Monday, March 22, 2010

I chide the non-Jewish members of the NOLA blogpocheh on occasion about how non-kosher their food choices - and even their blogging handles - are. It came to a head at the very first Geek Dinner I attended, where a certain yaller blogger told me I had to try the pulled pork someone brought to the massive smorgasbord at Madame Dangerblond's house...and I told him I was Jewish, but instantly disarmed him a little by telling him about the nice client a friend of mine had who sent his mostly Jewish partners and staff a bunch of Christmas ornaments for the holidays. He tactfully told the client the gesture was much appreciated, but most of the staff was Jewish. To the client's credit, the next year, ornaments were not sent to the office for the holidays...

...but a nice Honey Baked Ham was.

Not that my friend minded, actually. The Jewish community in New Orleans has never had the reputation of caring much for the practices of Judaism itself, a tendency that dates from Jews' earliest days here and still surfaces in many instances....and most times, questions of observance rear their heads over issues concerning food in this most food-conscious and food-loving of cities.

Hey, it's been programmed into the halakhic interpretations of Biblical law over the millennia: the easiest way to separate the Israelites from all other people wasn't just the Ten Commandments, the portable-then-permanent Holy of Holies, and the admonition to sacrifice animals and not humans to God - it was controlling what God's chosen people put into their bodies. There have been countless theories put out concerning the whys of all the dietary laws since the rabbis began to expand on not eating a calf in its mother's milk, eating only animals with a split hoof that chew their cuds, and eating only seafood with fins and scales...but it all comes back to keeping oneself a part of a holy people.

Of course, when there are many different people living in the same place, it's impossible to keep everyone completely separate, which is why I consider the Tanakh to be one of the greatest tragedies ever recorded: a people makes a covenant with God only to gradually throw it away in order to be like everybody else...and they are then condemned to wander the earth without a homeland but with enough laws and precepts to keep them apart in any place in which their descendants may settle. It leaves us with one hell of a history and an amazing set of traditions - but the old conflicts still remain, and they appear at their fiercest when the laws of kashrut are involved:
On Wednesday evening, July 11, 1883, some two hundred persons gathered for dinner at the Cincinnati Highland House, a hilltop resort and restaurant overlooking the Ohio river and the Kentucky hills. Sponsored by a group of Cincinnati Jews who preferred to remain anonymous, the event was meant to honor the delegates to the eighth annual council meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College. Among the guests were members of Cincinnati's Jewish upper class as well as non-Jewish judges, clergymen, and professors from the local university. The Cincinnati Enquirer described the affair as a “Jewish Jollification”; in American Jewish history it has become known as the “trefa banquet,” an important link in a chain of events that was finally to lead to a break between Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Oops doesn't quite cut it when you serve Little Neck clams, soft-shell crabs, a shrimp salad and some frogs' legs to a graduating class of rabbis and top it all off with milk-based desserts as a grand finale. I'm surprised that an entirely new religion, rather than a more observant sect of secular Judaism, didn't get started after such a fiasco. I mean, damn.

I think about all of this as I head into the second of the three holidays considered to be one of the "legs" on which Judaism is based. Passover is the ultimate in commemorating our Jewishness through what we eat, and, in many ways, I'm glad it only lasts for 7-8 days.

In my grandmother's house, all the regularly used cabinets are taped up and the cabinets storing the dishes used for Passover foods are the only ones we can open. I learned to leave the regular ones alone as a kid when my great-grandmother saw me nearly open one in a moment of forgetting and screamed bloody murder as though I'd been searching for a regular-year kosher knife to drive into her heart. The refrigerators are cleaned out and the shelves within are lined with foil and plastic so as to emphasize that surfaces that have contact with regular kosher food won't have any contact with kosher for Passover food. Special tablecloths are brought out for the holiday, special foods and snacks are purchased, and even some new foods are brought in for sampling (I can tell you right now, though: I don't think ANYbody had kosher for Passover hot dog buns or kosher for Passover bagels in mind when commemorating the Israelites' escape from bondage in Egypt came up. Those sorry excuses for foods have died much-deserved deaths), but the regular laws of kashrut are compounded by the admonition that one must not eat leavened bread or any food with leaven in it on Passover because the Israelites had to get out of Egypt so fast, they couldn't wait for their bread to rise. Ashkenazic Jews expand the "no leaven" tradition to any food that looks like it's rising when it cooks, so no rice, beans, or corn for those of us with Eastern European and German ancestry (every year, Dan wonders when we can declare ourselves Sephardic Jews and thus eat those forbidden grains, veggies and legumes for the holiday). And there you have it.

Have I done the Passover cleaning in my own home? I have a few times, and it is a cleansing for the ages...but, as we will be spending most of the holiday this year at my grandparents', we aren't doing it at my house this year. As it is, we don't keep strict kosher - even though we don't eat pork or keep it in the house, we don't keep completely separate dishes for milk and meat foods, and not all of the food in the house has a hechsher on it. By all that alone, we are not very observant.

Plus, even though I don't bring it into my house, I still love shrimp. And crawfish.

Neither of those foods will be coming anywhere near my grandma's house, however...and that's just fine. There'll be more than enough gefilte fish, brisket, turkey, matzo ball soup, sour pickles, tomatoes, and peppers, stuffed kishke, mandel bread, seven-layer cake, sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, meatballs, kugel, cinnamon sponge cake, charoset, horseradish, chocolates, cookies, gummy fruits, matzah, and other kosher for Passover stuff to feed all of the Israelites and then some as we recline in our chairs and remember a time when we were made to work our asses off just to build the pyramids and first-born male children, like my own son, would have been tossed into the Nile as babies and would never have been allowed to grow into adulthood. The horseradish will be bitter as all get out as we eat it and it clears out our sinuses and makes us cry, remembering when there was no hope for us - and never forgetting that, for too many still in this world, hope is hard to come by.

Those kinds of remembrance are worth a little deprivation.

Update, 3/23: And today, I am informed of this little introduction to our beerscape. I'm sorry, Schmaltz brewers, the timing of this introduction couldn't be worse...I mean, guess what ELSE is forbidden on Passover????


oyster said...

I am what I am, is about all I can say.

Cousin Pat said...

Strange. I recall no chiding in my direction, but that perhaps has something to do with "bring your own steak nights"...

Which will be making a triumphant return now that Spring is here, BTW.