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.
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.
Image credit: pointnshoot/Flickr