On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dear Beth, My mother doesn’t keep kosher and I have to go to her house for dinner. What should I do?

Dear Beth,

My parents are hosting thanksgiving dinner this year. My mother called me and told me that I have to be there… No excuses. I grew up in a relatively traditional home. We didn’t eat bacon or anything, but over the past couple years I’ve started to keep kosher. I’ve tried explaining to my mother that I keep kosher, she doesn’t and I don’t want to eat her food anymore until she starts keeping kosher. It didn’t go over too well. I know that she won’t accept know for an answer. My mother doesn’t keep kosher and I have to go to her house for dinner. What should I do?

Uncomfortable Dinner Guest

* If you haven’t figured it out by know, this is a fictional letter, but an issue that most of us B.T.s go through. Welcome to my new segment… Dear BETH? (I tried to come up with a more masculine name with the letters B.T.H. – Ba’al Teshuvas Handbook, but I couldn’t think of one.

Dear Uncomfortable Dinner Guest,

This is definitely a tough situation.

I’m going to first deal with the relationship between your Jewish observance and your mom. When Jews start to learn and observe for the first time, they often experience something that my wife calls “the Baal Teshuva high.” This is when they’re so excited about the truth that they discovered they want to share it with the world. While this enthusiasm is excellent, it should ideally be tempered with the reality that some people aren’t ready to hear it. With most people, it mellows out after a while, but before that it happens it has the potential to do some relationship damage. From your mother’s perspective, she gave birth to you, raised you, and fed you. Presumably, you grew up to be a health adult and now you’re rejecting the very nourishment that aided in your physical and emotional growth. If not balanced correctly, this can leave her feeling rejected, insecure and afraid of disintegration of your relationship. Your parents may not see your new choices as a rejection of certain food, but a rejection of them. To counter balance this, it’s advisable to step up the communication and activity that’s permissible. If you don’t show up to her Saturday afternoon birthday party, she’s going to be upset. Make up for it, by calling more often and spending more time with her. You can invite her to your home, a kosher restaurant, a movie, a play or whatever that you both enjoy together that doesn’t involve non kosher food or going to Shabbas. Reassure her how much you love her. You can also ask questions about her grandparents and great grandparents. Chances are that they were much more observant than she is. This may be a subtle hint that you haven’t joined some strange cult. You’re simply rediscovering what your family may have lost for a couple generations.

That’s all well and good, but it still may not get you out of going over your parent’s house for dinner with causing world war three. There are several tips for what to do in these situations.
1. Eat before you get there. - If you show up to a place with non kosher food while you’re hungry, temptation may get the better of you. Even if it doesn’t you may be a little grumpy, because you’re so hungry, and that won’t exactly help defuse any potential volatile situations.
2. Help serve – While you’re helping serve or doing something else to help, you won’t be sitting at the table and noticeably not eating. Don’t worry about serving non kosher food up. As I understand the Jewish law, you can pass someone non kosher food assuming that they have the ability to get it themselves. Example: If you’re sitting at the table and the Jew next to you asks you to pass the plate of bacon. It’s OK to do it, because if you don’t, they’ll get it themselves. If they ask you to stop at a store 50 miles away while driving there and ask you to pick up some bacon, you should probably avoid their request since they’re not realistically go for an hour car ride for some bacon.
3. Bring something you can eat – This way people won’t see you empty handed and start the harassment.
4. Look around – In the most non-kosher kitchens around, there is typically something kosher. You can probably find some potato chips or pretzels around with a reliable kosher symbol. You can stand around and eat them if your family’s not so formal.
5. Kid escape – Kids can’t sit anywhere too long. If you have some kids at the table, chances are they’ll get up after a few minutes and get into something. Go after them and play with them. It gets you away from the table and that’s a good thing. Quick note: Before I became religious, I used the same strategy with my nephews to get me out of sitting through the Pesach Seder.
6. Drink a lot of water – You’ll keep moving around to refill your glass and go to the bathroom. Any excuse to get away from the table is a good one.
7. Help clear – Keep getting up in between courses to help.
8. North, South, East, West – If left with no other alternative, put a little food on your plate and move it around in 4 directions. Chances are, nobody will really notice.

These situations are definitely challenging. After a while though, with reassurance that you still love them, your parents will probably slowly accept your new found decision and deal with it. They may even open themselves up to the truth that you have to share.


  1. Jonathan Dickens, MAJEd, MAJCSDecember 21, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    First of all I think it is great that you are doing this blog. I started one also, but life has gotten the better of me and I have not been able to keep up with it.

    Some comments on this post...
    The relationship building part is spot on. However, I would go deeper. Have a conversation with your relative (this case mother) and get them to admit how they are really feeling. Then tell them how it makes you feel every time an argument about this ensues.

    In regards to your suggestions for the situation at hand, I only have a problem with number 8. Playing with your food like that is a huge red flag for an eating disorder. If you don't see your family often and every time they see you you do that. It could start a whole new line of uncomfortable questioning.

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Every relationshiip is very different. In some families, they discuss everything. In others, they rarely speak about feelings. Some people may have had challenging relaltionships with their parents before they started learning. Either way, it's important to always try to work on our relationships.

    Another factor that I didnt discuss is how to deal with different families religous observance. One family may not keep kosher at all while another may keep kosher style. Depending on where someone is in their growth process, they'll have very different experiences with each.

    Regarding playing with food, I'm writing it from the perspective of a 185 lb guy. I never worry that someone will think that I have an eating disorder. However, a 110 lb girl or any family where eating disorders exist, whould have a very different experience. Thanks for pointing this out.