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Hungry for meaning

Joe Kessler-Godin mans the smoker at Smokey Joe's, his Tex-Mex barbecue joint in Teaneck. NJJN photo
Joe Kessler-Godin mans the smoker at Smokey Joe's, his Tex-Mex barbecue joint in Teaneck. NJJN photo

Joe Kessler-Godin carves me a slice of brisket, a rich brown on the outside, lightly pink just below the “bark,” a moist gray in the center. The taste of smoke is intense but not overpowering. 

“I don’t mean to sound arrogant,” he says, “but people who know their Texas barbecue tell me this is up there with the best of them.” I am in no position to disagree. First of all, my mouth is just too happy to do anything but chew. And second of all, I keep kosher, so I don’t have much of a basis of comparison.

Joe is the Joe in Smokey Joe’s, which he advertises as “the first authentic, wood-fired, slow-cooked, pit smoked Glatt Kosher BBQ restaurant in the US of A!” It’s in the heart of Teaneck’s Cedar Lane, which in turn has become the heart of a metropolitan area kosher scene. There are at least 30 kosher restaurants and markets in Teaneck, including Persian, Chinese, Asian fusion, Middle Eastern, Italian, sushi, and Mexican. Teaneck is what happens when you combine religious observance, modernity, and affluence and place it about 30 minutes from the center of one of the world’s fine dining capitals. 

In between bites, Joe and I chat about the wood he uses and the secrets of his dry rubs and sauces. But this being a kosher place, we also talk about the expanding market for quality kosher dining, the challenges of creating “authentic” cuisine within the strict boundaries of kashrut, and how to make the treatment of food-industry workers as important to employers as the ingredients in a recipe. 

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about kashrut lately, which is how Joe came to invite me to his restaurant. A few months back I wrote a column complaining that food writer Michael Pollan gives short shrift to kashrut, which strikes me and others as a food tradition as rich and meaningful as any Pollan celebrates in his otherwise excellent books. And now it’s Passover, when a middle-aged man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of a decent meal.

I was also agitated by an essay in the New York Jewish Week by Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. One of JOI’s main goals is to bring Judaism to unaffiliated Jews. Golin worries that all of the traditional justifications for keeping kosher are not compelling enough for most non-observant Jews. Obligation, discipline, and separatism, he writes, are “pretty unsatisfying” answers “for a fully-integrated American who doesn’t see keeping apart from my non-Jewish neighbors as a positive value.” He and other nonobservant Jews want to “understand the value” in performing mitzvot, but not in those terms.

I responded to Paul in a huff, complaining that he was asking observant Jews to defend Jewish “difference” without making the nonobservant feel they have to do anything different themselves. Paul responded gently: “If you’re going to encourage less-engaged Jews” to engage in Judaism, he wrote, “you have to specifically tell them what the value is, what benefit they will derive, how it will make their life better, how it will give their kids a leg up on life, and so on. It’s no longer enough to say ‘Because we’re Jewish.’”

I began keeping kosher in my mid-20s, at a time when I was hungry for meaning and becoming more engaged with Judaism in general. My theory then and now is that no matter what I chose to do and not do in terms of Jewish observance, keeping kosher would force me to make “Jewish” choices from breakfast until snack time. And once I was making those choices, I’d be in a dialogue with all the possible reasons Jews have asserted for keeping kosher — in fact, for being Jewish: because it is commanded, because it forges a link with how other Jews behave and have behaved through the centuries, because it creates a distinction between us and the gentiles, because it imposes discipline on our otherwise unbridled appetites, literal and metaphorical. Philosophers will assert that kashrut raises our consciousness about the natural world, ethicists that it models how we should treat other living beings, and humanists that it helps forge and sustain a culture.

That’s a laundry list, I know. I embrace some of these reasons, and reject others. And some of the assertions are not just incompatible but contradictory. If something is commanded, for instance, some hold that it is actually forbidden to look for deeper ethical or philosophical meanings. If kashrut is a lesson in how we treat other living things, how can we justify eating meat at all? How can we be a light unto the nations if we won't sit down in their homes and share a meal?

I don’t have the answers, but I like to think my life has been enriched by the questions. And if the goal is Jewish outreach, these questions have to be asked and addressed, at least in large part, in Jewish terms. You don't need kashrut to learn how to eat responsibly and healthily, or live sustainably. You can have a rich talk about the meaning and ethics of food by going straight to Michael Pollan and bypassing obstacles like tradition, God, obligation, or community. But Judaism adds another element to this conversation: What does it mean to eat as a Jew? If that question is of no interest to the unaffiliated, then I am not sure what kind of outreach is possible. And if we can’t find a meaningful answer to the question, I’m not sure why we need outreach at all.

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