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What we eat helps to forge our Jewish identity

December 25, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO (Press Release)–One of the creepiest television programs on cable is “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.” Andrew (who is Jewish, of course) tours the world sampling unusual local cuisine. Some of his favorite dishes have been roasted Wallaby tail, raw crocodile eggs, and juicy cheese worms.

While all of these foods are local delicacies, most Americans would never dream of sampling them. I, for one, can barely tolerate watching Andrew eat them on television. When I watch his show most of my out loud comments are”ick!”, “that’s disgusting!”, and “gross!”.

However, when you think about it, there is no reason why we should react so viscerally to these unusual foods. Is it less reasonable, for example, for people to eat roaches than to eat shrimp (which my wife  Judy calls “bugs of the sea”)? or dogs rather than sheep? or spleen rather than liver?

Clearly, “no.” The only reason we lust after some foods and flee from others is our cultural conditioning. They are what we are used to. It is what everyone around us enjoys. This is why Americans chomp on hotdogs, peanuts, and Crackerjacks at baseball games while Japanese dine on Udon soup, gyoza, and yakisoba.

Lest you think that I have strayed too far from topic, please allow me to bring us back to this week’s parasha, Vayigash. After bringing his father, brothers, and all of the Israelites to Egypt, Joseph instructs them to tell Pharoah, “‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers-so that you may stay in the region of Goshen.’ For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Gen. 26:24)

Onkelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic, commented that shepherds were abhorrent to Egyptians because they raised sheep, which the Egyptians worshiped as gods. In other words, the Israelites settled far from the Egyptian mainstream because they herded sheep, which the Egyptians refused to eat. It was not that there was something about sheep that made them inherently inedible for Egyptians. It was rather that they were taboo and culturally and religiously forbidden.

It is the same reason that Jews do not eat pork or seafood. It is not that there is anything inherently bad about these foods, but they are religiously and culturally forbidden to us. Limiting our dining choices leads us a greater awareness of God and God’s commanding Presence in our lives. Every time we refuse to eat a cheeseburger or shrimp cocktail we remind ourselves that God makes demands upon us and of our obligation to bring more holiness and sanctity to the world.

The observance of Kashrut serves as a culinary string around our finger.

However, the observance of Kashrut also distinguishes us as members of the Jewish community. The foods we eat and do not eat help form our group identity and tie us with each other, as well as our shared past. Abstaining from treif while eating bagels and lox (or falafel and hummus) is as much a hallmark of being Jewish as eating turkey and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day is American.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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