As a young child, I was incarcerated in Bergen Belsen concentration camp. People died daily from cold, disease, and starvation. Our scant food rations consisted of a slice of stale bread served with a muddy liquid laughably called coffee. Later in the day, they served us soup. Barely edible, the soup was made from some crude vegetables, which in better times were used as fodder for barnyard animals. But soon enough, as hunger took its toll, even this putrid liquid became a gourmet dish in our eyes.
One day, officials of the International Red Cross came to the camp for an inspection. While clearly indifferent to our suffering, our German masters nevertheless wanted to impress the visitors. To prove how well they fed us, the Germans brought in barrels of cooked snails. Although to many, eating snails seems disgusting, snails are a European delicacy. We were starving, and to us anything remotely edible looked good. But just the same, being that snails are not kosher, no one in our camp touched them.
My beloved husband, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis of blessed memory, somehow survived the war eating only meager bread rations. In vain, the Germans had tried to force him to eat non-kosher foods so he could work harder in the slave labor camps. He refused to violate the laws of kosher and emerged from the war looking like a walking skeleton, but with a powerful presence.
Having read these stories, consider the irony of Jews living in a society in which the most delectable kosher foods are available, in a multiplicity of choices, and yet they opt to eat non-kosher. What does that say? How do we understand it?
Eating in our society has become a way of life. Restaurants that we frequent are closely linked to our business and social lives. The foods that we enjoy often become an addiction, and we cannot bear to give them up. So we rationalize: We profess our loyalty to the Jewish faith and find no dichotomy in indulging our non-kosher preferences. “Kosher,” we loudly protest, “is synonymous with clean,” and we convince ourselves that these laws were instituted in prehistoric times and are no longer relevant.
Kosher, however, does not connote good health or cleanliness. There is only one reason for the laws of kosher and that is that G-d commanded us to keep kosher so that we might become a holy nation and live up to our birthright, for that is our inheritance.
When my grandson Shmuely, now ten, was just two years old, he was with us for our High Holiday services conducted at The Pierre in New York City. As in many fine hotels, when they prepare your room for the night, the housekeepers place a piece of chocolate on your pillow. Shmuely, who like all children loved candy, picked up the chocolate and said, “Bubba, it’s not kosher!” and regretfully handed the chocolate to me.
I write this article in the hope that those indifferent to kosher may probe their souls and take a second look at their Jewish commitment. If Jews in the concentration camps were prepared to accept the gnawing pain of hunger rather than partake of that which G-d forbade, if a little boy of two is willing to give up his chocolate because it might not be kosher, then what possible excuse can we in modern day America have?
It is written in the Book of Genesis (25:30) that when Esau came in from the hunt and saw his brother Jacob cooking lentils, he demanded: “Feed me some of that red, red stuff.” And for that pot of beans, Esau sold his birthright. The question that every Jew must ask himself is: “Am I willing to sell my birthright-G-d’s commandments-for a pot of beans? Do I sell my soul for that lobster or pork?” Is it worth it?