[Nonfiction] White Castle Taught Me About God
When I was about nine years old, I questioned the laws of God and my mother.
Until I was 10, I lived in urban Elizabeth, New Jersey. My parents kept a conservative Jewish household, where we went to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturday mornings to celebrate Shabbat. We kept kosher as well.
The laws of keeping kosher in the kitchen are rigid and ancient and Biblically ordained. One must never eat dairy and meat together. Animals must be slaughtered humanely and prepared to remove all traces of blood, and only certain ones may be eaten. Prepared foods must be supervised by a special rabbi who knows those laws, and packaged goods are marked so people know what to buy. (We never had Campbell’s soups or Chef Boy-Ar-Dee in our house.) Separate sets of kitchenware are maintained so as not to mix dairy and meat, even off chance. My mother had 2 sets of pots and pans, 4 sets of dishes and silverware: two for every day and two for “good.” And then, of course, she maintained the Passover sets, put away for all but one week of the year. The more religious one is, the more intricate the laws become, down to when ripened fruits may be eaten, or how soon after a dairy meal one can partake of a meat meal. My mother’s oldest friend, from when they were 5, maintained two separate kitchens, but she was Orthodox.
Once a week, we would go food shopping on Elmora Avenue, where there were kosher bakeries and delis. We would walk down Westfield Avenue and turn right at the corner, walking past the parking lot of the train station and the White Castle.
Pristine white with dark blue accents to make it look like a castle, the shop sat directly on the corner, on the edge of the parking lot for the railway station. Along the roof ledge, they advertised “hamburgers 12c” “cheeseburgers 15c” “French fries 10c.” Seemed pretty reasonable to me.
The smell from the White Castle was tantalizing—always a meat-lover, I hungered to put taste to that wonderful smell.
I asked my mother if we could buy a hamburger there.
“Oh no!” She admonished me. “We don’t eat trayfe, not ever. It is a sin against God to eat unkosher food.”
How could anything that smelled so good be sinful? Every time we passed, the scent wafted out to me, beckoning me. But how would I ever taste it? Where would I get the 12 cents to buy a hamburger?
It was spring vacation, on a clear day in May that I decided to challenge God. And it was Passover, as well, when leavened food was forbidden.
I don’t remember where my mother was when I climbed up on a kitchen chair to shake twelve cents out of my piggy bank that was kept atop the refrigerator. I put the piggy bank back carefully in the exact place it had been so I would not be suspected. Then I climbed down and replaced the kitchen chair. It never occurred to me that God might be angrier about my lying and theft more than my intention to break the law of kashruth.
Early afternoon, I got permission to ride my bike down to visit my friend Diana, who lived about 10 houses away, in the direction of that fateful corner. I pedaled right past Diana’s house on my mission to the forbidden White Castle.
Where to hide? Where to park my bike so no one would know? Open on all sides to the general pedestrian flow as well as major traffic in all directions, White Castle was also across the street from my dentist’s office, and he was Jewish, too. Suppose he came out and saw me?
I decided to park my bike, a red and cream Raleigh, behind the White Castle. I reasoned that my mother would not see it if she came walking down Westfield Avenue, and neither would Dr. Lebow if he came out.
I hurried in. There were a few men sitting on stools at the counter, eating their hamburgers and drinking something. The guy behind the counter asked me what I wanted, in a not-unfriendly tone.
“One hamburger,” I whispered, not wanting God to behold my sinful request.
“One hamburger,” I whispered again.
“Speak up, little girl. I can’t hear you!”
“A hamburger,” I repeated, a little louder.
He smiled and wrapped up my food. “That’ll be twelve cents.”
I hurriedly paid him and rushed out.
Now my dilemma was where to eat it. Where might nobody see me, least of all my mother and God? There was no protected place, nowhere that I could eat the offensive food without being seen. Not a cloud in the sky to blind me from God’s eye; not a tree or rock to hide behind in case of my mother.
I sat down on the employees’ steps of White Castle and opened the white bag. I unwrapped the hamburger and took my first offending bite, looking up at the clear cloudless sky at the same time.
It tasted…different, not like the juicy hamburger my father made on the grill, not like my mother’s thick one. And this one had chopped-up raw onions. I’d never had that.
I looked skyward, but nothing happened as I chewed.
The sky did not open, and my mother did not appear.
Third bite, fourth bite. Fifth bite and finished. Nothing had happened to me, breaking the laws of Kashruth during Passover under a clear sky on a busy corner.
God didn’t care what I ate.
It is a short trip from “not being struck dead by lightning” to “there is no God,” and I took that journey. Sixty-five years later, I still travel with that passport.
Maxene Kupperman-Guiñals is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and teacher of English and drama. Her atheism has been a demonstrable part of her morality since she was 9.