Out There: Pleasures unsung

Being able to perform Jewish rituals and keeping kosher is something we take for granted in Israel.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
I was sitting in a large room at the Royal Golf Club in Sharm e-Sheikh last week, minding my own business and waiting for the Ehud Olmert-Hosni Mubarak press conference, when a television cameraman came within three feet of my face and started filming. A little self-conscious, I just gazed ahead and smiled. A few minutes later, another cameraman did the same thing. "Geez, I must be looking mighty stylish today," thought I. But then I came back to reality and realized it was not my looks the cameramen were after, but rather my kippa. What better way to put some local color in a clip on a meeting between Israeli and Egyptian leaders than to zoom in on a guy with a beard and kippa? Too bad the camera crews were not at the entrance to the Club, because then they could have had a ball, catching the Egyptian security guard going through my backpack, spotting my tefillin bag, taking out the leather boxes, tapping them, consulting with a colleague and finally signaling me through. And it's not only in Egypt. On a trip to New Orleans earlier this month, where apparently the airport security folks don't see a lot of tefillin-laden carry-on luggage, one of the officials was stumped by the little black boxes with tightly wrapped leather straps inside a green, velvet bag. "Ah, excuse me, those are religious objects," I preempted. "OK," she said, and proceeded to take out the tefillin, turn them upside-down, shake them, send them back through the scanner and - when satisfied they constituted no danger - finally replaced them in my bag before continuing her search for contraband toothpaste in 12 oz. tubes. ONE OF the things we take for granted here is that you can do all that Jewish stuff that looks extremely odd to the uninitiated without feeling overly self-conscious. You can walk out of synagogue on a cloudless Saturday night once a month and pray while glancing at the moon [Kiddush Levana] without people thinking you a lunatic. You can use a cup to alternately pour water three times over each hand before eating bread without people thinking you obsessive-compulsive. And you can walk with tzitzit sticking inadvertently out of your pants without someone believing your undergarments are in disrepair. Years ago, while a university student in Boulder, Colorado, a few tzitzit strands were sticking out of my pants as I traipsed across the campus. A fellow student, obviously thinking she was doing me a great kindness, stopped and said, "Sucker, yo' underwear be unraveling." THE KOSHER observant also take for granted the ability here to eat out at top-flight restaurants without an afterthought, as if it were the most natural thing to do. But it's not the most natural thing to do, and trips back to the US remind one of that reality. "Will you eat halibut baked in aluminum foil in a restaurant?" a US-based friend asked recently. "What's your policy?" "My policy?" I asked, stumped. "Well, I don't really have a policy." Which is true. I have a policy on many things - how to manage the finances, how to raise the kids, how to clean the dishes - but not about eating halibut in tin foil. I don't need a policy, because it is not an issue, at least not here. But in the States, where eating out is an integral part of life, those who keep kosher must develop policy positions on such matters. Will they eat vegetarian soup out, or just salads? And if only salads, can they have dressing and croutons, or must they be plain? And how about vegetarian food in a vegetarian restaurant where non-kosher cheese is served? Bread? Butter? These are all issues that demand guiding principles. I'm not really abroad that much, so I can afford to adopt a strict policy and say that my rule is to only eat plain salads or fruit plates in non-kosher restaurants. It's no big deal, because the opportunity rarely presents itself. But even no big deal can be exasperating at times. Last year, before speaking to a group in Charlotte, North Carolina, my hosts took me to a seafood restaurant with gimmicky menus that make it possible to print the guest's name on the menu. I was more than a little surprised, therefore, when I sat down at the table and opened up a menu that read "Welcome to Charlotte, Herb" over entree suggestions for "Maryland Crab Cakes" and "BBQ Shrimp and Grits." "I'll just take a plain salad," I sheepishly told the waiter, explaining that - yes - I really did want the salad without the bleu cheese, sourdough croutons or pepperoni. Just a simple, cold, plain salad - like the rabbits eat. No dressing. In addition to inevitably leaving the restaurant hungry, this also unavoidably leads to a degree of discomfort for those you are dining with. If the people are Jewish, they feel a little funny eating shrimp while you're crunching on romaine lettuce. And if they are not Jewish, they still feel uncomfortable eating succulent ribs while you swallow a strawberry. In either situation, the conversation, at some point, runs as follows: "How's your salad?" they ask. "Great. Lettuce is crisp, and those cucumbers are really well-peeled and crunchy," I reply, an answer that doesn't ring true, because - well - it isn't. The true answer would be, "It stinks, actually; me here eating a piece of pineapple and you eating Baked Pineapple Chicken." Nevertheless, in these situations there is one question I always look forward to, and maneuver my co-diner into asking: Why did you move to Israel. "Simple," I answer, "so I can order the Baked Pineapple Chicken."