There’s a restaurant in Denver, where I grew up, that attracts masses of people, mostly Jews, and serves pages and pages of Jewish food – latkes and matzah balls and bagels with capers, cream cheese, lox and red onion.
They also serve bacon. And sausage. And ham. Meat from a most essentially non-kosher animal.
So what is it that makes it a Jewish restaurant? And why do the Jews flock there?
I don’t keep Shabbat, don’t go to services. I don’t do the High Holidays.
My sister, Hannah, and I exist on different planes of religious life. Since we were kids, in the world of Jewish ideology, liturgy, and text, she always seemed so sharp and clear about what was important, what she believed, and I always felt so blurry, standing two paces behind her, or two paces ahead.
I made assumptions about what Hannah believed, since I thought she fit the “Jewish” prototype so well. She goes to shul, for starters, and when she can’t, she prays in the back yard, or in the living room. She knows all of the words to not only all of the Friday night songs, and the prayers during Shabbat, but all of the songs they sing at synagogue. She’s studied in Jewish institutions all her life, and even at the secular institutions she studied Judaism.
I made assumptions about what Hannah believed – in God, for starters, and in “Judaism” for sure – and it molded our relationship into something misshapen and odd.
My sister is one of my very closest friends, and favorite people in the world. This has been true ever since we stopped fighting horribly, just before the turn of the century. When the stars align and we’re alone together, we stay up all night in the same bed talking, sharing everything.
But I’d never wanted to share her Judaism. She’d call me from college and try to tell me about an inspired Jewish talk she’d attended, or a text she’d been studying. She’d email me about a class near me she thought I should attend, or a lecture by a rabbi she thought I’d enjoy.
She still does this from time to time.
Mostly I flat out say no. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to learn it. Because the concept of God frustrates and confuses me, and if you don’t know if you believe in God, why would you want to read, in excruciating detail, a book he supposedly wrote? Why would you care what metaphors were borne of those texts? Easier to disconnect entirely than to spend time learning a subject that I might very well object to.
Hannah and I ended up doing a Jewish podcast together. I wanted to do radio – anything in radio – and I saw an opening in the market: Jewish thought. Who’s doing a podcast on Jewish thought? So I brought Hannah along with me. To be the Jewish side of things. To, you know, answer all of my questions, or find other people to do the same.
Four years into production, dozens of interviews later, I retain my hard-earned cynicism. I still haven’t had my questions answered – like, Why does this all matter? But Hannah continues to surprise me. She’ll reveal, during a heated debate during construction of a new episode, that she doesn’t know what she believes. In God? In prayer? In keeping all of the laws? Maybe, she says. No hint of embarrassment, no quiver or chill in her voice.
In large part, the podcast has developed around one question that won’t quit bothering me. What is it that makes me Jewish? What is it that makes me as Jewish as Hannah?
It’s the same question, I think, as what makes that Denver restaurant – offering kosher salami and Black Forest Ham in one breath – a Jewish eatery.
And it’s the laws that have come to fascinate me, and the history of those laws. Keeping kosher was hugely different in the 1600s than it is today. And eating like a Jew looked totally different for Abraham, the first Jew. So what exactly are we doing? And whose rules, when we think we’re eating “like Jews”, are we following?
These are important questions. So we asked an expert. Our latest episode, “Don’t Eat That!” is a discussion with David Kraemer, a scholar of the history and evolution of kashrut. Maybe I’ll never answer the question of what makes me Jewish, but I’m relieved to say that I can now have a conversation with my sister about it.
Alyssa Kapnik is the Executive Producer and co-founder of the podcast Come & Listen, as well as an independent radio producer and reporter for Colorado Public Radio. She’s also a photojournalist and portrait photographer. She lives happily with her fiance in Berkeley, California.
Photo credit: Alyssa Kapnik