Monday, June 26, 2000

Making a kosher commitment

Amberley Village family among those who change their lives to match their faith

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The smell of sulphur snakes through the air in the morning quiet of an early-summer Sunday.

        Harry and Dianne Schneider carry silver pots and pans, plastic-handled knives and sword-like skewers down the stairs. They walk past the chalk butterflies and block-lettered “Rach” on the side of their house to the concrete deck where Rabbi Yisroel Mangel strikes a match and lights a propane blowtorch.

        The Schneider's daughters, Rachel, 10, and Nina, 7, watch as a pale blue flame laps around the edges and into the corners of the pots and utensils. The flame is pulling out absorbent — meat or dairy products that have seeped into the dishes. This is to make the dishes kosher, meaning they meet Jewish dietary laws.

        Rabbi Mangel, who serves the Jewish education and outreach center of Chabad in Blue Ash, is helping the Schneiders “kosherize” their Amberley Village home. The Schneiders, like a growing number nationwide of people of all faiths, have decided to return to more traditional religious practices.

        For 21/2 years, the family has gradually been incorporating kosher rules into their lives. On this day, the Schneiders — and their home — will make the complete transition.

        “Just think of it this way, kids,” says Rabbi Mangel as the flame follows the length of the skewer.

        By becoming kosher, “you are part of 3,300 years of Jewish history. So the next time after you have a meat meal, and you want a glass of milk, you can think that for 3,000 years, Jewish people have not been doing that, and now, I am another link in that long, long chain.”

"A small temple'
        In cardboard boxes stacked on the dining room table are dishes and pans and utensils the Schneiders may have to stop using. They're not sure if the pieces can be kosherized.

        The rabbi examines each to see if the meat or dairy absorbents can be removed. Jewish law says dishes used only with cold food, such as glasses for milk and bowls for ice cream or salad, do not absorb and therefore are kosher.

        Dishes used with hot food, from skillets to plates to knives, absorb. Absorbents can be pulled out of some items, but others such as porcelain, pottery and Teflon cannot be koshered. Jewish law says some dishes only absorb in, so the absorbent cannot be removed.

        “Can this be proven scientifically? If I took this to a lab, would I find the non-kosher absorbent?” asks Rabbi Mangel, holding a dish. “The answer is no. And this is the beauty of tradition. Sometimes we say science and Torah clashes. ... The answer is very simple. The scientists don't understand the Torah, and we don't understand the science. But either way, this becomes a principle of Jewish tradition.”

        The Schneiders and the rabbi set to separating the wheat from the chaff, that which can be kosherized from that which cannot.

        A stack of Mikasa china can be saved. A toaster oven cannot.

        A set of knives can be kosherized, but the blow-torch may melt the plastic handles.

        “How about my wok?” asks Mrs. Schneider, a registered dietitian. “I'm a man,” says Rabbi Mangel. “I don't know what a wok is.”

        Mrs. Schneider holds a large, shallow pan, scratched and battered from frequent use. After examination, the wok goes to the donation pile. Hot oil burns food into the pan, and it can't be removed, the rabbi says.

        Cookie sheets have to go; the blowtorch sometimes puts holes into them. The cookie cutters can stay.

        Mr. Schneider, a corporate attorney, looks for chicken shears.

        “Where are those? I have to find them,” he says. “They're not heirlooms, but they're nearly close.”

        They may have accidentally been tossed in a box given to his mother; he'll check later.

        Every dish in the kitchen, from a butter knife to coffee cup to meat platter, goes through the process. Can it be kosherized? Does it meet the requirements of Jewish law?

        An unexpected perk is deep-cleaning the kitchen. The Schneiders donate several boxes of cooking items to local charities. They also find a never-opened mixer, a gift from their wedding 19 years ago.

        Rabbi Mangel torches the stove. He dips strainers and measuring cups into boiling water. The rabbi skims an iron through hot water on the counter tops — boosting the temperature enough to pull out any absorbents.

        The innards of a grill — the grates — will have to go. But the grill stays; Mr. Schneider can't bear to part with it. He knows when a hamburger is ready and the steak is perfect on this grill. He'll scrape it out and fill it with charcoal to burn away 18 years of grill gunk.

A deliberate decision
        Harry and Dianne Schneider grew up as members of Reform synagogues, the most liberal branch of Judaism. They did not keep kosher.

        For Rabbi Mangel, who grew up kosher, following the Jewish dietary laws is second nature. For the Schneiders, it was a deliberate decision — and sometimes difficult transition — to make their home kosher and to follow Jewish dietary laws.

        “My thought is kosher is the greatest commitment when it comes to Judaism,” says Rabbi Mangel. “It takes everything. It dictates the social life, the religious life, it dictates it all. To decide to go kosher takes a tremendous commitment.”

        It costs more; kosher meat is about twice as much. And it requires more meal planning.

        Furthermore, guests are asked to bring kosher food to the house. So when Mr. Schneider's mother visits, he asks her to fix chicken soup in their kosher home instead of bringing a pot from her own, non-kosher home.

        Still, the sacrifices are slight compared to the gains, Mr. Schneider says.

        “I have a greater sense and feeling of personal fulfillment as a Jew,” Mr. Schneider says. It has “created a mindset amongst our children that a home is not just an address or a matter of shelter, but that what can transpire in the home can elevate it to mk'dash meat, Hebrew for a small temple.”

Moving to tradition
        The journey toward a kosher life began 14 years ago when the Schneiders visited a Polish synagogue. The service was in Hebrew. Despite being active in his Reform congregation, Mr. Schneider couldn't follow along.

        “It was a wake-up call that something was missing,” he says.

        When Rachel and Nina were born, the Schneiders talked about the type of home they wanted for their daughters. Step-by-step, they moved toward tradition.

        They eliminated pork and shellfish from their diet. They started planning their meals so as to not mix meat and dairy. The Schneiders paid twice as much for kosher meat and stocked the pantry with kosher-certified products.

        At the same time, they made other changes in their lives, such as becoming more observant of the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.

        During Passover this year, they decided to take the next step and make their home kosher.

        The Schneiders bought two new sets of dishes and donated their old ones. They labeled kitchen cabinets with post-it notes, blue for dairy, red for meat and green for parve (anything that is neither meat nor dairy such as fruits and vegetables). Even magnetic refrigerator hooks for dish towels are marked with a D, M, or P.

        Going kosher means no more cheeseburgers or meat lasagna. And if Nina and Rachel have a brownie after a chicken dinner, they can't drink a glass of milk with it.

        “When we started, my head was spinning because I couldn't remember everything,” says Nina. “I had to say, Mommy, "Is this a meat or dairy or parve?”'

        But the girls share an enthusiasm about keeping kosher.

        Rachel's inquisitive mind was part of the impetus for keeping kosher. She asks lots of questions and likes to explore different aspects of Jewish life.

        Their school, the Yavneh Day School in Indian Hill, is kosher and so are some of their friends. Sometimes, says Nina, they bring home information from school about keeping kosher that their parents didn't know.

        Yet it's one thing to learn about kosher in the classroom, says Mr. Schneider. It's another to practice it.

        It would have been easier on this Sunday morning to send the kids to a friend's house. But it was important Rachel and Nina take part in the transformation and nurture a sense of ownership and connectedness to this life change.

        By making their home kosher, Mr. Schneider says, “It's more than a lesson learned, it's a lesson lived.”


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