It’s not every day that a German-born woman helps an American Jew keep kosher.
“MMM, THAT LOOKS GOOD,” I say to Rod. My fellow technical writer is at his desk, digging into a frozen chocolate yogurt. Compared to my brown-bag lunch, it’s no contest. I covet my neighbor’s yogurt.
“It is good,” says Rod. “Why don’t you walk over to the cafeteria and get some?” He leans forward. “Fat-free.”
“I’d love to,” I reply, “but I don’t know if I’m allowed.” Rod knows I keep kosher. No matter. Here in Georgia, 1988, religious Christians such as he respect that.
“I think they use Columbo,” he offers. “Is that kosher?”
Lucky me. “Yes, it is. But I’d need to know if the soap they use to clean the machine is kosher, too.”
“Why don’t you ask?”
Entering the cafeteria for the first time, I’m greeted by unfamiliar smells. I study the menu: barbecued chicken, refried beans, candied yams. I am, indeed, a stranger in a strange land.
Ah—there’s the yogurt machine. Today’s flavors are French Vanilla, Fat-Free Chocolate, and of course, Georgia Peach. I approach a cafeteria worker. “Excuse me: I need to ask a few questions about your yogurt.”
The woman looks at me, without smiling. “Like what?”
“Well, who makes it, how your machine is cleaned?”
She studies me. “Let me let you talk to my manager. She’ll be right with you.”
Great. the last time I went through this routine, I was in the mall, at a cookie shop. The Southern-born manager had no idea what keeping kosher was about. “Mister,” he said, “There hasn’t been any rabbi around here blessing these cookies.” The year before, on a commercial jetliner, I had asked the flight attendant to exchange my bag of peanuts for one whose package bore a K. “Mister,” she announced for one and all, “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, but if you want it, you got it.” A third public humiliation, I didn’t need.
Here comes the cafeteria manager. Can it be? She is tall, regal, slim, and smartly dressed, in her early to mid forties. And what’s this? She’s smiling. “Hello. I’m Inga. How can I help you?”
She is German.
Now, I’m not one of those Jews who hold a grudge against today’s Germans. I’ve purchased German cameras and coffee makers, not to mention a German cheese slicer and electric toothbrush. I’d buy a Volkswagen in a heartbeat.
Still, she doesn’t have to know I’m Jewish.
“Yes,” I say slowly, “I need to know the manufacturer of the frozen yogurt. And what soap you use to clean the yogurt machine.” There’s no need to use the K word; she wouldn’t understand. Or worse, she would.
“Certainly,” she smiles. “Our yogurt is Columbo. Let me get you a carton so you can look over the ingredients.”
Soon, she returns, toting an empty five-gallon yogurt tub. “Here is the list of ingredients. Please—look it over.”
I pretend to study the list; actually I’m looking for a discreet seal of approval—a circled K, like Ⓚ; a circled U, like ⓤ; or a Hebrew letter. I find it. “Very good,” I say. “And the soap?”
“We use a liquid soap,” she says, eager to please. “It has no animal products in it, whatsoever. Let me get it; you’ll see for yourself.” She returns with a bottle of soap. Kosher.
But there remains the delicate matter of the cleaning sponge. If it has ever touched hot cookware, I’m sunk. Before I can ask, Inga speaks. “We always clean when the metal is cold; I make sure of that.”
I’m stunned. “That’s great.”
She smiles. “Is there anything else you need to know?”
“No,” I say, “that covers it. Thanks.” We shake hands and begin to part.
No—not yet. “You know, Inga, I think it’s great that someone like you is able to help someone like me keep kosher.”
She smiles sadly. “I was just a little girl during the War. So of course there was no way I could know what was happening, or do anything about it. Nevertheless, I’ve shed many tears over that whole tragic episode.”
For a moment, I say nothing. But for Inga and me, it is no longer adequate to blink back tears: We hug. The poignancy of the moment does not escape us: a German woman, doing all that is humanly possible to help a Jew keep his law.
“Thanks, again,” I say. “This has been the highlight of my week.”
I walk to the yogurt machine. In the days to come, there will be much thinking to do. And much rethinking.
But first, I grab a Styrofoam cup—extra large—and pull the lever for Fat-Free Chocolate.
© 1999 Paul Franklin Stregevsky