Sometimes the Third Ear Actually Works

Exotic spices and produce on sale at the Carmel Market, Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv, , Israel - Tuesday November 22, 2011: Exotic spices and produce on sale at the Carmel Market, Tel Aviv.

This past week I visited a youngish middle-aged woman in the hospital. She had waged war against breast cancer for three difficult, trying years and finally, after genetic testing, decided that a double mastectomy was in her best interest. The radical procedure would likely prolong her life and probably keep her from the edge of the precipice on which she has been living, always wondering, perpetually in doubt, the anxiety ever present.

Rabbi Jonathan P. Kendall, D.D.

“How are you feeling?” I began.

“Sore” was her response and then, without skipping a beat, she began a long biographical description of her maternal grandparents, where they lived, their apartment in Brooklyn, funny little anecdotes and then an extended narrative about how meticulously kosher they were. She recalled as a child accompanying her grandfather to the butcher shop – a place she conceded that was not as sparkling and clean as today’s supermarkets – where the old man picked out a chicken for Shabbat and cross-examined the butcher about the quality of the schechting (ritual slaughter). On the way home, Zayde would invariably give her a crash course on the rules, regulations and conventions of kashrut. The strongest words of criticism, the most brutal epithet, she ever heard her grandfather utter was something akin to “There goes so-and-so, with hazer between his teeth.” There were – in Zayde’s universe – enormous consequences to ditching dietary conventions that went far beyond food, separate sets of dishes, the reliability of purveyors, and the covenant between the Jews and God.

As the almost universal rhythm of Jewish life in America played out, her parents moved to the suburbs and Bubbe and Zayde became weekend grandparents. Zayde died and Bubbe moved in with them, patrolling the kitchen with a vengeance. Bubbe would brook no opposition to the strict rules by which Zayde had lived and so the more casual form of keeping kosher that evolved in the ‘burbs came to a grinding halt when Bubbe took up residence in the spare bedroom. The way she described it, there was an almost OCD piece to the way her grandmother checked labels and kashered meat. Bubbe would only eat out at a kosher restaurant – absent in the far reaches of Long Island at the time – and so she was left at home when the family ventured forth for a meal that either stretched the boundaries of the dietary laws or completely obliterated them. The irony of keeping kosher at home and eating almost anything and everything “out” became the norm. She remembered her mother, long gone, saying that she wanted to keep a kosher home so that her mother would be comfortable. Bubbe had her own assessment of this arrangement: meschugge frum – crazy observance. How can you keep a strictly kosher home and then go out and eat hazer and trefe? This excursus went on in great and graphic detail for about twenty minutes and was delivered in such a rapid fire sequence that I could barely get a word in edgewise. There was almost desperation, an urgency in her voice – in retrospect, there was – and the third ear, the one we use to hear things that are not said, had yet to engage.

After long dissertations, we usually – numbed to the point of distraction – fall back to the familiar. Honestly, I was about to tell this soul that her account was very much like so many of our people who made their way from the urban to suburban life and among the casualties of the move quite often were communal norms and practices that one generation held dear, but the next generation, not so much. I was going to give her absolution for abandoning kashrut (which her family did almost immediately after Bubbe’s shiva when, at the close of the seven day mourning period, the family that was left went out to Wong’s and ate “invisible” trefe). The idea of saying, “Look, God cares more what comes out of your mouth than what goes into your mouth” was just about to tumble forth from my lips.

Are you familiar with those rare moments when bells and whistles go off in your head and red flags begin to appear just on the edge of your peripheral vision?

“Tell me more,” I implored.

Now came a fusillade of recipes – Kosher Top Chef? – funny and borderline pathetic tales of Sedarim and Shabbat dinners that began to allow me to pay attention with greater clarity.

Amidst the IV trees and under the bandages was a woman who had just undergone a disfiguring surgery. She had always been very conscious about her appearance and femininity. Neither a gym rat nor a slave to labels, but always appropriate and stylish, she was a person who took great care of herself and obvious pride in how she presented to the world. And here she was, quite literally blathering to me at full tilt about dietary laws. In a blinding flash of the obvious, it occurred to me that my role had migrated from Rabbi to mashgiakh (the one who certifies that everything has been done according to the Halakha {Rabbinic Law}).

And so, even though there was an inherent risk involved, instead of doing the dance of cultural and religious change and making hackneyed Rabbi-noises, I said, “You know, you’re still kosher.” And she broke down and cried and I don’t mind admitting that I did, too.

Half the battle of Bikkur Holim, of visiting the sick, is just showing up. The other half is won more by listening – carefully, with that third ear if possible – than by talking.


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