The Way it is from South Florida

    May 2008            
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Philo-Semites, the Laws of Kashrut, and the Folks in My Condo's Swimming Pool

By Sanford Pinsker

I apologize for my overly long title but stick with me and I think you'll see why it was necessary. There were simply too many players—and as I came to realize how many items were triangulating in my head, I thought it best to introduce the principals early. Why so? Because my essay intends nothing more nor less than to straighten out my (often ambivalent) thoughts about how philo- (and anti) Semitism plays out in my own life, what I make of kosher food, and why the folks who congregate in my condo's swimming pool—to talk about aches, pains, and early bird specials—regard the ancient Jews as a very wise bunch.

Let me begin with some ruminations about philo-Semites, those folks who just looove the Jews, often with far more adoration than is warranted. Their polar opposites are, of course, anti-Semites, folks who hate the Jews for a wide range of irrational "reasons." Classical anti-Semitism was fueled by charges of deicide--that the Jews killed Christ and, later, refused to convert to the religion established in his name; Nazi-era anti-Semitism held two diametrically opposed opinions—that the Jews were weak (when compared with health-oozing Aryans) and that they were strong because the international Jewish cabal controlled, well, everything; and since l948, that the State of Israel is directly responsible for all the woe in the Middle East. I will get to the sad spectacle of Jewish anti-Semintes a bit later.

As the playwright David Mamet insists in The Wicked Son (2006), all the world hates the Jews and wants them dead. On certain gloom-filled afternoons I think Mamet is onto something, even though the better part of me knows that there are plenty of reasonable, right-thinking Gentiles left, and even a fair quotient of philo-Semites. I meet the latter most afternoons at my condo's swimming pool.

But if Mamet is hard on Gentiles, he is even harder on those assimilated Jews he regards as "wicked sons." So desperate are they for mainstream approval that such people will do absolutely anything to think, feel, and act as un-Jewishly as possible. In advanced stages of the phenomenon, so Mamet argues, their self-loathing leads to self-hatred and what can only be called Jewish anti-Semitism.

Mamet gives the impression that there are many Jewish Americans in this camp (indeed, for him, everyone not as religiously observant or as Jewishly committed as he is, swells the number), but Mamet's unflinching screed is longer on white-hot passion than on the way things actually are. Jews who are formed by and live comfortably in America are not self-hasting Jews, despite the number of non-kosher hot dogs they eat at baseball games.

And, just as there can be Jewish anti-Semites, there can also be Jewish philo-Semites--that is, Jews who drip with chauvinism and who push a justifiably "Jewish pride" to unwarranted heights. Such people can tick off the names of Jewish sports heroes (from Barney Ross to Sandy Koufax), even though there are very few Jews in the National football or basketball leagues; and they make sure that their children can identify all the important Jewish violinists or orchestra conductors.

At this point let me make it clear that while I might have an uncomfortable moment or two when surrounded by philo-Semites, I much prefer their company to that of anti-Semites. The former shower me with praise; the latter can't stand my guts.

Because I now live in south Florida and, like many others, spend most afternoons in the sun and at the pool, I know full well how discussions of health and the best early-bird special can lead to casual, (usually uninformed) discussions of kashrut and how kosher foods have spared the Jews from the ravages of trichinosis and much more. "The ancient Jews were smart not to eat pig," one fellow condo resident claims, "because pork and ham were not sanitary at the time."

All of which leads me to wonder: And what about now, in an age of refrigerators and refrigeration? The laws of kashrut, as Orthodox Jews understand them, have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with rational arguments such as the ones I just made about refrigeration. Rather, the laws of kashrut fall into the category of chukkim, laws for which there is no reason. Observant Jews observe them because the Torah says so.

Also, the laws of kashrut embody "separation," a major principle in Jewish life. Just as the Sabbath is separated from the work week, so, too, is there a are distinction between what foods are permitted and which are not. Each group, the permitted and the forbidden, is arbitrary, and adhering to the laws of kashrut is a matter of self- discipline. In addition, observing the laws of kashrut turns eating into a holy act—not only because of the prayers said before and after eating but also because of what one consumes.

Observant Jews do not do whatever they want, no matter how many tempting things lie beyond the fence of law. One aspect of kashrut is that it separates Jews form the larger secular world. If it is true that Talmud/Torah preserved the Jews throughout the vagaries of history, it is equally true that cholent the heavy stew-like mixture of beans, groats, and bits of meat usually served on Shabbat afternoons, did its share to preserve generations of observant Jews.

I do not share this understanding of kashrut with my philo-Semitic friends, but I do tell them that I grew up in a strictly kosher household and that it was not as "healthy" as they imagine. Stuffed derma, kishka, schmaltz dripping onto chopped liver and hot pastrami sandwiches no doubt contributed to the quadruple bypass I had several years ago.

Among the more intriguing posers that some Orthodox Jews like to ponder is whether one is permitted to eat a faux shrimp cocktail made from strictly kosher material. For some the answer is "Yes," but for others, the issue is complicated because other people might see you and figure that they too can eat real shrimp.

I first ran into the latter dilemma when Beef-Fry, a kosher substitute for bacon, appeared in the years following World War II.

Writing in a l949 issue of Commentary magazine, the Jewish writer-intellectual, Isaac Rosenfeld described the fascination Jews felt as they watched Beef-Fry rolling off the assembly line and into packages. My father bought those packages in Pittsburg, and eagerly brought them to our home about thirty miles away. Then he would treat himself to a breakfast of eggs and Beef-Fry. Any arguments about avoiding substitutions for non-kosher food would have fallen on deaf ears.

But Rosenfeld's essay, entitled "Adam and Eve on Delancey Street," did not stop with Beef-Fry. That was merely a launching pad for the real purpose of his essay which was to provide a psychoanalytic explanation for kashrut. Rosenfeld was hardly a theologian or even a serious student of religion, but no matter. As he argues, meat products are masculine; dairy products are feminine—and the mixing of the two represent the sexual act itself, a "primal scene" that was simultaneously taboo and tempting.

You can easily imagine what Rosenfeld must have thought about the cheeseburger, a sandwich I have, on occasion, been known to order - but never with the giddy sense of sexuality Rosenfeld packed into non-kosher food.

I'm sure that my swimming pool pals would enjoy hearing about Rosenfeld's thesis. Nearly sixty years later his paragraphs, which nearly caused Commentary magazine to lose its institutional funding, can still engender outrage and titillation. But I'm going to stay mum about Jewish law and taboos, and, instead, merely nod when my friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, rattle on about how the laws of kashrut were so prescient when the ancient Jews were making their way across the desert.


from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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