All I Ever Wanted Was a Cheeseburger

cheeseburgers, fast food, American culture, teenage rebellion, religious rebellion, kashrut

Growing up Orthodox Jewish in Houston, Texas in the 1950s and ’60s, the mixing of dairy and meat was forbidden.

All I ever wanted was a cheeseburger.

But they were taboo. Not kosher. Not in accordance with Jewish dietary law.

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Texas in the 50s and 60s.  The population of Houston, my hometown, was then one million. Of whom 25,000 were Jewish and of those 25,000 Jews, only 500 of us were Orthodox.

Or as a college friend of mine once said, “Dude, you were like were a minority within a minority. That would be like growing up as an Amish heroin addict.”

My parents believed in a strict interpretation of the Old Testament, a book neither had read in its entirety.

I grew up within two cultures, the child of first-generation Russian-American immigrants who were now suburban Texans.  As a result, at every meal we sat down and ate cattle. Except on Friday night, when we ate fried chicken.  Once, we had tacos.

Keeping kosher would have been no big deal were it only a matter of abstaining from unclean animals. At age ten, I had no problem avoiding shrimp, oysters and calamari.  And though it caused me some pain during my youth, I lived without ever tasting a Twinkie or a Hostess Sno-ball because they were baked with lard, which my parents told me came from pigs.  Which didn’t bother me, but disgusted them.

Another problem with keeping kosher as a kid was that every time I ate outside of my parents’ home, I had to recall Deuteronomy Chapter 14,  Verses 3 – 22, which spelled out our dietary laws.

I had to remember lines like:

These are the beasts that ye shall eat—the ox, the sheep, the goat, the gazelle, the roebuck and the pygarg.

Yes, the pygarg is kosher, but good luck finding one at Trader Joe’s.

The Bible goes on to say:

Every animal that has a split hoof, and that brings up its cud—it you may eat.

Now I grew up in the South, but not around wildlife. So animals with split hooves and a cud or no cud were foreign to me.

In fact, because my family kept kosher, I was not allowed to have a house pet, because a dog or a cat would have, like me, had to have kept kosher.

Though I did have a pet donkey named Pierre, but he lived in the country. Oddly, Pierre, my donkey, kept kosher.  Because he lived on a diet of carrots, hay and tap water.  But Pierre, himself, was not kosher because he lacked a split hoof and thus I could not eat him.

Thought I never craved a taste of Pierre, I did crave a cheeseburger.

But this, too, was off limits because Deuteronomy Chapter 14, Verse 21 states:

You shall not cook a tender young animal in its mother’s milk.

And why is this?  The Bible gives no explanation.

The best interpretation the rabbis have offered is that the mixture of milk and meat, the possibility of mother and child, cow and calf, being consumed at the same meal, was perceived as cruel and insensitive.

And thus, no cheeseburgers.

Not a big deal if you’re growing up in the Land of Canaan in 83 BCE;  tougher if you’re coming of age in Texas during the Reign of Bob’s Big Boy.

♦◊♦

On a February school night on my ninth grade year following basketball practice, I had a religious turning point.

My teammate and friend, Sonny Samuelson, was a 14-year-old, 6-foot-2 inches tall Jewish kid who carried a 1.6 GPA, refused to be Bar Mitzvahed, and drove his own Chevy Corvair.  Which made him the coolest Jew I knew.

That night Sonny drove us to Bob’s Big Boy where he ordered a cheeseburger and a chocolate malt.

“And what’re ya havin’, honey?” the waitress asked.

I recalled my nomadic ancestors who, when being driven out of one country or another always remembered:

You shall not cook a tender young animal in its mother’s milk.

But here in 1965 I reasoned, “What was the possibility that the slices of American cheese in the Bob’s Big Boy freezer came from a mother cow whose only calf was about to be sculpted into my 8-ounce burger?”

“I’ll have what’s he’s having,” I said. And the waitress left to put in our orders.

I sat with my back pressed against the banquette and scanned the dinner crowd. I was on the lookout for anyone from my synagogue. It was possible that one of my parents’ friends had dropped in for a grilled cheese sandwich and not broken the 5,732 year-old covenant between God and the Jewish people that I was about to piss on.

I didn’t want this getting back to my folks, who took this kosher stuff very seriously.  Keeping kosher was, in fact, the strongest link between my parents and their heritage.

Years earlier in a fit of hunger, I made a corned beef on rye sandwich and without thinking cut through it with a dairy knife. When my mother saw I had committed the sin of mixing meat and dairy she fell to her knees and wailed as if she had caught me shtupping Dolores, our maid, in the hall closet.

My father took it one step farther. He grabbed the now un-kosher stainless steel knife, stuck it in the palm of my hand, wrapped his paw around mine, lit a burner and with my hand gripping the knife inches above the flame and the heat shooting up my arm, he commanded me to recite the prayer that re-koshers an unclean utensil. First in Hebrew, then in English.

I tried to unclench my fist and moments later I learned that the re-koshering of a knife required a second step.  Taking the smoldering blade and plunging it into the earth and leaving it there for 24 hours.  Because nothing says cleanliness like an eating utensil that spends the night covered in mud.

♦◊♦

My cheeseburger arrived and just as Eve partook of the forbidden apple, I bit into that which God forbade me.

And it delighted me.

Partly because of the newness of the taste. And partly because in that moment of rebellion, I felt strangely connected. Somehow more American than I had ever felt before.

And as I chewed and savored my burger I spoke a silent, but heartfelt “screw you” to the 617 commandments I had been expected to follow all the days of my life. And I knew even before I swallowed that first bite that I had also said “screw you” to my heritage and to my parents.

And then I washed down that first bite with a long gulp of chocolate malt.

I had mixed meat with milk.

Intentionally.

I looked around. And waited.  But there was no repercussion. No falling off of my favorite body parts.  No voice of an angry God.

Two years later when I got my driver’s license I frequented the Jack in the Box where I ordered beef and cheese enchiladas.  The Pizza Hut where I ate pepperoni pizzas. And the McDonald’s where I ordered whatever treyfe, non-kosher food, was on the menu.

And nothing happened.

Nothing bad ever happened.

No punishment for my transgressions.

And Deuteronomy and all the Hebrew prayers I had been chanting since I was a boy, while not understanding a word of them, lost their power.

I no longer feared the Lord thy God who took us out of the Land of Egypt.

In fact, I rarely thought about him again.

I didn’t need the Ten Commandments to know that I should not steal or kill.

Or on what days of the month my future wife would be clean or unclean and fit or unfit to touch.

Or whether I should celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah, or just one.

Or none at all.

Which is what I’ve chosen.

None at all.

And yet this religion that I shucked, has stuck with me. Not the prayers, or the rituals but the concept at its core: Tikkun Olam. To repair the world. To study; to give charity; to do acts of kindness.  To leave this world a better place than the one in which we were born.

Not a bad philosophy to follow.

And though there seems to be no greater influence in my life than my religious heritage, I learned long ago that I could be a mensch, a good person, even a good Jew, and occasionally eat a cheeseburger.

 

Read more in Lifestyle on The Good Life.

Image credit: pointnshoot/Flickr

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About Dennis Danziger

Dennis Danziger - author of the novel "A Short History of a Tall Jew," working on a memoir, "5 Shows a Day - Dispatches from the War on Education."

Comments

  1. Somebody says:

    Actually, I do not think it is possible to be a good person indeed, and eat a piece of a killed animal, sorry. That just does not work like this.

    • Rebecca Dru says:

      I’m sorry…but to place judgement on a human being like Dennis Danziger because he is meat eater is beyond my comprehension…this man touches people’s lives every day. He’s an amazing teacher….a favorite of many of his students and a talented writer. He’s a kind and gentle soul with a terrific sense of humor and for you to place judgement on him because he doesn’t live his life as you do is wrong. Humankind has been eating meat for thousands of years….for some people, they choose not to and that’s their prerogative as it is yours….it’s simply a matter of respect. Dennis Danizer IS a good human being….and I quite enjoyed this article.

      • Thanks Rebecca…and I rare eat meat. Like four times a year. And usually when I’m at a wedding. Whoosh, there are some strict folks out there who really know what’s good and what’s evil. Please don’t invite her to your next salon….

    • What I respect is that somebody who believes in the absolute good or evil of actions writes under the name of Somebody. That’s brave. Sorry, we disagree. Off to eat a late night snack of sausage and peppers.

  2. Shelly Frisch Small says:

    Hi Dennis,
    I’m a classmate of your wife’s from high school.
    I must tell you how much I enjoyed your article, it made me laugh, alot.

    Thanks.

    Shelly Frisch Small

  3. Marenamoo says:

    I am Catholic and I like your honesty about separating the rules from the intent. Removing what you find unreasonable and keeping what you find uplifting. I wonder how your parents felt about all of this.

    • Hi Marenmoo, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’ve said succinctly what I think I was trying to say by telling the story. Re: how my parents felt about all this. They never knew. Or chose not to know. What did actually bother them a great deal, actually drove my mother up the wall, was that I was a strict vegetarian for about 15 years and when I did not eat chicken and roast beef and the world of deli meats in her refrigerator when I came home to visit, it dumbfounded her. Every visit home, at every meal my mom would say, “So are you still vegetarian?”

      • Marenamoo says:

        I find that your mother found your rules about being a vegetarian restrictive slightly ironic and funny. Having said that I am a mother and often think that the rules that I have for more children and my thinking about what they do – hilarious. Things like not sharing a room in my house when they live together etc. Sometimes we just enforce things that are hard to understand even to ourselves but in our gut seems like the right thing. That is why I try not to be harsh about others opinions. We are confusing even to ourselves.

  4. Liz Rueven says:

    I appreciate your telling it as it is and as it happened. Your references to the O.T. Is a great reminder that for ancient laws to be relevant, we need contemporary interpretation. I grew up in the NY area as a gal with 2 stomachs; kosher at home and treif on the outside. It took years of exploring my own comfort points ( including plenty of almost squirming lobsters consumed on the Maine coast) to land on my current , fully committed way of observing the laws of kosher. Plenty of folks are kosher like me, that is kosher at home and vegetarian when eating out. It is precisely the way my grandparents from Poland honored the rules here in our golden medina.

    • Liz, love way you’ve dealt with the kosher situation. Makes a world of sense. Thanks so much for sharing your solution. And by the way, I thought treif was spelled treyfe. Where’s my copy of Leo Rosten when I need it.

  5. Dennis, thanks for tweeting me this post – I’ve always found the stern rules of the Orthodox community hard to comprehend in the modern world, and I could taste that cheeseburger you bit into in rebellion and freedom! I’m a member of the not-observant-but-still-culturally Jewish sect, and agree that Tikkun Olam is the best lesson in the Jewish religion, and one I try to incorporate into my everyday life as much as possible.

    What I want to know is how did two Jewish boys make it onto the basketball team :)

    • Sharon, thanks for your kind note. We seem to be in agreement on a number of counts.

      Now, how did two Jewish boys make the basketball team? Easy, it was Texas in 1965. The schools were segregated. That’s probably the only reason we made the team.

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