I leaned against my shopping cart, my thumbs tapping out a text to my roommates: “Winn-Dixie is a magical place and I never thought I’d be so happy to see ‘KOSHER’ in huge letters on a wall.”
I then went back to staring at the shelves under those big six letters on the wall. It really was a wall, or at least half of a wall and then another row of free-standing shelves across from it, and everything on those shelves had a little letter U in a circle or other assorted Hebrew letters and words on the package to indicate that yes, it was true, everything in this aisle was kosher food.
Kashrut is the dietary laws followed by Jewish people like me. Kosher food is food prepared according to kashrut. The laws include what animals we can and cannot eat (no seafood, only fish with scales, only certain kinds of birds, only land animals with split hooves and which chew their cud), what foods we can or cannot eat together (dairy products and meat products cannot be mixed), and how the food should be prepared (the animal must be killed in a certain way and have not been mistreated in life, and the utensils used to make the food cannot have come into contact with non-kosher food).
The above paragraph is a very basic look at kashrut. Does it seem like a lot of rules to you? To me, it seems simple. It doesn’t take much effort for me to follow kashrut. I’m used to it. The house I grew up in had separate utensils for milk and meat products, and bacon never entered our kitchen.
But it must seem like a lot of rules to most of the grocery stores I have been to in my life. I grew up in central Illinois, in a town with a relatively small Jewish population, and an even smaller number of Jews who regularly observed kashrut. For me, the kosher section of a grocery store was always a tiny part of an aisle, perhaps a yard long at the most. It would have a few jugs of grape juice, a couple jars of gefilte fish, and some boxes of matzah. My childhood was punctuated by trips up to Chicago with a large cooler in the back of the car, which we would load up with enough frozen kosher chicken and beef to last us for months, because there was nowhere closer to home that sold kosher meat.
The lack of kosher food in my hometown sent me a message throughout my childhood: “Your laws are too difficult for us. We won’t put in the effort to make sure you have access to the food you can eat. You cannot eat here.”
And there is a very short step between “you cannot eat here” and “you do not belong here.”
When I got to Orlando, at my parents’ suggestion, I called the local Jewish federation for advice about where I could find kosher food. I was put in touch with a director who lived near me, and she recommended that I go to a Winn-Dixie a few minutes from my apartment – a very convenient location. There I found those six huge letters on the wall, and an entire aisle of food that I knew I could eat without violating my religion’s laws. There I found a different message than the one the grocery stores of my childhood told me: “We know your laws are important to you. Here, we have found food that you can eat. You can eat here.
“You belong here.”