Kitsch in the kitchen
On visits to Florida I often eat at a “Jewish-style” diner that serves pretty good bagels and great lox and eggs. I don’t eat nonkosher meat or forbidden seafood, so I skip the house specialties like “The Nosher” (pastrami with melted Swiss cheese) and “The Yenta” (charbroiled chicken with bacon and Swiss).
Something about the menu always makes me a little sad. I have made my peace with nonkosher restaurants, obviously, so it is not the ingredients that bring me down. It’s the names, and the pathetic attempt to link a deracinated present with a thickly ethnic past.
The current issue of Moment magazine has a nice piece by Sala Levin on “kosher-style” food: you know, “Jewish” delis serving nonkosher pastrami and “kosher-style” caterers who offer nonkosher beef and chicken, but not shellfish and pork. The author traces the rise of Jewish-but-not-kosher dining back to the 1920s, when it “satisfied the yen of assimilating Jews to feel that they were eating in a Jewish style without necessarily following Jewish dietary restrictions.”
“Kosher-style” is also an example of what sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine labeled “safe treyf”: that is, nonkosher food that isn’t obviously so. “Kosher-style,” writes Levin, allowed Jews to “forgo kosher meat because of the expense or inconvenience, but avoid ostentatiously treyf foods such as shrimp or pork chops.”
It’s not my job or inclination to complain about Jews who eat nonkosher food. We all set our boundaries, some highly personal and some in line with the ideology and traditions of whatever movement we happen to belong to. When Reform Judaism made the dietary laws optional, it wasn’t out of thrift or convenience, but in line with its followers’ belief in individual autonomy and their conception of a liberal Jewish religious life. And there were some sound structural reasons for the Jewish majority’s abandonment of kashrut, from the high price of kosher food, to the excitement of joining the American mainstream, to the perils of separating yourself from your neighbors and colleagues.
And yes, you don’t have to keep kosher to live a fulfilling, engaged Jewish life.
What saddens me, however, is the kitschification of Jewish food, which reduces Jewish tradition to a series of gestures or jokes, or feeble stabs at nostalgia. It’s not just the Yiddishe-sounding names at the Florida diner. It’s the bottles of (nonkosher) schmaltz on the tables at Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House in New York. Or nonkosher restaurants decorated with Yiddish theater posters, photos of old Brooklyn, and other Jewy ephemera. It’s the Long Island catering hall described by the late David Rakoff in his newly published novel-in-verse: “Venetian palazzo floors pounded by horas / Cut-velvet drapes framing chopped-liver Torahs.”
It’s not a question of blasphemy, but authenticity. There’s a particularly pungent Yiddish expression for someone who pretends to be something he is not: kosher chazr-fissel — that is, like a pig pretending to be kosher because his hoof is split (kosher animals have cloven hooves). Better to be treif than be treif and pretend you’re not, essentially.
A few years ago I wrote a column complaining about Jewish cooks who celebrated bacon and pork barbecue, and websites selling cutesy “BaconJew” T-shirts. My gripe was that such institutions were peddling fake rebellion — pretending to be iconoclastic without being for anything exactly.
But at least they passed the kosher chazr-fissel test. A Brooklyn restaurant calling itself “Traif” can’t be accused of subterfuge.
Then as now, I’m a strict pluralist. I still don’t buy the idea that there is a single ideal way to behave or contribute Jewishly. But I just find myself more interested in the behaviors and contributions of those who take their Jewishness seriously.
Take, for example, two new Jewish “pop-up restaurants” described this week by Tablet. Both are serving convivial meals to Brooklyn 20- and 30-somethings, and both are trying to create Jewish experiences through food, music, and conversation.
“Pop-Up Shabbat,” also known as “ShaBubbe,” features tables set with flowers, wine, bread, and candles and a menu that includes pickled watermelon rind, borscht, bagel-hallah rolls, and Cornish hen. The Hester, meanwhile, is a monthly supper club run by a Brooklyn chef named Itta Werdiger Roth. It draws an eclectic crowd with haute kosher cuisine (sheep cheese sandwiches with walnut pesto, plum tart puree paired with Jerusalem halvah). Both pop-ups feature musical performances by Jewish and non-Jewish artists.
The Hester is kosher, ShaBubbe is not. Roth is Orthodox, ShaBubbe is consciously secular. Yet each is aiming higher than mere entertainment or foodism, and trying to connect to a tradition of Jewish hospitality. “The Hester is about creating a nouveau Jewish experience and hopefully one day, a community,” according to its website. Danya Cheskis-Gold, founder of Pop-Up Shabbat, explains that she sat on the board of a Jewish nonprofit and tried “hippie synagogues” in Park Slope, but that she “loved my potluck Shabbat dinners the most. Friends, food, fun.” ShaBubbe, she tells Tablet, is “DIY Judaism.”
I’ll say this for kosher food: It’s essential if you want to make a room as hospitable as possible for the widest range of Jews. But if you are willing to take your Jewish menu seriously, there is more than one way to create a community.