I work three days a week at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum as an educator. I guide visitors through tiny, dark apartments. Small spaces that 100 years ago housed families of eight or more.
Standing in the kitchen (the one with no running water, no refrigeration, and limited storage space), someone always asks with a sense of awe: “How did they do it?”
Not just how did they raise a family, do the laundry, run a business or the myriad of tasks that took up a tenement dweller’s day. What they’re really asking is “How did they keep Kosher?” How did the millions of Jewish immigrants that poured into the Lower East Side around the turn of the century manage to preserve the traditions of their faith in the airless kitchens of a five floor walk up?
“I have no idea,” I answer. “But I’m going to find out.”
This week, I’m following kashruth. In my four floor walk up in Queens; in my modern kitchen; and only for three days. A drop in the bucket compared to the daily ins and outs of the Jewish housewife 100 years ago (or the contemporary Orthodox housewife in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
The menu I’ll be following is a 1914 daily menu from the Kosher Kitchen at Ellis Island. I came across the menu in Jane Ziegelman’s book 97 Orchard, but the original can be found in the Ellis Island Archives. The Kosher Kitchen was opened in 1911 after advocacy by the Jewish aid organization HIAS. Imagine spending eighteen days on a steamship from Russia, where you may or may not have been provided with Kosher food, or may have had to prepare it yourself. You arrive in America to another plate of unkosher food. Exhausted, malnourished, and vulnerable to disease, you were at risk for deportation on medical grounds. The Kosher Kitchen, free to immigrants beings detained at Ellis Island, was a huge step.
Why is kosher kept? The basis of kosher is derived from Exodus 23:19: “Thou shalt not boil a kid in it mother’s milk.” Meat and dairy must never come together. Everything else is referred to as “parve,” and can be eaten with with meat or dairy. Utensils and dishes must be kept separate for each, as well as dish rags, cutting boards, etc. If one touches the other, the utensils are “traif”, meaning they can’t be used for either. There are laws regarding how long you must wait to eat dairy after meat (anywhere from 4-12 hours depending on your rabbi) and vice versa. There are laws regarding what animals you can eat and what cuts of meat: chickens, cows, fishes. No rabbits. No Shellfish. They must be slaughtered in a certain way and all the blood must be drained before consumption.
100 years ago, Jewish immigrants were divided into two categories: those attempting to preserve their traditions in America, and “Oyster Eaters,” those becoming more liberal and more “American” in their observances.
There’s more to it than that. Nuances and laws I’ll cover over the next few days (or you can brush up at jewfaq).
As the daughter of a Catholic, I viewed kosher like a Catholic would: this is a thing you do and if you don’t do it, you’ll burn in hell. Not so. As my colleague Judy explained it: “This is the thing you do to show your are different than your neighbors. It’s the thing you do to show you are Jewish.”
So for the next three days, my dairy will not touch my meat.