Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Ehrlich (Viking, 370 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Lauren F. Winner, Kellett Scholar at Clare College, Cambridge University.

On occasion, I have joked to my boyfriend Andrew that our grandchildren will do things—culinary things—that they will not understand. They will have long forgotten—if in fact they ever knew—why they make braided whole wheat loaves every Friday, and why they eat meringues around Easter. For although I have, in becoming Christian, put aside most of the symbols and accouterments of my Jewish childhood, the ones that will not go are related to the kitchen. I have folded up and tucked away my prayer shawl, donated my Mikraot Gedolot to a local synagogue, taken to driving on Saturdays, removed the mezuzah from my doorpost. But I still bake challah every Friday afternoon, and I still concoct the crisp, unleavened cookies every Passover. It does not make any sense. Often I am not even home on Friday night to eat this challah, and it gets turned into French toast for Sunday brunch after church. But baking that bread is almost as automatic as brushing my teeth.

I have given Andrew Miriam's Kitchen to read. In fact, whatever the book's weaknesses, I felt as if it were a godsend. Literally. I have been praying that Andrew will somehow come to understand something he does not: not just why I continue to bake challah, but why my father, a good cultural Jew, is so distraught that I have become an Anglican and that therefore his descendants will not be Jewish. Why he is so troubled that his daughter is dating the son of a priest. Why I quietly fumble with the clasp at my neck and slip my cross into the pocket of my jeans when I pull into my father's driveway.

"But he doesn't believe any of it," wails Andrew. "So why does he care?" I cannot really explain why he cares any better than I can explain why I insist on eating mediocre cookies that send my cholesterol skyrocketing every spring. Miriam's Kitchen will explain it.

Elizabeth Ehrlich will probably be surprised that among her most vociferous cheerleaders is a mumar, the rabbinic term for Jews turned apostates. For her book is not a story about a movement away from Judaism, but about just the opposite. Miriam's Kitchen chronicles Ehrlich's struggles to keep a kosher kitchen. Along the way, she enrolls her children in Jewish day school, begins attending synagogue, and goes to the mikvah, the ritual bath that observant Jewish women go to every month, a week after their period ends. So keeping a kosher kitchen is the metaphor that conveys Ehrlich's growing—if at times ambivalent—commitment to observant Judaism, but it is also an end in itself.

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To observe kashrut—the Jewish dietary laws—is to be reminded every day that the mundane mingles with the sacred. Keeping kosher, you really do sometimes feel as though you've sanctified this most basic aspect of daily life in a way that no brief grace before meals can manage to accomplish. But keeping kosher is also a colossal pain in the neck.

The dietary laws find their origins in the Old Testament, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Fish must have fins and scales, otherwise they are tref—not kosher. No scallops, shrimp, lobster, mussels, or crabs. Land animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. No pigs or rabbits. Also no birds of prey, no snails, no creepy-crawly insects.

"You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk," says Deuteronomy 14:21, and through the centuries of rabbinic exegesis that verse came to dictate a complete separation of all dairy products from all meat products. No cheeseburgers or chicken parmesan—but also no eating a steak on a plate that once held a grilled cheese sandwich.

The four best pages in Miriam's Kitchen come early on, where Ehrlich tells us "How to Keep a Kosher Kitchen":

You need a lot of things. Meat dishes, dairy dishes, coffee cups two ways. You need ladles for cream soup and ladles for beef stew, knives for steak and knives for butter. A cutting board for cheese, and a different one for turkey. You need a lot of cupboards if you're going to have a kosher kitchen. … The pots have their essences. These cannot be denied. Cook vegetable soup in a meat pot, and that soup itself becomes practically fleyshik, a thing of flesh. You must eat it with a fleyshik spoon. You may not dust it with grated cheese. That soup is branded by its provenance, until the end, the moldy end two weeks from now in a plastic container marked MEAT. If you want a soup to be neutral, neither dairy nor meat, you'd better have a separate pot that you call pareve, and a ladle and a stirrer and containers to match. It's not utensils only. You need distinctive tools to clean with. You can't use the sponge that wiped out sour cream at luncheon to scrub beef drippings from the broiler pan that night. You need a separate meat sponge for the broiler pan. While you're at it, get another broiler pan.

Does Ehrlich really want to do all this? "It's a lot of work," she notes. "Who wants a kosher kitchen? I do. I mean I might. I'm thinking maybe I'll try."

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Food, and rituals surrounding its preparation and consumption, are central to most religions. I was not surprised when, a few weeks before I was baptized, my priest told me that in the early church nonbaptized folks could attend church but had to leave before the Eucharist. And although in 1997 I was permitted to stay in the church while my baptized neighbors received Holy Communion, it is still the act of eating that separates the insiders from the outsiders: eating the bread that makes all believers one body.

For food is not merely about nourishment, nor about delighting in a favorite salmon mousse or chocolate torte. The Jewish dietary laws regulate not only what goes into your body, but, de facto, who else you put it in with. The most strict observers of kashrut would not eat at any nonkosher restaurant, nor would they do more than sip a glass of water or maybe munch an apple in the home of someone whose observance of the dietary laws did not meet their standards.

Elizabeth Ehrlich knows that it is this, and not the annoyance of having three sets of dishes, that is the hardest part of keeping kosher. "I want to be of the world," she says. She does not want to make a nuisance of herself at her friends' dinner parties, asking only for a salad. She is somewhat gratified and somewhat disconcerted when, at a Christmas fete, her five-year-old son pipes up, "Is the chicken kosher?"

On the day that she is helping her parents pack to move, the neighbor, Mrs. Henderson, prepares for Elizabeth's family a pot roast, some stringed beans and mashed potatoes, and peach cobbler. "I thought you folks would be starving," Mrs. Henderson says. "Probably nothing to eat at home. … Moving day is like that." The roast, of course, is tref. The peach cobbler probably contains butter and was baked in a dish that once held shepherd's pie. The string beans might have been cooked with a bit of bacon for flavor. "I don't want the burden of a Jewish palate," writes Ehrlich, "if this drives a wedge between … me" and Mrs. Henderson.

I have always thought that of all Jesus' shockingly radical acts, the most radical was breaking bread with those people he should not have been eating with. Ehrlich agrees:

Kashrut, I believe, gave Jesus his great opening. He ate with the common people in their homes, when other learned teachers wouldn't. Poor folk might not have had enough wooden bowls, ceramic vessels, and cooking implements to adhere perfectly to dietary laws. They might not have enough knowledge or resources to make their kitchens kosher enough for the standards of a truly learned man. Jesus swallowed his own squeamishness, perhaps, sat down and broke bread. You can get to heaven without all of this, he taught. I can see the appeal.
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Memoirs have begun to run together a bit these days, and Ehrlich's bears the marks of the newly popular genre. Those writing memoirs about religious journeys are handed a very useful way to structure their books: the calendar. It was according to rhythms of the church calendar that Kathleen Norris structured The Cloister Walk, as did Frederica Mathewes-Green in Facing East. So too Elizabeth Ehrlich in writing Miriam's Kitchen, which starts and ends in September, the month in which Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, usually falls.

Miriam's Kitchen could also be placed in the subgenre of literary food writing. Ehrlich is no M. F. K. Fisher, but we do get treated to a few recipes in each chapter—her grandmother's chocolate sour cream cake, her mother-in-law's lukshn mit leybern (chicken liver with noodles), fried cauliflower, and apple cake. (Ehrlich wisely leaves off those hallmarks of contemporary recipes, the notations of calories and fat content, knowing that Miriam's pineapple chocolate-chip cake and potato latkes probably wouldn't make the cut.)

This isn't a book to read straight through at one sitting. It is episodic, each chapter comprising a series of shorter reflections (again, like Norris's Cloister Walk). Every kitchen I have ever been in in Ehrlich's Westchester County is equipped with a modest telephone desk in the kitchen, and one can envision Ehrlich sitting down at her kitchen desk in between kashering her silverware and stirring a great pot of soup to jot down her reflections on whether or not it really matters that her knives and spoons have been scrubbed clean and then boiled, whether it was worth the bright red burn she had just acquired on her thumb from handling those too-hot forks, whether the rabbis who dreamed up all of these rules and regulations ever themselves set foot in a kitchen.

But Miriam's Kitchen is not merely a gathering of loosely connected reflections. It is the record of a quest. Elizabeth Ehrlich is different from most of the kosher-keeping Jews I know. She is doing it neither because she grew up doing it and therefore feels guilty every time she's tempted to eat a piece of pepperoni pizza, nor because she believes that God revealed the commandments, and their rabbinically elaborated minutiae, to Moses on Mount Sinai.

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In fact, Ehrlich is not even sure she believes in God, period. She waffles. She hopes her friends, who "serve secular humanism at mealtime," will not ask. She would be a little embarrassed to admit that she, sophisticated daughter of a solidly Marxist, atheist Jewish father, might, maybe, believe in God.

And Ehrlich certainly does not experience herself as being in a commanded, covenental relationship with this God who may or may not exist. She conveniently translates mitzvah—commandment—as "good deed," which makes the whole thing more palatable: God's commands become those that make sense to us, like tithing, and we neglect those that don't make as much sense, such as refraining from flicking light switches on the Sabbath.

Ehrlich even found a way to transform the dietary laws from commandments that are prima facie inexplicable into good deeds that make sense in the nineties:

If you are going to slaughter an animal for food, respect it. Never forget that it lived and breathed, a mammal like yourself. Here is a way of reminding, respecting—eat the animal separate from the milk. Thus the tradition comes to terms with human appetite, but demands consciousness. And I had come of age in vegetarian times.

She will try observing these laws, she says. A trial run of keeping her meat dishes separate from her dairies. "So far with no sense of obligation, no sense of commandment. I will recite prayers, but to What or Whom?"

So if Elizabeth Ehrlich is not motivated by guilt, and she is not motivated by a sense of being commanded, then what pushes her forward in this quest to go to synagogue and light Friday night candles and root out clams from her kitchen?

It was, initially, symbolic. The thought of feeding her "new, pristine" babies hamburger and milk just didn't sit well. Then, as Ehrlich learned that keeping kosher involved a lot more than merely serving her kids juice when they ate burgers, she learned that her motives went beyond the aesthetic. "It wasn't about dishes, or law, or a way of life. It was only a way of feeling. Without any particular sense of obligation, I felt Jewish, I felt a valuable if occasional differentness, and I wanted to pass that on. I wanted my children to eat stuffed cabbage, then yearn for strudel, not ice cream or flan."

That is what Miriam's Kitchen will explain to my boyfriend. Along the way, it might also explain to him why my father is sad. And it will challenge even those of us, secure in our faith, who think we may not have very much to learn from a Jewish woman in Westchester and her "wishy-washy version of deism."

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