Friday, August 21, 2015

אני מאוד מצטער!

PLEASE NOTE: I do not know Hebrew, so I used Google Translate to come up with my clever (ha!) title for this post. I do know that Hebrew is written and read from right to left, and originally the exclamation point was at the extreme left end of this, but now, all of a sudden,  it's at the right end. So I have an idea that something's been lost in translation. Blame Google Translate, not me!

The comparative study of religion has long been an interest of mine, and I've prided myself on knowing even rather obscure ins and outs of various religious traditions. Which makes what I'm going to admit to --- and what I'm apologizing for --- in this post all the more puzzling.

By the very fact that the title of this post is in Hebrew, you may have suspected that this is going to involve Judaism and Jewish tradition, and you'd be right. A very basic aspect of that religion are the dietary laws, and I readily admit that I didn't have a clue as to how intricate those laws are. I grew up in Oklahoma City, and the only Jewish people I knew fairly well there were what I now know were non-observant Reform Jews. The only one of them who ate pork happened to have been a young man about my age, and he and I both realized that he was sneaking and doing something he really shouldn't have been doing. But, other than eschewing pork, I didn't have a clue as to the extent of Jewish dietary laws.

When I moved to Portland, Oregon, an early roommate was Jewish, from an observant Orthodox family. I was always puzzled, and a little miffed, that his parents would never eat meals in our apartment; I love to cook, so I happen to be a good cook, and it was always almost insulting to me that his parents wouldn't touch a morsel of food in our home (in retrospect, I think I might have thought that it had something to do with the fact that I'm gay and David wasn't; however, I now doubt if it ever crossed either of his parents' mind that he was sexually active at all, because he hadn't yet married. BTW, he wasn't). I mean, after all, I always made sure that I didn't have pork chops or ham hocks or any other pork around them, so I "kept kosher," didn't I?

It wasn't until he and I had had a pretty nasty falling-out over something completely unrelated to dietary laws or religion at all that I learned why his parents didn't eat in our home, and why they were not happy about the fact that he ate there. Again I say, I didn't have pork in any of his meats, so I kept a kosher kitchen, didn't I?  

But: Two sets of utensils? Two sets of dishes? Each of the two sets of utensils and dishes kept strictly separate from the other set? No meat and dairy at the same meal? Wow! I didn't have a clue!

Over the years, I've gleaned bits and pieces of Jewish dietary law, to the extent that I now realize that not eating pork is only the tiniest tip. And I learned, also, that restaurants can't usually be certified as kosher if they don't observe even more stringent regulations. Which brings me to the subject of this post.

Up until last week --- and remember, folks, I'm well over 70 --- I thought that (a) there was only one overall certifying authority, which (b) wouldn't certify a restaurant as kosher unless it: Served no foods that were forbidden by Jewish law; employed a specially-trained, full-time rabbi to make sure that all the rules and regulations were followed; and was closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. But I was wrong.

First of all, there is no one certifying authority, although I think that most Jews recognize certification by the American Union of Rabbis as being authoritative. Secondly --- and this is the part that I just learned last week --- even if the restaurant is owned by strictly observant Jews, if it is staffed by non-Jews on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, some certifying agencies will consider it kosher even though it is open on those days. Who knew?

The way I found out was that an elderly couple approached the booth where I do volunteer work in downtown Los Angeles, and wanted to know where the nearest kosher restaurant was. Well, I know that there's an Orthodox synagogue downtown now, and that several of the restaurants in or near the Jewelry District are kosher, or advertised as such. But I didn't know where the closest one to Union Station (where we were) would be. So I suggested that they phone the new Jewish deli in Grand Central Market, and certainly someone there would know. Well, they phoned the place, and few minutes later, they thanked me for telling them about Wexler's Deli, because not only was that a kosher deli, but it was glatt kosher. Now, there's a technical meaning of the term glatt kosher, but suffice it to say that what it boils down to  is Drop-dead, Hope-to-die, Honest-to-God, SUPER Kosher. Which was puzzling to me, because I happened to know that Wexler's is open 24/7/365.25 --- so how could it be even plain, old, everyday kosher?

Well, we live and learn. When I got home to my computer, I googled "kosher certification," and learned that the Orthodox Rabbis' Union was just one of many, many certifying agencies --- some of which will even issue a mail-order certificate. Who knew? 

But back to the couple who instigated this whole thing: The woman was an Elderly Jewish Matron right out of Central Casting. I mean, even a blind person would have seen that she was absolutely a yiddishe mama. When she said "kosher restaurant," she didn't mean just  someplace that serves Hebrew National hot dogs; she meant...Kosher Restaurant (!). I'm sure she meant one that was certified by the Orthodox Rabbis, not one of those mail-order operations, probably actually run by money-hungry (gasp!) gentiles. So I'm not sure how she reacted when she learned that Wexler's is open until late Friday nights, and all day on Saturdays. I just hope she remembers that that skinny old black man didn't tell her to eat there; I said to phone them and ask.

If I ever see them again, and she speaks to me, maybe I'll ask her to explain to me how a nearby food court can offer, as their sign says, "Kosher Available." I mean, Is you is, or is you ain't? Are you certified kosher, or not?

Maybe I won't. Maybe I should just let well enough alone.

P.S.: BTW, if you caught the drift of the "Is you is..." statement, you showed your age; those words were from a song popular in the 1940s!

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