From Rugelach to Pig Fat Pastries: My Unexpected Study of Kashrut in Madrid

A flamenco show, drinks, and some Torah.

By Ilana Sandberg

It’s the beginning of November: I’m settled into my job in Jerusalem, already dreaming about my winter break Euro-trip, and after a few email exchanges, I’ve decided to sign up for Project Zug. I have always had an interest in studying at Hadar, an egalitarian Yeshiva based in New York City that houses an incredible staff of teachers (based on what I had heard from my raving friends). I had yet to find a time to take a class in New York when I learned about Project Zug – an opportunity to access Hadar learning online without losing the vital dynamic of havruta study. I had considered partnering with friends from home, but ultimately let Project Zug pick a partner for me. Her name is Jillian, she lives in Madrid, and we’ll be learning in English.

After a few emails and WhatsApps back and forth, we get on FaceTime and start to break the ice. Jillian and I both just graduated from college, and while we grew up in dissimilar households in regard to observance, we practiced similarly during our time in college. Now, we’ve both moved to a country across the Atlantic for the year, without the intention of staying, to gather experience in our respective fields (hers being biological research, mine being Jewish education).

With introductions and some schmoozing behind us, it’s time to dive into our course on Kashrut and we begin to learn how different our experience of this Jewish practice is. I’m living in a city where you have to search for a non-kosher restaurant and even those without a teudah (kosher certification) serve kosher food despite being open on shabbat. Meanwhile, Jillian is living in Madrid, the capital of Spain from where, in the 1400s, the Jews and Muslims were expelled. One way in which the Catholics ensured the explosion or conversation of these two religious minorities was by placing their common restricted food at the center of Spanish cuisine: pork. While Madrid is now a very progressive city, this aspect of their culture remains prominent, making it very difficult for someone keeping kosher to purchase even a pastry because the dough is often made with manteca – animal fat. So we were living pretty different lives when it came to Kashrut.

Week two: I bring up that my winter break Euro-trip will include Madrid (a total coincidence) and Jillian graciously offers not just to meet up for a meal but for me to stay with her for a few nights. Better yet, my stay will allow us to momentarily move our learning from FaceTime to face to face! And so the planning begins.

Project Zug at our home made, vegetarian dinner.

When we finally meet it’s like we’re old friends despite not ever having met in person. I guess that’s why they say “Make for yourself a Rabbi and gain for yourself a friend” (Mishnah Avot 1:6). Jillian and I spend my visit chatting, going to vegetarian restaurants and cooking for ourselves, and most memorably participating in a salsa class and watching a flamenco performance (at which we studied Kashrut while waiting for it to begin). We talk about our Jewish experiences as I witness the stark contrast between my life in Israel and Jillian’s Jewish life in which she lives with her landlord’s Christmas ham still in the kitchen.

While we do not get the chance to even finish one source sheet during my visit, we spend the time getting to know each other, truly using what we had learned thus far to frame our other conversations. We talk more about our lives in general, and the whole time I think how coincidental and amazing it is that this whole trip worked out with my new friend. Following the visit, I become eager to update her on my life during breaks in our havruta study.

The Talmud says either havruta or death” (Ta’anit 23a). It seems extreme but from this experience with Project Zug I more deeply understand this saying. Had I looked at the texts on my own I may have spent an hour or two total studying them. With Jillian we’ve spent far longer grappling with the text and bringing our own lives into our learning. Our contrasting Kashrut experiences this year has added immensely to our learning over the Project Zug course of this year and granted us a memorable experience and a new friendship.

Ilana Sandberg, a recent graduate from Barnard College and JTS, is now spending a year in Israel before returning to New York to continue with graduate studies. She intends to pursue a career in Jewish art education and spends her spare time in the pottery studio and working on the Megillah she’s writing.