Keeping Kosher

Keeping Kosherr featured

A new story by MJ Popplewell.

Joseph struggled upstairs and into the apartment with his bags. He laid them on the kitchen table and took out a selection of pans: small for milk, medium for vegetables and a large one for meat. He had also bought some cutlery: knives, forks, spoons and so forth, and a ladle and a bread knife and a couple of plates. It had taken him some time to decide on what to buy because he wasn’t used to shopping for himself. Back home in Brooklyn, his mother did everything, the shopping, cooking, cleaning – which she described as ‘whacking round with the hoover’ – even the gardening. His father went to work. He had never thought about it particularly, the way his parents managed the household. He just went down for meals and occasionally helped with the dishes. In any event, it wasn’t important what they did because they didn’t keep kosher, or at least not strictly.

Joseph began to clean out one of the top shelves. It was almost empty anyway because it was too high up to be convenient. He figured the others wouldn’t mind. Of course, he might have to start eating separately, but that could be a good thing. It was probably unhygienic the way they ate anyway, everyone in the apartment crowded around the tiny kitchen table, jumping up and down whenever they wanted something. By this time the water had boiled and he got up onto a chair to soap the shelf down. How hot did it have to be? He wasn’t sure. Then the door opened and in walked Debra.

‘Yallah Joseph! What’s going on?’ She waved her arms around trying to disperse the steam and then went to raise the window. Debra was also from the States, but she wasn’t like any Jewish girl he had ever met before. She didn’t give a fig for the convention. Joseph had started off admiring her breezy style, but since his ‘conversion’ he wasn’t sure. She was altogether too reckless and she wore too few clothes. He also wondered how her parents would take to the idea that she was going out with an Arab. Her parents weren’t religious either, but they lived in a pretty big house on the outskirts of Philadelphia – she had shown everyone a photograph – so this might be going too far even for them. 

Joseph explained to Debra that he was taking over one of the shelves for his kitchen utensils, half for dairy and half for meat. Everyone in the apartment knew about his decision although until now it hadn’t impacted them in any way. Rabbi Shmuel had told him that if he was really taking this seriously, he had to keep kosher and obviously this involved distancing his stuff from the others. When he had first moved in, he had been a bit more like Debra in his attitudes. He called himself Joseph and wore a kippa at a jaunty angle held in by a bobby pin but this was his only nod to tradition. Otherwise, the plan had been to spend a few months in Israel learning Hebrew and enjoying life in Jerusalem. ‘Become acculturated’ his father had said, not knowing exactly what it meant. Maybe he was hoping that Joseph would meet a nice Israeli girl because even secular Jews prefer their kids to marry into the fold. In the event the first person he had come across in the Hebrew class was Debra, and when she found out he was looking for somewhere to stay, she suggested a room in her apartment. That was six months ago.

Debra stood at the window watching him. She was wearing jeans and a tight t-shirt. Her bag was also on the kitchen table. Joseph had seen it and made a mental note that from now on he would have to clean it very carefully before eating.

‘How was school?’ he asked scrubbing at the shelf.

In response, Debra said a few sentences in Hebrew. She was sounding quite fluent now. Her vocabulary was definitely improving. And she had also begun to learn Arabic. There were classes at the summer school and Mamun was helping her. They were quite similar to the two languages, which helped and didn’t.

‘You know how it is, she said. ‘So I guess that means you won’t be eating dinner with us? Anyway, we may go out.’ ‘We’ was her and Mamun.

Joseph was relieved because he had bought a chicken at the same time as the pots and pans and was planning on broiling it which could take some time. The only person in the apartment who knew anything about cooking was Maya. Maya worked for a local paper and usually came back late, but she had promised to try and get off work early so that she could help him. Then they could eat together so long as they didn’t share cutlery and so forth. Maya was an Israeli, born and bred, but not religious. She was quite relaxed and a bit head-in-the-clouds, but tough at the same time. At night she stayed up to the early hours writing poetry. She would sit by the open window in her room, smoking and whispering to herself. Once they had all gone to listen to her taking part in a recital at a friend’s house in the Old City. It was in Hebrew and he hadn’t really understood it, but the evening was convivial. Towards the end, after they had all drunk rather too much, they climbed the stairs to the roof and watched the sun rising. Then they had sung ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ at the tops of their voices and Florence had burst into tears. Joseph was thinking about that evening as he stacked the pans into the cupboard. Certainly, no one there had been keeping kosher which meant that he probably couldn’t go again. He felt a sting of regret.

Debra meanwhile was making herself a cup of tea. Mamun had brought some mint from his garden in Ramallah and she was steeping it in hot water. She asked Joseph if he wanted any but he decided better not. Debra was eyeing him with that look that said why bother with all this. It was that look that had got him into trouble that first evening in the apartment when they had slept together. He still couldn’t quite believe it had happened, but it must have because he had found a pink bandana amongst the sheets the following morning. They had never discussed it afterwards although he had slipped the bandana back onto her bedside table when she was out. Debra had moved on almost immediately to Mamun although, as Joseph reflected, she had probably been seeing him already.

Mamun spent most of his time in their apartment. He was tall and strong, with a flat round face and a great mop of black wiry hair and a wide grin. His hair stood out everywhere and he was always patting it down. Once Joseph had found Debra cutting his hair in the kitchen. Black tufts were all over the floor. Why couldn’t she have done it in her bedroom or even the bathroom?  It was these sorts of activities that worried him now even though a few weeks ago he couldn’t have cared less. 

When he had finished cleaning, Joseph went to his room. Dusk was falling and the shadows from the adjacent buildings drifted into his room, across the walls, sending long, dark patterns. He had a passage to learn for the following day’s class and he knew that Rabbi Shmuel would call on him. He tried to concentrate but even so he was distracted. He could hear the front door banging and Florence’s voice in the corridor. She had just arrived home and was talking to Debra: Debra low and languid, Florence high and clipped.

Florence was a ‘goy’ from England. She had been in the apartment longer than any of them, even Maya, and for this reason, she had the biggest room which looked out over the park. The park was a fairly scrubby affair but even so, it was better than the brick wall that was Joseph’s view.  In the evenings they would often assemble in her room to drink coffee and she and Avi, if he was on leave from the army, would lie on her bed, sprawled across each other. Sometimes she would play the guitar and Debra and Mamun would dance wildly around the room, while Maya would sit on the stool next to the window smoking her roll-ups and smiling. Florence was thinking of converting – if she and Avi were to get married this would be essential – and it was the big issue for her. She and Joseph had had many conversations around the topic which gave them a common bond.

Joseph read the passage again and prepared some questions. The questions were as important as the text according to Rabbi Shmuel. He encouraged ‘debate and disobedience’ and liked his students to interrogate the tradition. Initially, Rabbi Shmuel’s class on the Talmud had been one of several that Joseph had signed up for as part of the summer program. He hadn’t really expected to be that interested, but gradually he had been drawn in and even started to participate in the discussions, which he had never done at any class in school. In fact, at school, he had deliberately sat at the back to avoid the teacher’s eye that anyway only hovered over the favoured few who sat up front with their arms in the air. By contrast, there was no way to avoid Rabbi Shmuel’s eye. Wherever you sat he seemed to be looking straight at you demanding your attention. He also laughed a lot and told jokes which was unusual for a teacher. That’s how it had all begun. Joseph wanted to make a good impression.

Later the others went out to eat at a restaurant in the Old City, which was owned by a friend of Mamun’s, and Maya and Joseph sat opposite each other in the kitchen eating the chicken. Cooking it had been quite straightforward in the end and basically comprised cutting up a few vegetables, adding some spices and covering everything with water, before simmering on the gas. Maya knew something about keeping kosher because her parents were scrupulous. She told Joseph about the separate soaps for meat and milk, the palaver on Shabbat, and how her mother used to wear a tea cloth over her head as she lit the candles.

Maya chewed on her lower lip which was a habit of hers, and then she began telling him about a case she was investigating for the paper. An Arab boy had gone missing. The boy and his family lived quite nearby and tethered their goats in the scrubland behind the apartment blocks. They always seemed miserable, the goats, and very scrawny. Sometimes they would be moved around, and the boy would look after them. The boy was scrawny too and had a hollow look in his eye. Joseph seemed to remember seeing him himself from time to time. Anyway, the boy had gone missing a week or so back and a couple of the goats had been discovered with their throats cut. It could have been a family vendetta, Maya said, or maybe someone, one of the residents, simply didn’t like the goats because they bleated at night. Maya had talked to the father who was distraught, partly on account of the boy, and partly because the police were involved and threatening to move them on. It was a fairly typical story, according to Maya. Before ‘67, they could go wherever they wanted without interference. It was their territory. But now everything had changed, and the police didn’t know what to do with them.

After supper, she went to write up her notes, while Joseph cleared up. He washed her dishes first although he was not sure he should. Then he began on his own after scrubbing the sink. Even so, he tried not to let his plates touch the bottom. Once he had rinsed them, he stacked them on some racks he had bought and then he dried them and replaced them on the top shelf. He could just about reach. He felt like a cup of tea but hadn’t any, and Mamun’s mint was now in the fridge and out of bounds amongst some tired looking tomatoes and eggplant.

Back in his room, he took out his siddur and began to recite the Shema, ‘Hear Oh Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.’ He stood facing the open window and moved backwards and forwards in meditation. It was dark outside. A slight breeze shuffled the papers on his desk. When he had finished, he got undressed and took a look in the mirror. He was trying to grow a beard but the small wisps on his chin didn’t amount to much. In bed, he lay looking up at the ceiling. He couldn’t get the Arab boy out of his mind. He imagined him in the alleyway beneath, his gaunt, young face stretching towards the window. In the distance, he could hear Maya typing and then the sounds of the others returning from the restaurant. Doors opened and shut and finally, there was silence and he slept.

A few days later he was leaving the supermarket with a bottle of wine and some bread. It was Friday and he was planning a simple Shabbat meal with cold meats and salad. He had invited Florence since the others were away that weekend. Avi couldn’t get the time off, and Debra and Mamun had gone to Ramallah. Maya meanwhile was making one of her infrequent visits to her family. Also, it meant that Florence could act as his ‘Shabbos goy’. He was not entirely at ease with the idea, but she seemed happy about it and was looking forward to taking part.  She wanted to learn what was involved. Joseph was paying for the food and wine and in exchange, she would turn the lights on and off and even make some coffee although he worried about the kettle and cups, and anyway coffee wasn’t necessary. After nightfall, he couldn’t do anything which involved work, and everything else like laying the table, opening the wine, and so forth, he was planning to do in advance.  Strange, he thought as he walked up the hill towards the apartment block, how much time he was now devoting to food and thinking about what to eat and when and how to eat it. It would be much simpler, as Rabbi Shmuel had said to him that morning, if he was living in the yeshiva where everything would be prepared for him, and he could devote himself exclusively to his studies. In principle, Joseph agreed, but something held him back. In response, Rabbi Shmuel had said that when the time came, he would know.

Joseph climbed the stairs to the apartment and opened the door. He was relieved to find the kitchen empty and relatively free of clutter. He began to sort out the shopping. He could hear the shower pounding and minutes later Florence appeared with her hair in a towel. She was wearing a kaftan style robe that she had bought in the Old City. It was slightly open at the front so Joseph averted his gaze. ‘I’m looking forward to supper,’ she said screwing up her eyes in that myopic way she had when she wasn’t wearing her glasses. She rubbed her hair with the towel. ‘I just have to get dressed and then I’ll be all yours.’ She disappeared up the corridor. Joseph got out the challah and started to make the salad. Then he took down the plates, his from the top shelf and Florence’s from the bottom.

Early the following morning, Joseph woke up with a start. His mouth was dry and his head ached. Gradually the evening before came into view. He had drunk too much, at least half a bottle of wine which he had shared with Florence. He was a lightweight when it came to drinking, that’s what his friends at school said, but they weren’t so different to him. They all came from average-income families who were restrained in their outlook on life preferring to do everything in moderation. His father drank a beer from time to time, and his mother screwed up her nose over a glass of sherry when friends came by. Otherwise, it was coke or seltzer. The clock on his bedside table showed 5 am. What time had they gone to bed, he wondered. He was desperate for water but had forgotten to ask Florence to put a glass out for him. For a while, he lay there wondering what to do. Dawn was breaking and the blind was open. Already the dark shadow of the wall from the neighbouring building was emerging through the window. Then it came to him that the tap in the kitchen had a drip. So long as he didn’t actually turn on the tap, he wouldn’t be violating the Sabbath. He got up and went into the kitchen. An acrid smell of tobacco greeted him and even though the window was open, loops of smoke hugged the ceiling. He looked around with a sinking heart. Dirty plates and cutlery were piled in the basin one on top of the other, and their wine glasses were still on the table, Florence’s smudged with lipstick. Her cigarette stubs were in an ashtray. Why had she stacked all the stuff together, his plates with hers?  The tap was dripping steadily. Joseph managed to manoeuvre his head between the tap and the plates and catch drops in his mouth. They were a blessing, he thought, from God, these drops. Then he wondered about catching them in a cup, but the cups were also in the sink. They must have drunk coffee despite his earlier resolutions and now he would have to wait until Florence got up.

He went to the window and leaned out as far as he could. A rush of cool air touched his cheek. The early morning sun drifted in pink and yellow streaks across the horizon to the east of the city. It had not yet strayed into the yard below where the streetlights were still casting a dull orange glow. He gazed down into the empty space. At first, there was nothing but then something moved in the half-light. A dog perhaps? There were lots of dogs roaming the area, most unaccounted for and dangerous to boot. On closer inspection, though it wasn’t a dog. It was a goat. The creature had come out of the gloom and was tripping across the paving. Others followed in silver-white steam, twelve of them at least and, behind, herding them towards the far side of the yard, was a boy. Joseph’s heart skipped a beat. Maybe it was the missing boy and he had returned unharmed. The boy idled across the courtyard batting his stick against the goats’ hindquarters. Joseph strained further from the window to get a look, but he still couldn’t make his face out and, even if he could, he wouldn’t have been able to tell whether he was him or not. They all looked the same these sad, tired boys, dressed in their fading t-shirts with ‘I Love New York’, emblazoned across them. Gradually the silver line dissolved into the scrubland beyond and the boy with it. Joseph went back to the tap for a few more drops of water and then to bed. The next thing he knew was the sound of plates clattering in the kitchen. Florence was up.

Late summer Joseph decided to leave. The time had come. A room had been vacated at the yeshiva and Rabbi Shmuel had pressed him to make a decision. Now he was packing. He hadn’t got much, just a few clothes, books and a photograph of his parents and his sister which his mother had slipped into his bag before he left home. The pots and pans would stay behind. Debra stood in the doorway watching him. She was returning to Philadelphia the following week. College was starting soon. She didn’t want to say goodbye to Mamun but her parents had given her an ultimatum either ‘now’ or her allowance would be cut. They still didn’t know about Mamun even though Debra had plans for him to visit as soon as he could get away from his job at the soap factory. ‘We must keep in touch’, she was saying to Joseph. ‘I can’t bear for us all to be separated.’ It looked as though she might cry. Joseph felt a pang too but after the Shabbat debacle, he wasn’t quite sure he could trust himself. Besides everything was changing now. The only person who would for sure stay on was Maya. The evening before she had presented him with a small book of her poems. At the front she had written, ‘For Joseph, may you find what you are looking for!’ Then she had taken his hand. It occurred to him then that she was probably the person he would miss the most, even though up until then he had thought it would be Florence.  He put the book into the top of his suitcase and squeezed down the lid. Debra accompanied him to the bottom of the stairs, and out into the alleyway where a battered Mercedes awaited the motor coughing. Arabic music blasted from inside. ‘Stay in touch!’ Debra repeated as he got into the back of the car. ‘Maa salama! Shalom! Shalom! Mazel tov!’ She ran alongside the taxi for a while pressing her face against the glass, waving, shouting and blowing kisses. Gradually the car gathered speed and she slowed down and then stood at the brow of the hill still waving. Joseph watched her recede out of the back window. The last thing he saw before the car dipped into the valley heading west was her pink bandana floating against the horizon. It felt like a sign, but he wasn’t sure what of it.

He settled back against the seat, the music battering his ears, and watched the city pass by. Would he ever see them again? Who knew?  But for now, he was headed in the right direction.


M.J. Popplewell is retired after a career working in publishing as commissioning editor for the history and politics of the Middle East. Her interest in Israel began in the early 1970s as a volunteer on Kibbutz Misgav Am. Afterwards she studied Hebrew and Arabic at the University of Jerusalem.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Close Cookmode
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x