Jewish scholar says you are what you don’t eat

New Jersey Jewish News

November  12, 2009,

Johanna Ginsberg, NJJN Staff Writer

If you think kashrut hasn't changed much over the ages, consider David Kraemer's 2007 book, recently released in paperback, Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages.

Picture some Torah scholars sitting around a table eating. Do they have forks, knives, dishes? Now picture Torah scholars from several hundred years ago. They don't have utensils or dishes, and they use their hands.

"Most people who study and teach talmudic discourse are unaware about how eating technologies have changed," said Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. "When I paid closer attention to the fact that we use cutlery and centuries ago they used their hands, and [I] went back to the talmudic discourse, I had a very different understanding."

Kraemer, originally from Livingston, will discuss Jewish eating from biblical days to the present at a series of lectures at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where he will serve as scholar-in-residence Nov. 13-14.

Kraemer will offer insight into the history and diversity of Jewish eating practices over the centuries. A running theme of his research is how food was used by Jews to distinguish themselves from gentiles - or not. In the Book of Tobit, from the Apocrypha, its author describes friends and family as eating "gentile food." Kraemer writes, "Tobit reports that his compatriots fail to observe his eating piety, suggesting that he stands apart in his avoidance."

The apocryphal book also includes a discussion, from 16th-century Poland, over how long one must wait between meat and milk meals. While the popular practice seems to have been one hour, Rabbi Solomon Luria insisted on six hours. Those who refused to wait that long, declared Luria, lack even a "whiff of Torah."

In both cases, Kraemer writes, the author of Tobit and Luria were separating themselves not just from gentiles, but from their fellow Jews.

"Jews living in every age had to live with their neighbors. They were always negotiating over eating," Kraemer said in a recent phone interview from his home in Manhattan. "What surprised me most was when I realized that Jewish eating practices also separated groups of Jews from other groups of Jews."

Kraemer described contemporary kashrut practices among observant Jews as "the strictest restrictions ever." Some Orthodox authorities are "prohibiting all kinds of vegetables no one ever had any hesitation to eat," he said, including vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, due to the possible presence of microscopic bugs.

"This can't just be about separating from gentiles," he said, especially in relatively affluent, heavily Orthodox neighborhoods, where contact with gentiles is scant.

In fact, he argues, like Tobit and Luria, observant Jews are separating themselves from other Jews whom they deem not pious enough. Kraemer, firmly in the camp that eats broccoli and cauliflower, is critical of the increased stringency. "Our dream of Jewish unity is that - a dream," he lamented. "On some things we can all cooperate; on some things, we'll stay separate."

He does take issue with the three-hour wait between meat and milk embraced by many of his fellow Conservative Jews.

"It's literally a compromise, and a weak compromise that does not depend on any tradition or principle," he said. Because most Conservative Jews are of Ashkenazi descent, he believes (with apologies to Luria) that the waiting period ought to follow the original Ashkenazi practice of one hour.

"I have no hesitation to wait just one hour," he said. But then, he said, he is "mostly a vegetarian."

If he doesn't share the nostalgia of the Jewish deli as much as some recent authors, Kraemer does have some concerns about the loss of distinctly Jewish eating habits among acculturated suburban Jews. He pities the future historian of Jewish folkways in the early 21st century.

"It would be hard to write a book about that, because we eat like everyone else," said Kraemer. "What makes us different today? Very little."


New Jersey Jewish News, November 12, 2009