To fulfill a Jewish tradition that dates to Biblical times, Leon and Judy Malnik pose a question for the '90s: What do you do with a microwave that has cooked both milk and meat?
The rabbi's answer: Get rid of it.
As the Malniks go through the elaborate process of making their 6-year-old Clarksville kitchen kosher for the first time, that seems to be the answer to many questions.
The everyday dishes? Gone.
The oyster plates? Not kosher -- and neither are shellfish.
Even the clay and porcelain bowls bought over the years have become little more than an expensive collection of candy dishes and flower pots.
"What about that coffee mug? It's my favorite," Leon Malnik says of a hand-crafted cup that bears a striking resemblance to his face.
"Sorry," replies Rabbi Hillel Baron of Columbia Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education. "Keep it on your desk for pencils."
The Malniks recently decided to strictly observe the Jewish dietary laws known as "kashrut," joining the ranks of about 1.5 million American Jews who keep kosher in some form or another. Estimates vary because many Jews have different interpretations over how strictly to follow the rules, and many Jews don't observe them at all.
The dietary laws -- laid out in the Old Testament -- prohibit milk and meat from being mixed, limit which animals and fish may be eaten and prescribe a certain way that animals must be slaughtered. Jews following kosher rules aren't supposed to eat both dairy and meat in the same meal.
Neither Leon nor Judy Malnik grew up in kosher homes. But, like many families, they say they decided to make their home kosher to create a more spiritual place.
"I like to cook and have people over for meals, but other families who keep kosher won't eat in our house," Mrs. Malnik says. "Now I can cook for others."
In a typical kosher kitchen, separate sets of everything are kept for dairy and meat -- dishes, silverware, pots, pans, ovens.
'Kashering' the home
As the Malniks learned, creating a kosher kitchen isn't easily done. In a process known as "kashering," the entire kitchen and every item in it must be cleansed of impurities.
Or, in the case of porcelain or clay items -- including most dishes -- they must be given away or used as ornaments, because those materials absorb trace amounts of liquid from foods.
Glasses and silverware can be dipped in boiling water, pots and pans can be cleaned in the self-cleaning cycle of an oven, and the impurities in ovens can be burned out with a blowtorch.
Assembly line for cleaning
So one recent morning, Baron and the Malniks -- Leon, Judy, Michelle, 10, and Joshua, 7 -- cleaned the kitchen. Actually, the cleaning started several days earlier, with the parents staying up until the early morning hours to scrub out the refrigerator, counters, cabinets and dishwasher.
By the time the rabbi arrives, every utensil, plate and pot is laid out in the dining room. Only those items that can be made kosher will be brought into the kitchen to be cleaned.
What follows is something of a kashering assembly line. Joshua carries glasses and silverware into the kitchen; the rabbi -- wearing heavy black rubber gloves -- dips them into a huge iron pot of boiling water and rinses them under the faucet; then Mrs. Malnik and Michelle dry them.
Mr. Malnik is in charge of keeping the pot covered when the rabbi isn't dipping a glass or fork to keep the water boiling.
As they work, the couple pepper the rabbi with questions.
"What happens if we mess up with one of the glasses or silverware?" Mrs. Malnik asks, wondering what to do if she accidentally uses a dairy knife to cut meat.
"You just set up another pot of boiling water and clean it again," Baron replies. "It happens all the time, even in my house."
Wine glasses, liquor glasses, water goblets and juice glasses -- more than six dozen in all -- are dipped into the boiling water by the rabbi, as are dozens of forks, knives and spoons.
Keeping kosher in the '90s
Some of the toughest questions arise from the conveniences of the modern kitchen -- the bread-maker, the expensive Le Creuset pots and pans, even the juicer. At one point, Mr. Malnik calls the manufacturer and the rabbi determines that the enamel-coated pans can be cleaned and saved.
"It's not hard to know what to do with the silverware, glasses and dishes, but some of these newer things are tough to figure out," Baron says.
Getting out the big guns
One of the Malniks' pair of ovens is self-cleaning, which can reach a high enough temperature to get rid of any nonkosher food remnants. But the other requires the rabbi's blowtorch to burn out any impurities left from nonkosher cooking.
Baron runs the blowtorch over every surface, sending sparks flying everywhere the flame touches a patch of leftover grease. In the spring, Mr. Malnik likely will borrow the rabbi's blowtorch again to clean the family's outdoor grill before the first kosher barbecue.