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Harriet Berkal: Milk or meat and what not to eat - the art of keeping kosher

by Harriet Berkal , January 1, 2022

Hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday and enjoyed their Chinese food on Christmas Eve. Or you might have had curry. We all know this ritual. But I didn’t as a kid.


Raised by a Rabbi and Rebbizen who was an amazing cook, we ate kosher food - kind of a given. There were separate dishes for dairy or fleisheg and we rarely ate outside the home.


A special treat was to pack our own salami sandwiches and go to an A&W drive in, in our pyjamas, disguised. God forbid anyone might see Rabbi Berkal’s kids eating at a restaurant. The female waitresses came out to our car on roller skates, and we’d order root beer and sometimes fries, if they were not made in lard.


Speaking of “lard”, I had never seen it or really knew what it was. When I got my first job in the Eaton’s Polo Park basement snack bar, it was a real education.


There once was an order for chocolate milkshakes. I went to the freezer to get the vanilla ice cream or so I thought. Oddly enough, it was tricky to scoop out and it made the Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer vibrate like never before.


My boss, this crusty little Italian woman, with poor English, came over to witness what was happening. She shouted at me that I was using lard instead of ice cream for the shakes. I had no greasy spoon experience and so that job didn’t last long.


I kept kosher until the age of 18 out of respect for my parents. Once I reached that age, one sibling introduced me to a “fat boy” burger at Juniors. Corrupted as I was, I didn’t get struck by lightening; it stayed down and was super delicious. Aside from feeling a hint of guilt, I did feel somewhat liberated.


To me, you either eat everything kosher or you aren’t really keeping kosher. It’s all ends up in the same place.


In amazement, I’ve watched people bring in McDonald’s to their home and use letter openers to cut a Big Mac and serve it on paper plates.


So, during bar and bat mitzvah season growing up, keeping kosher created a huge problem for me. My mom was supposed to call ahead and order a fish dinner for me.


She forgot once! I was served a filet mignon which, of course I couldn’t eat. It didn’t take long for the scavengers around me to start auctioning off “Berkal’s” steak. The humiliation still resides within me. I was different. Other siblings had similar incidents separated out as keeping kosher with limited food options at various events.


As a family on vacation typically to Minnesota, we’d have to be careful when dining out. A recollection of entering a fine restaurant where we all ordered fish and chips, resulting in us all having to leave upon discovery that it was fried in lard.


Ironically, today, I take desiccated thyroid medication derived from a pig. In Judaism, one is permitted to consume or use medicines like insulin or the like derived from swine.


There is a part of my brain that still restricts my diet. I do not eat bacon or pork or any kind or scavengers like crab, oysters, shrimp, mussels, octopus, etc. I just can’t do it! It’s a mishagas.


Clearly, my bizarre eating habits would have repulsed Anthony Bordain. He for sure would never have dated me.


There are those who say they keep a kosher home but eat out without limitations. I’ve never understood that compartmentalized thinking. It all goes down the same path to your stomach. Does it matter where one consumes it?


And don’t get me started on “Kosher Style”.

“Kosher Style” refers to foods commonly associated with Jewish cuisine but which may or may not actually be kosher. It is a stylistic designation rather than one based on the laws of kashrut. “Wikipedia”

Does this add to the confusion? You bet.


My desire to break with kashrut wasn’t rebellious. I understood that animals were killed in a more humane way, but they were still killed. I think I could have become a vegetarian, but I do crave certain meats. No, not “tongue” or “Kishkas” or gorgel”!


One of my siblings got a summer job at a slaughterhouse with the help of my father. Well, that was extremely short lived. He was green at the dinner table as my mom served something like brisket. He quit the next day. Many of us need to hold onto that disconnect between what really goes into putting dinner onto the table and the reality that an animal is killed. Then there is the scope of how they are butchered. Too much information. We’d rather not know.


My beloved father prided himself on customs and Jewish rituals. When the Chicago Kosher scandal happened in Winnipeg Jewish community, and it became public that some of the meat wasn’t kosher- it was like watching a small death within my dad. He was so upset that he unknowingly had consumed non kosher meat.


He had been violated. My zaida was a shocat, so my father grew up with this deep need to abide by Jewish custom.


We are taught things in childhood and some of these idioms we maintain, while others we reject.


My son is now a vegan and I do see the logic in that. It carries a philosophy that we don’t eat animals or their by-products.


Each to his own. But there is something fishy with how we fool ourselves into beliefs which may make zero sense and how we fragment our thinking just to get by.


Bon appetite.



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