Sunday, April 1, 2007

Keeping kosher at an Israeli seder table

"Where are you for the seder?" is a question Israelis have been asking one another for weeks. The answer can tear apart an entire family. Many couples have to choose between being with one set of inlaws or the other for the Passover seder. Parents of adult children can face the same dilemma in reverse, torn between their various offspring.

Our family is lucky this year. All sides are invited to my son's place.

My son's housemate telephones. She asks me to prepare two vegetarian appetizers for 30 people, and one vegetarian main dish.

The question of kashrut arises. There will be meat on the table, and most of the vegetarian recipes in my repertoire call for cheese or cream or some other dairy product.

Ordinarily, meat and dairy on the same table would not be a big issue with this group. Some of the people who will be at the seder keep kosher by their own lights, regardless of what is on the table. If they eat meat, they don't have ice cream for desert. This principle would not get anyone a certificate of approval from the official rabbinate, of course, but it can satisfy the inner Jew in an Israeli who feels attached to tradition yet not bound by it.

The kosher status of the seder is an issue because the guests include a couple who have been becoming more religiously observant. Translated from the Hebrew, what they are doing is called "returning to repentance." This is sometimes likened to the born-again phenomenon among certain Christians, but the processes are not the same. For Jews, it is not a matter of salvation through belief. Returning to repentance means observing rules of behavior including keeping kosher.

We don't know if meat and dairy on the same table will offend this couple. Nor do we know how they might react. One religiously observant friend used to bring her own plate to meals at our apartment because we didn't have separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy meals.

In time, word arrives through family channels that the newly observant couple will be ok with the seder as planned.

In Tel Aviv, which some people denounce as a hotbed of rampant secularism and non-kosher abominations, a survey found recently that more than 30 percent of the restaurants are certified kosher. Years ago, in response to data showing that a certain percentage of Israel's Jewish population was religious, someone commented that this percentage was actually the proportion of religion that lives in each Israeli.

We can only guess what percentage of attachment to Judaic tradition lives inside your typical secular Israeli. Whatever the percentage is, it seems to get bigger at Passover, when Jews in Israel gather to retell their versions of the story.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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