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I entered graduate
school at Princeton University
in 1964. I had recently rebelled from my parents' well-educated
Jewish agnosticism into Orthodox Judaism, and I wanted to keep
kosher. Princeton had only recently begun to have a significant
number of orthodox Jewish students, and an organization to arrange
for kosher food was in its infancy. About a dozen of us belonged
to the group, and we rented an apartment to provide a kitchen,
dining room, and small parlor. A few of our members lived in the
We hired a cook, an elderly Jewish lady
She spoke an odd mixture of Polish and Yiddish. Talking with
her required the presence of at least one student who spoke
Yiddish and one who spoke Polish. She kept very strictly kosher,
which pleased us as we wanted to make it possible for even the
most religious Jews to attend Princeton.
The cook's notion of kosher was not from textbooks;
the way she had grown up, based on how her mother had cooked in
Poland. This led to an occasional problem: for example, while she
cooked, we boys did the dishes. And we modern American young men
bought a dishwasher. She was horrified. Her mother had not used
one of these devices sixty years ago in Poland, so it couldn't
possibly be kosher.
We finally overcame her objection, by a rather
example: we asked her Rabbi to come visit for a few hours. He ate
some food from a plate, we ran it through the dishwasher, and he ate
food from it again. Based on this demonstration, she agreed that
we could use the dishwasher.
Of course the dishwasher was only used for the dishes
utensils we used with meat. Keeping kosher involves complete
separation of meat products and dairy products. They are eaten at
different meals, cooked and served with different pots, dishes,
and utensils. And our cook's understanding of this distinction
was, as it turned out, more sophisticated (and correct) than ours.
We discovered this due to a joke one of the students brought to
dinner one day, which seemed hilarious to us young men at the time.
In the story, a poor Jew in Poland was starving.
His family was
starving. There seemed to be no hope. In desperation, this poor
man decided to become a highwayman. He sought out a
path through the forest where noblemen came by, carrying bags of
money. He went home, got a sharp knife, and returned to the forest.
Hiding behind a tree, he waited until a nobleman came by carrying
his bags of money. He jumped from behind the tree, raised his knife,
looked at the knife, and was terrified. "My milk knife!", he
exclaimed, and ran home. He could not bear the thought of
killing a man with a knife used only for dairy products.
Hearing our laughter, the cook appeared. What was the joke?,
she asked. It was translated into Yiddish. That not working, it
was translated into Polish. She didn't seem to see the humor. She
said she understood all the words, but why was it funny? We tried
to explain that it was outlandish for a man, having decided to
commit murder, to feel it must be done with a meat knife.
At this she suddenly became very indignant: how could
presumably well-educated young men possibly be such ignoramuses?
People, she explained to us in no uncertain terms, are -not- made
out of meat. The issue was not, she explained, which knife: any
knife used in a murder would not be kosher afterwards, anyway.
But how could we possibly have such disrespect for God's creation
as to suppose that people were made out of meat?
The main point here is not a technical one, but we
did look up
the technical point anyway, and she was right. It's an odd point of
Jewish law, as eating people is clearly out of the question.
Still, it does make life a bit more convenient for nursing mothers.
Their milk is not a milk product, for kosher purposes, and doesn't
have to be segregated with other dairy products.
But the fact that this woman could and
did set straight a
whole room of Ph.D. students on such a basic point was striking.
She had no formal education, and no English - but the things I
learned from her have made a big difference in my life. Not only
were some of the things she said a great deal deeper than they
first appeared, but I learned, yet again, that the importance of
the lesson is not always related to how many degrees are held by
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