Breaking Bad: NonKosher
Many Persian Jews in Los Angeles keep what I like to call ‘LA Kosher,’ or ‘Persian-Kosher.’ This is a custom in which you sometimes delve into nonkosher chicken or red meat, but still refrain from doing the more nonkosher things, like mixing milk and meat, or eating shellfish, pork, etc. This was what I adhered to for most of my life, up until I turned eighteen and went to college.
This was also the same time I became roommates with Michael, a secular American Jew, a passionate eater and probably the antagonist of this tale. One night as freshmen, we headed to In-N-Out together, and I ordered my LA Kosher meal–a double-double without the cheese. He inquired about my cheese exclusion, and I explained that I will, from time to time, eat nonkosher beef, but won’t have cheese with it. Michael challenged me and said that no self-appointed foodie could go through life without ever consuming a double-double from In-N-Out.
“There’s a reason the Torah bans milk and meat,” he liked to say. “Cheeseburgers, philly cheesesteaks, just too dank for people to eat all the time. Otherwise they’d all be fat wandering the dessert and get nowhere.”
“They didn’t have cheeseburgers at the time the Torah was written, man.” He ignored this comeback, but still, he was stubborn, and over the course of the next three semesters living with him, I caved in to eating a cheeseburger three times. This decision, I learned later on, marked a turning point in my life: I implicitly permitted breaking kosher rules when the temptation was too high.
That’s also what happened another time, when my two roommates wanted to prepare a fancy, shellfish oriented meal–because these are the sorts of things you do in college, they explained. They asked me if I wanted in, and I denied them flat out. They proceeded to cook shrimp and crab in melted butter, while I warmed up a microwavable turkey and carrots meal. When they added garlic to the shrimp, tossed in some more butter, the irresistible aroma filled the room. “Sure you don’t want any?” they asked mockingly. It didn’t take long for me to toss the microwavable meal in the garbage and break Halacha. Shrimp, a protein almost too delicious to be true at times, became the next bit of Breaking Bad. Then, if you’re going to eat shrimp, what separates you from the other shellfish? Scallops came next.
When I moved back home after school, a diner nearby offered a breakfast of two eggs, hash browns, toast, bacon or sausage, and coffee, for $6.99. And all of it was delicious. My order was consistent: Poached eggs, wheat toast, coffee black, no bacon. A perfect way to start the day, I started going there almost every morning, bringing a book with me to read while waiting on the food. Breakfast started becoming my favorite part of the day.
One morning, though, my waitress brought me the regular, but included two fatty, red strips alongside it.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I ordered no bacon.”
“Oh, sorry about that!” she said, out of breath. “Let me get that out of your way, then.” She started hustling around the diner bar. Realizing I was asking her to do extra work, I told her it was fine. She nodded and walked off.
I took the two strips and placed them on a little plate beneath my cup of coffee I no longer had use for. As I plowed through my eggs and hash browns, however, I suddenly felt like the bacon was talking to me, like in a bad Comedy Central cartoon. And eat me, it kept saying. Eat me. I’m free, and I’m here, and you’ve always been curious about me, haven’t you? I tried to ignore it. I promise I did. I thought about asking the waitress to come take the plate of bacon now, but how weird do you think she would think I was, if I were to request this, after she had already offered and I brushed her off? The voice was incessant.
I always associate breakfast bacon with this one experience I had with my friend Josh, when we were in Las Vegas. While making our plates bigger than either of us could conceivably handle, he clawed a handful of bacon strips and tossed it onto his big plate.
“What?” I asked him.
“Look,” he said, “I eat bacon and I don’t need to hide it from you anymore.”
We ate our breakfast in silence, me trying to convey to him my disapproval. The cherry on top was that he’d shake his head in admiring pleasure from each bacon bite as if to say, you don’t know what you’re missing. Most disconcerting, though, was that nothing was happening to him. He was flat out breaking the rules in my face and nothing was happening. I don’t know what I expected, but an angry text message from God, or a sighting of his deceased grandparents shaking in disapproval, somehow, someway, didn’t seem that delusional of a thought. In result, after this experience I began viewing the meat through a less evil lens.
Back to the diner, where I’m sitting, trying to stay focused while being harassed by two imaginary strips of food. Eventually, the bacon’s talking became yelling, and as you were probably able to predict, I acquiesced. I took a tiny bite of it with an ensemble of droopy yolk and spiced hash browns, and what ensued afterward perhaps changed my breakfast experience forever. Bacon was that smoky, crunchy taste I’d been subconsciously craving to with my breakfast. From that day on, I couldn’t go to the diner without bacon. First I started ordering one strip instead of the two they offered, in order to somehow appease the shame. But then it became the two. Nowadays, I even consider asking for a third, but I tell myself to relax.
For a long time, the degree to which you separate milk and meat or refuse nonkosher meat has been used as a measuring tool of your observance, or, rather an assessment to your ‘Good Jew-ness.’ But in this regard I think Judaism is in a transitional period. There are more pressing issues to Judaism than Kosher rules at present. For example, I believe educating yourself on Israeli affairs, or representing the country in college, is far more helpful to collective Judaism than passing on a bloody steak would be. Or, a willingness to join a group when nine Jews need a tenth to make minyan helps the community more than passing on certain meats. Warning Americans about the dangers posed by terrorist organizations or radical Muslim countries also seems more pressing than our dietary laws.
In another perspective, keeping kosher is a ritual that has kept the Jewish community unified for centuries, and one wouldn’t be faulty to suggest that if kosher rituals were to be totally abandoned, a vital quality to our togetherness could be in jeopardy. The answer is that there probably is no answer—it’s up for interpretation. But these are the sort of questions Judaism allows us to explore and discuss, decide for our own—one of the reasons I love being a Jew.