Audrey Beth 
Stein's SHOW AND

Why I Eat What I "Don't Eat"

Copyright 2004 (or earlier) Audrey Beth Stein
All rights reserved.

I was in Jerusalem for a semester abroad and there was bombing going on. After the first bomb, some of my classmates talked about leaving. By the second bomb, many were already gone, and I was wondering if I should take off too. When the third bomb struck, I packed up what I could carry--what I needed, what I would be upset if I lost, some clothes. I left the rest behind and fled to my cousins' home in Be'er Sheva, an oasis town in the midst of Israel's Negev Desert--a place to think, to pause, to be safe while I made my decisions, knowing I wouldn't ever have to return to Jerusalem.

It was Purim. Schools were closed for the day, but the holiday was officially cancelled by the government--no festivities while people were mourning these terrorist attacks. The apartment was packed when I arrived--my cousins, their cousins, their grandma and grandpa, maybe even some neighbors. They'd already eaten. They'd saved me lunch. I sat down and they put a plate of food in front of me.

There was food on that plate that I didn't, as a rule, eat. Some sort of meat, unidentifiable. Later my sixteen-year-old cousin Hagit said to me, "Yuck, you ate that? That was sheep." But right then, sitting at the table in front of the food my family had saved for me, the idea of explaining or insisting on my quirky semi-vegetarian chicken-is-okay no-milk-as-beverage nothing-too-spicy diet felt just not... right. These people were saving my life, and what was important in that moment was life. The big picture. Safety and family. I ate.

It's not a compromise, eating food like that. It's not a concession. It's an acknowledgement that there is a time and a place for everything, a recognition that sometimes the right thing in a particular moment is exactly the thing that is not the right thing for you in other moments.

As I ate, I engaged in a whole dialogue with myself about what I was doing so that I could swallow, so that I could say thank you and not let on to my family what was going on inside. And I realized that the situation around me--bombings, terrorism, war, the whole Arab-Israeli conflict--was happening because of the failure of so many people to recognize and understand and accept the lesson I was digesting along with the sheep. You have to eat sheep sometimes--whatever eating sheep means for you--in order to live in the world, live with other people. You have to be able to bend in certain moments that call for it. And bending in those moments doesn't have to change your belief or your regular practice in other moments.

I'm still learning this. I feel the terrorist bombings and the Israeli retaliations in the little conflicts of my everyday, in the disagreements with roommates and family. If I can't get along with my roommate because of a stack of dirty dishes, how can I expect peace to occur, or to last, on a larger scale? It doesn't make sense to me to focus on who's right or who's wrong. There's almost always "right" and "wrong" on both sides, and it's so easy for conflict to continue escalating, especially when for every person killed there's an entire family of people who don't want that death to be in vain. So instead of concentrating on whose fault it is or who did what why, I try to ask myself, Do you want it to go on? And I remember eating sheep.

On a personal level, that means finding a solution with my family or my roommates that does not compromise my beliefs or actions or practices, but acknowledges their place. Perhaps I clean up my roommate's stack of dishes as a one-time gesture, planning to talk to my roommate at a less-stressful time about how dirty dishes make me feel, knowing it'll make me calmer to not look at them, knowing it'll make for a more pleasant home environment to not fight about it, knowing my roommate will appreciate my effort and the absence of the dish stack. On a more global level, perhaps that means honoring someone's memory by not fighting back.

I'm far from perfect, and I don't have answers. I just know this way of being feels closer to real lasting peaceful coexistence both in my home and in my world, holds promise that immovable stone doesn't.

I try to remind myself of this lesson through the food I eat. My personal rules of eating are still quirky, multi-influenced by kashrut, vegetarianism, health, taste, adventure, an aversion to spicy foods, my family history, and so on, and I haven't started eating red meat again based on that one day. But every so often I very intentionally eat something I "don't eat." I do this only when it's a personal choice (because caving to a bully isn't going to bring us any closer to peace than being a bully), and I ask myself before the first bite, "What's the worst thing that could happen to me if I do this? I get an upset stomach? It's not gonna kill me... " Reminding myself where my own rules for living fit into the greater scheme of things.