Since food plays such a fundamental role in our various traditions and rituals, it's surprising to learn that, until The Jewish Theological Seminary's own Dr. David Kraemer published his latest book, Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages, there was literally no historical analysis of Jewish eating practices available. Dr. Kraemer, who chose cooking over cleaning while living with his college roommates and later became the primary cook in his family, decided to fill the research gap: “I love food, cooking and studying Jewish topics, so I decided to take an anthropological approach and write a book. I was interested in asking how changes in eating practices might have been reflections of changes in Jewish identity.”
Many people suggested that Dr. Kraemer look to kashrut, but that is not what he was after. “I'm very careful not to use the word kashrut alone. It's a term that was not used in the Bible and it's not a term used early on in rabbinic literature. When we refer to kashrut, we are talking about Jewish eating practice as it was defined by the rabbis. I also didn't want to be limited by it. Sometimes Jews have kept kosher, sometimes they haven't. I have a long chapter on bending and breaking the law: that's an eating practice too.”
And as Dr. Kraemer found instances of dietary laws being bent or broken, he found surprises too. “If there's one overarching thing that surprised me most, it’s this: while it is true that one of the central purposes of these laws has been to keep Jews distinct, separate, as often as anything else, Jewish eating practices have separated Jews from Jews. This was a major theme throughout the ages .
“When we get to sixteenth-century Poland and Germany, for example, all of a sudden there is a stringent kashrut, which hadn’t existed before. Jews were actually quite comfortable and acculturated in Poland. But t here were certain groups of pious Jews who resisted that, so Jews who wanted to announce their piety compared to other Jews insisted upon new kashrut practices.
“Move to the early 1980s, the question was, “Who is a Jew?” In Israel, because of the influx of Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, because Reform began to accept children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, because there were problems with Reform and Conservative conversions, the question became a serious issue. Those who wanted to make sure the boundaries were very, very high and very, very tight said, you know what? Unless you check your vegetables meticulously for the smallest bugs and unless you filter your water, I can’t eat from your food. And they separated Jew from Jew.”
Women had an important role in the development of Jewish eating practices as well: “The comprehensive separation of meat and dairy, I think, was a product of the particular piety of women . . . We usually think of rabbis as being stricter and people being more lenient; actually through much of history, it was the other way around. Rabbis who knew the law could be more lenient, and those who didn’t know the law so well had to be stricter. So when we see the development of this very strict kind of separation, I think what’s happening is that women, who were not terribly educated, were making an expression of their own piety in the one area they controlled most completely, their kitchen. So you have women as unique experts for a new kind of kashrut, a new pious kashrut.”
If you’d like to learn more about Jewish eating practices, you’ll want to read Dr. Kraemer’s fascinating Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages (Taylor & Francis, Inc., June 2007). In it he proves that the best way to the heart of a culture may, in fact, be through its collective eating practices. Available at Amazon.com.