Experts explore the evolving Jewish table
Nigel Savage told a Rutgers University audience that the Jewish community is “many years ahead” of other faiths in establishing community-supported agriculture programs; with him on the Oct. 8 “Jews and Food” panel are Jennifer Berg and Jordan Rosenblum.
Photo by Debra Rubin
October 21, 2013
Since long before such terms as factory farming, genetically modified food, or veganism entered the lexicon, Jewish tradition has stressed thoughtful eating practices through the practice of kashrut.
And yet the kosher laws are still catching up with modern technology and conveniences, environmental concerns, and a growing sensitivity to the plight of animals prior to slaughter.
At an Oct. 8 program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, three experts on different aspects of Jews and food conducted a lively and at times provocative panel discussion on the intersection of Jewish tradition and contemporary concerns of modern American Jews.
Tackling what it means to be kosher in the 21st century and the ethics surrounding a host of food-related issues were Nigel Savage, executive director of the New York-based Hazon; Jennifer Berg, director of the graduate program in food studies and food management at New York University; and Jordan Rosenblum, author of the book Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism.
The program at the Douglass College Center was sponsored by Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and cosponsored by the university’s Center for Global Advancement and International Affairs.
Rosenblum, a professor in Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said kosher rules and eating traditions continually evolved over many centuries — but today’s practices would baffle the sages.
“If you were to bring one of those rabbinic figures to a kosher kitchen in the modern Jewish world, he would likely be screamed at for ‘treifing’ up their kitchen,” said Rosenblum.
Savage agreed, but said the bafflement goes in two directions. While Savage said he believed keeping kosher was important, he said his own refrigerator — with its almond milk, tofu, and wild-caught salmon — would be unrecognizable to his Jewish grandmother.
“Our grandkids will say I eat sushi like my grandparents did because that’s Jewish food,” he said.
And it’s not just the types of food that have changed, but Jews’ relationships with the food they buy and and eat. Hazon sponsors 66 community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, linking local farms with local consumers.
Savage said the Jewish community is “many years ahead” of other faiths in establishing CSAs through synagogues, JCCs, Hillels, and other institutions.
Berg, who specializes in the food traditions of American Jews, said she finds some of today’s choices, including kosher facsimiles of forbidden foods, to be perplexing because they seem to be “spiritually unkosher.”
She questioned how a package of bagels can be stamped “kosher for Passover” while a jar of raspberry jam, containing no ingredients forbidden on the holiday, shouldn’t be eaten because it lacks that stamp.
Berg said the 2008 federal raid on the kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, for immigration and labor law violations “got us into a conversation” that took kashrut beyond slaughter into tza’ar ba’alei chaim, kindness to animals, and the treatment of those who grow and process our food.
Berg said an animal that had been grass-fed and well treated during its life, but not slaughtered by a shohet, or kosher slaughterer, “seemed more kosher” to her than factory-raised animals slaughtered according to Jewish tradition.
A ‘forever legacy’
JOAN BILDNER was remembered as a “lovely and loving woman” whose vision helped make the center that bears her name “one of Rutgers’ brightest jewels.”
During a tribute before the Oct. 8 program presented by the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, former Rutgers president Richard McCormick also recalled Bildner, a West Orange resident who died June 23, as a woman as devoted to the university as she was to the cause of civility and diversity.
“She was a wonderful woman and philanthropist with so many causes and provided guidance for so many people,” he said, adding that her “farsightedness” benefitted New Jersey, Rutgers, and the world.
Describing Bildner “as a woman who pulled no punches,” McCormick said, “Joan, you are missed, and we are so pleased and fortunate you came our way.”
Bildner Center executive director Yael Zerubavel said Joan Bildner and her husband “created a movement that put Rutgers” on the international map for its research, ability to attract scholars from around the world, and its far-reaching efforts to fulfill one of her personal goals — prejudice reduction — through such initiatives as Holocaust education for public school teachers and programs jointly sponsored with schools and departments throughout the university.
“Her legacy will forever be part of Bildner, and part of Rutgers University,” said Zerubavel.
Family members in attendance included Allen Bildner and the Bildners’ son and daughter-in-law, Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner. “Rutgers held a special place in my mother’s heart,” said Rob Bildner.
Among those attending the tribute were Max Kleinman, executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, also a focus of the Bildners’ support, Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, and members of the Rutgers administration.
— DEBRA RUBIN