I was still religious in college. At least, that’s what I told myself.
I like to think that the first time I had non-kosher food was December 2011, when a group of classmates from my French class went out to celebrate the end of the semester. We had planned to go to a kosher place, but the restaurant we’d picked out turned out to be a tiny (and dirty) pizza place, so we went for sushi at a nearby non-kosher place instead.
But the truth is, I ate non-kosher food before that.
I took the train for an hour and a half each morning to City College in Harlem, and then again for an hour and a half to get home to Brooklyn. I mostly slept on the ride to school, and needed a coffee on my way to class. I also liked to get a coffee on the way home, so that I didn’t sleep on the ride home. Luckily, there’s a Dunkin Donuts right near the 145th Street station.
For two years, I would get a coffee, and nothing else. After all, there was no kosher sign in the store window. I knew that some Dunkin Donuts were kosher, but I had never seen a kosher store. The coffee, though, is always kosher. I relied on Rav Moshe Feinstein’s psak that there is no such thing as chalav akum in the US because the FDA makes sure anything that is marketed as cow’s milk is in fact cow’s milk…
One evening, I was starving. I wanted to get a few donuts to tide me over on the train ride until I got home.
So I asked the cashier if the donuts were kosher.
She had no idea what I meant, and called her manager. He knew what kosher meant, but was unsure what I was asking.
He went to the back room and got the box that the donuts come in, and showed me the kosher symbol on the side of the box.
I knew that wasn’t enough. If there’s no kosher certification in the store itself, if a rabbi hasn’t observed the store’s process and determined no food comes in contact with non-kosher ingredients, just the certification on the box is not enough.
But I had already made a big to-do, and the manager was so satisfied and triumphant with having found an answer to my strange question, that I felt bad and just ordered two donuts.
And once I had them, I just ate them. And continued buying donuts from that store after that.
It wasn’t too long before I realized that Dunkin Donuts donuts are not very filling. A short while after I had started buying what I knew were only semi-kosher (and therefore fully non-kosher) donuts, I decided to buy a sandwich.
I observed the process in the store – they toast the bagels in a machine which is not used to cook the meat, so there’s no issue of contamination there. And I thought it was safe to assume that the bagels are baked in an oven which is also not used for meat. So again, while this wasn’t strictly kosher, it also wasn’t strictly not kosher…
I ordered tuna sandwiches for a while. The tuna salad was obviously not bishul yisroel – it was definitely bishul akum. In seminary, there had been a whole upset when some girls found out that the tuna salad we were being served was bishul akum. But for now, getting a Dunkin Donuts tuna salad sandwich, I decided it was okay.
After all, I’d been drinking chalav stam for quite a while now, and isn’t that the same thing? Wasn’t it a frum institution which had served us bishul akum tuna, and only the very-frum girls had a problem with it? Rabbi Neustadt had even told us it’s okay, and we don’t need to be so machmir.
And then came the day the Dunkin Donuts cashier mixed up my order and gave me a chicken salad sandwich instead.
Now, this was definitely not kosher. The chicken was definitely not slaughtered according to Jewish law, and there was no way I could explain this away.
I discovered the mistake when I was already standing on the train platform, waiting to go home. And I was starving. I was getting ready for an hour-and-a-half train ride with no food, only a big coffee. Except for this very non-kosher chicken salad sandwich.
I ate it.
And yet, I somehow managed to convince myself for at least a year after this that I was frum. How? I think it was survival tactics. I knew what horrors lay ahead for me if I made a conscious decision to leave behind religious practice. I also knew that I thought it was all bullshit. My mental gymnastics and circular rationale for why I wasn’t doing anything “so bad” were based on rabbinic circular reasoning, and I knew that in my mind, I was mocking it all. That I was basing my decisions on a decision-making process I found ludicrous.
When I told a new friend recently about my foray into the world of higher education while still maintaining a facade of being frum, she said something that resonated with me:
You were doing something so radical, and you didn’t even realize how radical it was.
Yes. I think that acknowledging how radical all these things were, both my decision to pursue a PhD in English and my discarding kashrus, would have been too terrifying. I wasn’t ready to face the hugeness and catastrophic fallout from my decisions, so I ignored how radical they were.
I don’t feel bad about that, either. (Well, not most of the time, anyway.) It was one of my coping mechanisms as I dealt with major life changes, and it got me to where I am now – with a life fully changed.