher, such as flour, sugar and basmati rice. Logan was disappointed that her favorite hot cocoa, Nestle’s Abuelita Hot Chocolate, does not have a hechsher, and therefore was going in my donation pile. When I wasn’t looking, she impishly wrote the item on my “needs no certification” list, trying to match the font and ink color of the printout. Logan is also learning that many items we already use have a hechsher. We can continue buying the maple syrup we like, as well as many of our favorite snacks.
On my final day of kashering I spent 11 hours cleaning. My kitchen has probably never been as clean as it is now, which is a good feeling. The process also involved a large amount of purging. Plastic and rubber items cannot be kashered. I gave away lots of Tupperware, which was not easy (friends and family can testify to my strict Tupperware-lending policy). I am left with a spotlessly clean and clutter-free kitchen.
This Passover will mark five months of keeping a kosher home. The process of getting ready for Passover will be somewhat similar to the initial kashering of my kitchen, in that any pots, pans, utensils or equipment I plan to use during Passover will need to be thoroughly cleaned and submerged in boiling water. In addition to kashering these items, I will also be using a separate set of dishes which I set aside for Passover, as well as purging my kitchen of any chametz (leavened foods) and putting items I will not be able to kasher for Passover into storage. Having gone through this process so recently, I know that a lot of time and boiling water will be involved.
Spending so much time cleaning turned into an almost meditative process for me. Purging was something I needed to do, as evidenced by how happy I am every time I see my clutter-free kitchen. I really don’t need to hold onto everything I thought I needed. I am also more confident in teaching people about kashrut since I follow the practice myself. I can jokingly say that my kitchen really needed a deep cleaning, but looking back at this process, I can also say that my soul benefited from a deep cleaning and purging too.
Lori Riegel is the religious and cultural education coordinator at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging.