Essay Contest Winner – Kashrut: A Manifestation of the Jewish Identity

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11 May 2011

“It’s just a candy bar,” she says mockingly. “Who cares if it doesn’t have a hechscher? Just eat it.” She dangles the offending chocolate in front of me, smirking. I stumble over my words, mesmerized by the brightly-colored wrapping, caught up in wanting to fit in, trying to rationalize purposely eating non-kosher. I tentatively reach out for the candy bar. As my hand closes around the wrapper, the scene swims in front of my eyes, her taunting voice reverberating around me, bringing me back, back to the beginning of it all…

When I open my eyes, greenery surrounds me. Among the trees is a man, the first one, Adam. He stares at the sky, awed. “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die,” Hashem’s voice booms. Adam nods, determined to keep Hashem’s commandment to the fullest extent. Chava, who only heard the message from Adam and not Hashem directly, is able to be tricked by the snake. I watch as the serpent hands a fruit of the Eitz HaDa’at to her and wince as she takes a bite out of it.

She runs to her husband and shares the sudden comprehension with him.

“Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” Hashem’s voice roars, admonishing them for the transgression. I cower with them as they bear Hashem’s wrath, weep with them as they are ejected from Eden. Scenes of Chava’s daughters dying of childbirth and Adam’s sons struggling to support themselves flash before my eyes. So much pain and suffering, all because Adam and Chava ate something Hashem told them not to…

My vision blurs momentarily. I find myself in the middle of a desert, standing at Har Sinai among a sea of people. There is thunder, lightning, and a dark cloud over the mountain; we collectively shiver as we hear the breathtaking sound of the shofrot being blown by the kohanim, a stark contrast to the complete silence. Hashem’s presence descends onto the mountain and the Holy One tells us the Aseret HaDibrot, commissioning Moshe to expound on the laws further. “You shall not cook a kid in the milk of its mother,” Moshe’s voice calls out.

I barely blink, but my surroundings change. I am in a small group of people listening intently Moshe, some time after Ma’amad Har Sinai. “Everything among the animals that has a split hoof, which is completely separated into double hooves, and that brings up its cud – that one you may eat. But this is what you shall not eat…the hyrax…the hare…the pig…” We all nod, memorizing his words, binding them to our hearts forever.

I blink again and the beauty of Har Sinai disappears. Instead, I am within a hell I cannot describe. Skeletons of people starve in concentration camps, breathe in smoke, eat air. I barely recognize my grandmother, Feige, and great-grandmother, Ita, with several other relatives, shipped from a wealthy home in Hungary to this cold Polish prison, Auschwitz. I follow Ita to the kitchens where she works, watching her taking pieces of unidentifiable meat from the soup and hiding them.

After I observe the women for several hours, a roll call is taken. Ita takes the hidden pieces of meat and sneaks to a remote corner of the camp. We wait for several minutes until another woman comes, appearing from the shadows. The two silently make an exchange, Ita receiving a bundle of cigarettes for the food scraps. The woman melts back into the shadows, and Ita quickly returns to the roll call.

The roll call lasts for hours. I stand vigilant with them the entire time, trying to ignore the tension and anxiety in the air, trying to forget the power of a bullet in a Nazi rifle. After an interminable amount of time where nothing seems to happen, everyone is dismissed to their barracks. Ita finds Feige and gives her the cigarettes. Feige takes them, looking frustrated. “Why won’t you eat the meat, Anyu?” she pleads with her mother. “Why do you trade it for cigarettes for me? You need the protein more than I need to smoke; you need the strength to survive!”

“Fui,” Ita says, spitting on the ground, looking truly disgusted at the thought of letting non-kosher pass her lips. As she spits, her skin stretches even tighter across her bones. “Treif. No! I would rather die than eat treif. Non-kosher will never give a Jew strength, non-kosher will poison a Jew’s soul! I will not eat it. I will not give in! That’s what they want, and I won’t do it! I will not let Hitler win!”

My great-grandmother’s words echo through my head as I come back to reality. I still hold the non-kosher candy bar; still see her sneering at me, trying to get me to assimilate, wanting me to give up a huge part of my history. I look at the chocolate and feel hot bile rise in my throat. I throw it onto the ground, sickened to even hold such a thing, and grind it under my shoe. “What did you do that for?” she asks, looking surprised at my sudden reaction.

“I will not give in,” I say, echoing my great-grandmother. A sense of empowerment fills my nishama. “I will not eat treif. I will not eat it just because you want me to. I have a mesorah to keep. Adam and Chava sinned when they ate the wrong thing, Moshe Rabbenu gave us mitzvot about kashrut, and six million died refusing to violate those laws, refusing to give up their Jewish identities. Kosher is part of what identifies me as a Jew. You can never get rid of that. Don’t even try.”

I storm off, feeling closer to Hashem than I have in a very long time.

Talia Weisberg attends the Manhattan High School for Girls, Grade 10. She was the 1st place winner in OU Kosher’s 2011 Kosher Essay Contest. The other award-winning submissions were:

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.