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A Kashrut of Families

Keeping divorced parents apart

There was almost always a plane flight between my two families. The five hour flight from coast to coast was like the interval between a meat meal and a milk one, in which I absorbed nothing but my own company and the superficial attentions of the stewardesses. I stitched away at embroidery or read straight through The Yellow Book of Fairy-tales. Sometimes, inhaling the synthetic, cigarette-tinged air, stared through the crystals on the window at the wing and sky, avoiding the nauseating, late-seventies, pink and orange upholstery on the seat in front of me. It was good to have this self-contained zone to myself I enjoyed a certain purity and privacy as I traveled solo between parents who, on the rare occasions they met face to face, radiated such restrained hostility that I wasn’t sure if they were the kind of chemicals that couldn’t mix or the kind that, if they touched, would leap together, causing a terrifying explosion.

In many ways, my two families were more similar than different. They were both Jewish, bookish, inclined to family outings to plays, museums, the mountains, and the sea. Both loved me and included me as a full member of the family. In fact, much of the tension grew out of the desire of each of my parents to spend as much time with me as possible. According to a court-determined “visitation” schedule, I flew to New York to see my Dad for a week at Hanukkah, a week at Passover, and for an increasing number of weeks in the summer as I got older. The final legal agreement, a kind of anti-ketubah, managed to reconcile my parent’s conflicting demands, the school calendar, and the Jewish calendar. It stipulated, for example, that “the child shall be placed on the earliest Saturday morning flight of the weekend prior to the 1st day of Passover and she will be returned on the earliest Sunday morning flight on the weekend subsequent thereto.” Accordingly, I shuttled back and forth with a large, red velvet suitcase that had been a wedding present to my parents. It was one of the few pieces of evidence, other than my own existence, that they had ever been together.

“Going to visit your grandparents for Christmas?” the stewardess asked, materializing in the aisle and handing me a winged, plastic pin with a metallic sheen. “Sheila? You’re the unaccompanied minor, right?” I smiled and nodded: my identity— my name, my Jewishness, my family situation—was too unusual and complex for most strangers to guess. I could explain it if I felt like it, but often it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Traversing the divide between my two families, I developed from a very early age a system of separation and boundaries between them: a kashrut of families. A major portion of the Jewish laws of kashrut is based on a simple prohibition: don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk. But this core rule is ringed with reinforcing rules, expanding into a network of spatial and temporal separations. So there are guidelines for separate dishes, sponges and even dishwashers. What started out, presumably, as a law to prevent cruelty—cooking a baby animal in its mother’s milk—has become an ethical framework that reminds us during every meal (and in the preparation and clean-up) to be mindful of distinctions. In my personal version of kashrut, the basic rule was “don’t mix your families.” I built a series of fences around this law, made up of more specific rules.

I cannot remember my mother and father together. I was 18 months old in 1972, when my Mom and I moved out of our house in the Oakland Hills to live in a group house of women in Berkeley. Three months later we moved in with my step-Dad, whom my Mom married in my aunt’s backyard when I was two and a half. All three of us went on the honeymoon, a car-camping and canoeing trip in the Okeefanokee Swamp. My Abba, as I called my father, and step-Mom, who met in graduate school when my parents were still together, lived together for a few years and then married when I was seven in another backyard wedding, at my grandparents’ house in Los Angeles. After the wedding, we changed into shorts, and off I went on my second honeymoon, this time to the Del Coronado Hotel on the beach in San Diego.

My Mom and step-Dad had two more children: my brother Tal and my sister Ayala, each of us three years apart. We lived in Berkeley, California. On my Abba and step-Mom’s side, in New York, I got another brother and sister, Aaron and Margaret, eight and 11 years younger than I am, whom I visited during most of my vacations. This was the story I mapped out for people, in more or less detail, when they asked, or looked confused at the mention of multiple parents, more siblings than they knew about, or complicated geography. Yes, I’m the only one from my original parents. No, they’re not stepbrothers and sisters, they’re half, because we share a mom/dad—and they feel like regular brothers and sisters. No, I don’t like one family better, I like them both equally.

I presented my explanation with equanimity, even buoyancy. My life came in pleasant multiples of two: two families, two sets of parents and siblings, four pairs of grandparents, 16 Hanukkah presents. It was a rich and bountiful existence. If my families formed a symmetrical and intricate Venn diagram, I lived at the overlapping, densely-inked center.

But while I tried to see myself at the center of two embracing families, at times it was hard not to feel that I actually lived in a battle zone. My mother had a policy of restraint, but her rare lapses and the effort it seemed to take to refrain from expressing her anger at my father gave me the sense that she thought he was untrustworthy and irresponsible. Likewise, my father occasionally lost his temper when he thought my step-Dad usurped his role, most egregiously when, as he remembers it, my step-Dad wanted to adopt me and change my name to his.

One of the best ways to stay safe, I decided, was to follow this rule: never give ammunition to one set of parents about the other. So I wouldn’t tell my Mom about the time I fell off a chairlift under Abba’s supervision, or threw up at my Los Angeles grandparents’ house, or if I didn’t like my step-Mom’s cooking. And I wouldn’t tell my Dad about the stricter rules—unplug the hair dryer, speak in a pleasant tone at the dinner table—in my Mom and step-Dad’s household, either as evidence of their tyranny or their moral superiority.

Another rule decreed: do not mix up the customs of each family. Given my sensitivity to rules, this was usually not too hard to do. But once in a while I slipped up. I was caught out once when I suggested to Abba and my step-Mom Muriel, who were choosing a car to buy before the arrival of my baby brother, that our new car be a Volkswagen. It was one of the few makes of cars I knew. Abba, his brow thunderous, responded that it was a German car, and we’d never buy one. A pit suddenly opened before me—indeed, I had already tumbled into it and lay at the bottom feeling clumsy and bmised. In my other family, Volkswagen, whose Bugs were ubiquitous around Berkeley, was a kind of joke. Attracted to the multisyllabic word and the cuteness of the cars, I had suggested Volkswagen as a name for my California brother when my Mom was pregnant. It was hard to know what upset me more in that moment with my father: that I had collided with his dark feelings about the Holocaust, or that I’d violated my rules of family kashrut.

The heaviest and most ornate rule I constructed was this one: do not show the influence the other family has on you, or how intimate you are with them. In California, I called my step Dad “Dad.” But since Abba would talk to me about “Mommy and John,” I referred to him as “John” with my New York family. The few times I slipped up and called Abba “Dad” I was petrified he’d realize the truth.

Kashrut can seem onerous and abstract. Sometimes I wondered if my own rules were needlessly burdensome, and thought maybe the whole problem was just in my head. But, in fact, my parents reinforced this rule. Once when I was in college, Abba called when I was out. My roommate Anne, a polite Alabaman, answered the phone. When he identified himself as my father, she asked “Which one?” He replied, “She only has one.”

Similarly, several times after I had returned from a sojourn in New York, my Mom commented on how I had picked up one of Muriel’s phrases or Abba’s facial expressions. Once she said I had a laugh just like his. Worse, that I laughed that particular laugh at the kind of things which he would find funny, but they were not nice things.

During a summer in New York with Abba when I was seven, I stapled my finger while using my mini pink stapler Abba pulled the staple out and said, “Here—put your finger in my mouth. I’ll suck on it and make it feel better.” But my California Dad had told me that your mouth is one of the dirtiest germ-infested places around and you should never put a cut finger in it. So I shook my head. Abba kept exhorting me and I kept refusing—I could hear the absolute authority of my step-Dad’s voice in my head—but I would not say a word to explain myself.

There was one more rule, which helped me avoid these internal conflicts most of the time; inhabit completely the family of the moment. I believed serially in the exclusive monotheism of each family. When my Abba explained to me how important it was that I spend more time with him, I believed him. When my Mom and step-Dad explained to me how important it was that I participate fully in the family, including some vacation time, I believed them. And as long as practical matters— like whom to actually spend that vacation with—didn’t get in the way, I could follow this rule pretty well.

The different rules in my two families played out in the realm of Judaism as well. My father’s family is stewed in continuous Jewish tradition: through his mother, he is descended from the Baal Shem Tov and from a tenth generation rabbi, the self-appointed Head Rabbi of Los Angeles. For my Sofia, my father’s mother, religion imbued the world with beauty and meaning, providing a merciful shelter for those she loved. When she lit Shabbat candles, she circled her hands and covered her eyes, pausing for a moment of internal magic that radiated from her face onto her white blouse like the light from the candles. Drawing on her influence, my Abba passed on to me his approach to Jewish observance, including kashrut, as a metaphor for interesting, lovely ideas, and a sentimental link to the past.

My step-Mom, who had converted to Judaism, taught me how to do the shopping for Friday night. In the kitchen, showing me how to mix batter, she’d quote her own mother: “What you need here is some elbow grease!” Her Shabbat dinners were resplendent with tablecloths, flowers, and homemade pie. Her elbow grease made Abba’s ideas of Shabbat tangible.

My mother grew up in Westchester, New York, where her parents were active in the Masons. They were enthusiastic eaters, not remotely kosher, and loved seafood in particular. No one remembers how my mother picked up her feeling for Jewishness. She had to ask to go to Hebrew School. One day in late autumn she came home to their apartment and announced that she needed a basement where she could make manure. Manure? Yeah, she wanted a workshop where she could build a “manure” to light for Chanukah.

My step-Dad, a passionate schoolteacher, always communicated a fierce sense of pride in being Jewish (we were the People of the Book) but little interest in following the laws. Our family dinners, strictly observed but lively—much like a good seder—replaced religious observance as the central value in my California family. My friends used to tease me about how my step Dad’s teaching manner came through at home, when he started each dinner off with a Topic of Conversation, usually a question that he asked each of us kids in turn. Our Shabbats in this family were informal. I’d say the prayer over the candles in Hebrew. We’d pass around a glass of Manischevitz after my step-Dad held it up, a gleam in his eye, and said something about the joy of life and being all together My Mom would beam at us and pass around the challah she baked, or in a pinch a slice of regular bread. “L’chaim,” we’d say, tearing off small pieces and popping them in our mouths.

Even now I automatically order appropriately when at a restaurant with my kosher-keeping Abba, skipping over the garlic shrimp or linguine with clam sauce I might choose in my mother’s company. It only recently occurred to me that this could be viewed as hypocrisy. It is such a deep impulse to change like a chameleon to suit my environment: a question of both appearances and identity. When I catch myself I tend to see this trait as a form of survival instinct, and mostly a good thing: a responsiveness to cultural cues. When in Jerusalem, one knows what to do. But on the other hand, when in Chinatown….

Since I had two of everything, when the time came, I had two very different bat mitzvahs, one in a Reform temple in Berkeley, the other at an Orthodox shul in New Rochelle. At Beth El, in Berkeley, I led a Saturday service on a sunny November morning. I chanted the first 24 verses of the Torah portion and the whole Haftorah portion, gave a speech, and had a lunch party at home for grandparents, cousins, family friends, my piano teacher, and one of my best friends from school, who was three-quarters Jewish. It was warm enough that day that many of the guests sat out on our deck.

My “Orthodox” bat mitzvah in our New York community, by contrast, took place on a Sunday (the coldest day of the year), according to the deal Abba had negotiated for me with Rabbi Weinberger about what kind of a bat mitzvah he would allow a girl. The rabbi would let me stand on the bima, but instead of reading from the Torah scroll, I’d use a chumash, the Torah text printed in a study volume. I’d been going to this shul during my New York visits since I was seven. The women sat under their hats or doilies in raised banks of seats on either side. The men’s section in the middle was continuous with the bima; they could flow up unimpeded to bless the Torah.

Up until my bat mitzvah, I’d been able to sit with my Abba if I wanted, like a smaller particle that could filter through the divider, impermeable to grown ups, between the sexes. Those were the rules, and as a little girl I spent more effort keeping track of them than wondering about the rationale behind them. But now that I had reached bat mitzvah age I began to question them. Why couldn’t women read from the Torah? A friend said women couldn’t touch the Torah because they might have their period and contaminate its holiness. My Berkeley Reform education hadn’t drawn much from Leviticus or halakha, so that was news to me. But since Orthodox girls usually didn’t have bat mitzvahs at all, the prospect of mine seemed a bold step beyond the rules.

On the day of my bat mitzvah, we got to shul early and found that the heat hadn’t been turned on ahead of time. (A Sunday bat mitzvah took even the maintenance man by surprise.) I sat off to one side on the bima during shaharit, the morning prayers, the chumash jittering in my lap. I chanted the first bit of the portion of the week, Shemot, about Moses and the burning bush, and Vayetze, the Torah portion from my first bat mitzvah, about Jacob’s dream. Abba says he watched Rabbi Weinberger’s face as I started: first a nodding appreciation, eyes closed, savoring this honest-to-goodness, letter-perfect chanting. My voice was no different in pitch, and probably more tuneful, than your average bar mitzvah boy’s. Then he opened his eyes and was reminded of the dissonant fact that I was a girl. Puzzlement settled heavily onto his brow. At the end of my speech comparing the two portions, I thanked the rabbi for his ever-warm welcome and “for letting me get this close to the Torah.” Laughter, much of it female, rippled through the congregation.

As it happened, I did have my period that day. I kept this to myself But I wondered whether this vindicated me or them? I had only been getting my period for six months and, still uneasy with the logistics, I had a slippery fear, not far from shame, that my period, bright red, tell-tale, was just waiting to seep into public notice. At the same time, I couldn’t see why a bunch of male rabbis bothered to concern themselves with something so personal and uncontrollable. I finally shrugged: It was my own body’s bat mitzvah, beyond the rabbis or me to command. Growing up, it was already clear, would involve judging which rules to respect, and which to disregard.

As an adult, I draw on both my father’s rootedness and my mother’s flexibility in Jewish observance. As a citizen of two families, I inhabited a microcosm of the diversity within Jewish belief and practice. On a more abstract level, I figured out that there was more than one way of doing something. I traveled between customs; no Authority had permanent sway over me. This was the compensating freedom that balanced the weight of keeping kashrut between my families.

I’m less strict with myself now about following my rules, more forgiving if I blur or cross old boundaries. But traces of my internal divisions remain. All this came to the surface when Warren—who grew up Unitarian—and I decided to get married. I had had two bat mitzvahs, but I was going to have only one wedding. Any time my two families were in the same place, it was a strange and stilted situation. But they had gotten through my college graduation and, quite recently, my medical school graduation, with civility, if not ease. The wedding celebrations, though, would take place at an isolated mountain retreat over a whole weekend. I realized I was fretting about each family seeing me joking or being close to the other side, displaying a hidden “me” that didn’t belong to them.

As we did our planning, we found ourselves spending much of our energy balancing the expectations of my two Jewish families. This recapitulated all the efforts I had put forth for years protecting my parents from each other, and, at bottom, protecting myself It was time, I decided, for us to make our wedding feel our own. Weren’t we planning to have a service Saturday morning? Abba and Muriel asked. Actually, we’d been picturing a hike. Would we provide kippot? Yes, but we decided we wouldn’t pass them around; we’d leave them in a basket and welcome people to wear them if they wished.

The weekend arrived. The whole family converged for Friday night dinner, tightly wound at first, then unfolding into relaxation. My cousins (on my step-Dad’s side) got everyone singing zmirot after the meal. Later that night I found my two sisters and a brother up in the retreat’s tree-house desperately practicing their Torah portions for the next morning. The next day was overcast and chilly. A family friend and rabbi, wearing my borrowed socks, led the Shabbat morning service under a tent on the dance floor. My Abba’s family sat up front. My Mom and step-Dad sat at the back for a while, then drifted away to play croquet with my nephews on the lawn. Both dads wound up in the same car when we all drove up the mountain for a hike after lunch, and made the trip without mishap.

The officiating rabbi started off the ketubah-signing by having all of the parents and Warren and me hold my gauzy shawl, lifting it up and down three times as a kind of handshake, an egalitarian version of the traditional custom signaling agreement. One of my uncles (on Abba’s side) passed around the basket of kippot after all; nobody minded. All my parents and my Saba squeezed under one side of the chuppah; Warren’s parents were on the other side. Our brothers and sisters held the poles. After the blessings, the rings, the smashed glass, the kiss, everyone clapped and danced and ate together. There aren’t too many pictures with all my parents in the same frame, but everyone looks very happy.

Shala Erlich is a physician and writer who lives in Seattle with her husband and one-year-old daughter