Torah that Nourishes: a Jewish Food Ethic of Pleasure and Justice

ב’ה

Guest post by Aviva Richman

Aviva Richman is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, where she teaches Talmud, Jewish Law and midrash. She is also pursuing doctoral studies in rabbinic literature at NYU, as a Wexner fellow.  Other interests include niggunim, classical piano, and making all manner of soup!

We live in a world where many people offer conflicting advice about what to eat and how.  Should meat be a crucial part of my carbs-free diet or should I avoid meat because it is unhealthy – or unethical?  Is fresh, organic, and local the way to go – or does that make food too expensive and less accessible?  In this whirlwind of food movements and media, there is perhaps no better time to engage the complex discourse around food in our own tradition.  To use the words of a fifth-century midrash, “Is there such a thing as Torah in the gut?” (PDRK, 10)

The idea of “Torah in the gut” arises from a puzzling verse where the Psalmist turns to God and says: “I desire to do you will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.”  (40:9)  The midrash can’t make sense of this visceral image. Torah is made of written words, not food; it is processed in our minds, not digested in our stomachs.  What kind of Torah resides in our digestive tract?

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Diet for a Jewish planet

A couple of days ago, I was interested to see an article on Times of Israel asking the question, “Why is it easy to keep kosher but so hard to diet?

I have to admit to having wondered myself. He offers the example of a woman who made her diet work for her by using kashrut, “I once heard of someone who wanted to lose weight but was having trouble laying off late night sweets. So what she would do is eat a little piece of meat at night and then she wouldn’t find it difficult to refrain from eating dairy desserts,” and then posits three reasons why he believes it’s easier to keep kosher than diet: Kashrut has a defined list of what you can eat and what you can’t; Keeping kosher is for life, dieting is seen as temporary; and Keeping kosher is highly habitual.

Each of these has its points – as someone who didn’t grow up keeping kosher, but has now for many years, I’d have to say that each of these points makes some difference. Yet, while keeping kosher has a list of things you can and can’t eat, so, in many respects, does dieting (don’t eat sweets, don’t eat fried and fatty foods); most people know that dieting is for life, and, I suspect that if one actually was serious about the dieting, it would also become habitual.

I actually think that the reason kashrut is easier for rather different reasons: it’s a communal effort. True, in many shuls, there are people who keep different levels of kashrut, but generally when people are eating together, there’s some minimal level of recognition for the person’s kashrut – at the very least, picking a restaurant where the person can eat, or making accommodations for them in one’s home. The rabbis were no fools. Americans love to think that everything is about the individual, and, even better, the individual will – but in reality, what we do with other people is an exceptionally powerful force.

Filed under Food, Ritual

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passOVER! Time for Matzobrau…

Each year before Passover, we search for and either destroy, sell ro donate our chametz. Bedikas Chametz we call it.  I often wondered why, after over a week of wading through and wearing matzah crumbs, we didn’t have a similar ritual for ridding ourselves of matzah. After this many centuries and all the kvetching, you’d think someone would have come up with a creative way to recycle remnant lachma anya.

Last spring, I learned of some clever folks who did; Portland’s Ambacht Brewery. They’ve created MatzoBrau, a beer made from leftover Matzo.  Yes, you read that right. No, not Kosher l’Pesach.

The season ale is produced directly following Passover, when leftover Matzo is collected at nearby Synagogues, who then get a keg of the brew in exchange. The Matzo is used as a primary grain component in the mash itself, not just as a flavor additive. So this is not a gimmick, this is adaptive reuse at its best and most refreshing!

I’ve yet to taste it and I understand that the batch sells out wicked quick, as Ambacht is a small craft house with a growing fanbase. I’ve made it my personal minhag to have a beer directly following Pesach. Beer was something the Egyptians invented and probably fed to their workers to sustain them cheaply and efficiently.

Knowing them, they probably denied it to our ancestors as slaves, who lively would have liked a cold frosty after a hard day toiling. In remembrance of their servitude, we refrain from beer for 8 days… or something like that… but after Passover, its time to have one.

A Matzobrau would be a great way to cap Pesach.  Or to count the Omer! Now if I could just get my hands on some in Chicago… I can’t wait.

Filed under Food, Passover

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Order of the Seder for Tu Bishvat

I know what you’re thinking – you want to refer to the 4 worlds in your Tu Bishvat seder but they’re confusing and…oh, if there were only a song that allowed you to sing through the four worlds (like we sing the order of the Passover seder) so folks could remember the order of the Tu Bishvat seder.

NOW YOU CAN. Check out track #3 here from Taya Shere. If you love it, it’s yours for 99 cents!

Last year Shir Yaakov Feit & I would sing the whole song, then sing up to the ‘world’ we are at throughout the seder.

Click here for many great free resources available for YOUR seder from our friends at Hazon.

My suggestion? Add-on a seder to your Shabbat dinner or lunch. Then if you are in NYC, head out for The Best Tu Bishvat Party in NYC.

Prefer to sit home and dream of summer? Enjoy this music video from our friends Stereo Sinai.

I Am Planting [OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO] from Stereo Sinai on Vimeo.

You can farm if you want to


Love to farm? Get your hands dirty? Make things grow, or work with organizations that do?

A slew of  opportunities  from our friends in the Jewish farming and ecology world….

1.  TEVA Learning Alliance seeks an Educator at Isabella Freedman Center, Fairs Village, CT.

2. Adamah is looking for interns for their Jewish Urban Farming Fellowship in Berkeley, CA.

3. Wilderness Torah seeks a Festival Coordinator in Berkeley, CA.

4. Teva is also looking for a Program Coordinator!

Want to learn more about these positions? Click here!

BRB Rending My Garments

This might be the worst news I’ve read on the internet in a very long time:

Kosher Delight, a 28-year old establishment on Broadway between 36th and 37th street is scheduled to close on Sunday, according to rumors and the restaurant’s staff. (via Yeah That’s Kosher)

Sure, it was dirty. And a meal there always seemed like it came with the risk of infection. And the bathrooms looked like a set from a low-budget horror film. But it was home.

Forget Koach. Can we raise money to save Kosher Delight?

Kosher Delight

Babka vs. Baklava Battle of the Bands

 THIS looks awesome.  Finally, an event that appeals to Jews who speak Ladino, Jews who speak Yiddish and Jews who speak neither.  Its inclusive of all, and even caters to, literally, the kosher set with delicious dainties from the kitchen of Leah Koenig.

Yes, whether you like baklava or babka, this 1st Non-Annual Festival of Pan-Judeo Music and Pastries has something for you.  It features the three major streams of Jewish culture and geography-  the Mediterranean Sephardi, the Eastern European Ashkenazi and the ubiquitous New York Indie.

The Sephardic rock of Delon and the power pop of Yiddish Princess will be paired with pastries from those respective traditions by acclaimed food writer Leah Koenig. In a city rich with festivals, this is the one you can’t afford to miss.

Tickets are only $8 so get yours early.

Union Hall
702 Union St, Brooklyn, NY 11215
View Map · Get Directions

Sweet Jewish Genius

I’m a secret fan of Food Network’s Chopped, and recently between episodes discovered a weird sister show focused on dessert called Sweet Genius.  Its eponymous, singular judge and host is a weird and kooky cross between Willy Wonka and Dr. Evil.  Get it- Evil Genius, Sweet Genius?  Yeah well the show is filled with the same odd humor… Its pretty ridiculous, but I admit its better than watching Cupcake Boss, whose name doesn’t even have a pun… The show has its fans and deriders, but mostly I think it has addicts to its quirkiness.

There was always something odd about the Sweet Genius himself. His flamboyant style hinted at his being gay, but unless you knew his name is Ron Ben Israel, his Austrian accent never would have outed him as a Tel Aviv born-Jew.  Of course, his Viennese mother might have something to do with that, as well as giving him knowledge of delicate European style confections, which appeared in Martha Stewart, Vogue and many food pron books before the New York Times named him “the Manolo Blahnik of cakes.

New Yorkers and foodies may be more familiar with Ron Ben Israel, but for those less in the know, JTA profiles the Sweet Genius star:

In 1999 he opened Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in New York’s SoHo neighborhood with one oven and one mixer. As people fled downtown New York after the 9/11 tragedy, he was able to capitalize on lower rents and expand his operation.

Coming from a secular Israeli upbringing, Ben-Israel wasn’t ideologically interested in making his shop kosher, but for a caterer for some of New York City’s biggest hotels, it was a prudent business decision.

He chose OK Laboratories, the Chabad-affiliated kashrut organization headquartered in Brooklyn, which now certifies his shop’s pareve cakes.

After serving in the IDF in the 70′s , he studied dance and pursued a Ballet career that eventually brought him to NYC, where while working odd jobs to make rent he discovered baking.

Sounds like a sweet story. Only a sweet genius could have cooked it up. Check out the full profile here.

Are you going to eat that? (No, seriously, are you?)

If you work for a Jewish organization, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of food being everywhere.  Sometimes it’s gross, sometimes it doesn’t belong to you, but it’s pretty ubiquitous. With this infusion of nutrients come statements such as the following (overheard), in reaction to delicious baked goods:

“Oh, no, that’s so bad. I can’t eat that.”
“I’d have to do to the gym if I ate that.”
“I can’t believe you walked past it! You have so much willpower!”

It saddens, but doesn’t surprise me, that it was all women making these comments. It also doesn’t surprise me that people think of food as having moral value-it’s good or it’s bad, it’s not something that nourishes you or that you should enjoy, that you give to others so they can enjoy it too.What we really mean when we say, “That food is bad,” is “I am a bad person for eating it.” If we eat food that we enjoy (or if we eat, period), we should immediately torture ourselves emotionally and/or physically, and make sure everyone around us  knows that we’re doing so, and in turn, make sure that those people feel a certain way about their own eating and exercise habits.

Diet culture is relentless and misogynist, and it affects us in ways we aren’t even aware of. (I’m holding back here, folks. I’m not getting into the crazy, exploitative, capitalist that is the diet industry. See how I did that?) Maybe you’re not trying to trigger people when talking about the 5 pounds you’d like to lose, but people hear that shit. It creates body hatred and it erodes relationships between women (who, let’s face it, are a lot of the population working in Jewish organizations in a certain capacity).

There’s a certain tension between culture, Jewish and American, and food. In spite of our bodies being real bodies, we’re bombarded with the ideal that is impossible to achieve. We know that Jewish women are  living with eating disorders, that the statistics are on the rise, and that many cases are unreported. Part of Jewish (or any other ethnic group’s) assimilation into American culture means adopting the ideals of the physical body. I often think of dieting and diet culture as a shiny red ball thrown at women as if to say, “Look over there!” As in, think about how to be this specific, empty  version of perfect, put your energy into getting skinny at all costs, instead of channeling it into redistributing power. (And by the way, diet talk doesn’t only affect women, it affects everyone.)

I’m proposing that Jewish organizations adopt a “No Diet Talk” policy, with the aim of moving towards a different culture around food and bodies in our organizational spaces. This doesn’t mean you can’t commiserate about your diet behind closed doors with a trusted colleague. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be on a diet. It does mean that when there’s food to be enjoyed, you let people enjoy it without talking about how you are on the quest to lose weight. You don’t comment on other people’s food choices, (“Are you really going to eat that?”) or  talk about how much you go to the gym, or how much you need to.

This does mean that policing ourselves. It’s likely that we don’t even realize how much we talk about diet and weight until we don’t do it anymore. Saying,“You look great! Did you lose weight?” is so common, it’s practically small talk. We can do better.

Jewish food conferences: Sustainable or just a fad?

This is a guest post by Leora Mallach, the Co-Founder and Director of Ganei Beantown: Beantown Jewish Gardens. You can join her this Sunday April 22nd to celebrate Earth Day at the first Boston Jewish Food Conference at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. When not shifting paradigms in the Boston Jewish community, she can be found doing batik.

There feels to be a lot of energy currently around the “new Jewish food movement.” It’s not new, nor a passing fad, but a logical element within the continuum of the broader Jewish food conversation.

If we acknowledge it is a movement, and the growth in both national and place-based organizations over the last few years would indicate it is, we must consider where this momentum comes from. What we eat as Jews has been discussed, dictated and consumed from the earliest of days. The story of the migration of our ancestors and their adaption to local culture and cuisine is well documented. It has produced such great rifts like the debate over whose bagels are better: Montreal or NYC. (Duh, NYC)

All religion is interested in sustainability. According to Wikipedia , “Sustainability is the capacity to endure.” Our current rabbinic tradition has origins in the preservation of culture and community after the destruction of the Temple. We are a religious continually struggling with adaption to the period of galut (exile) while still holding true to values, ritual and community. This too has manifested and morphed over the centuries. More »

Short Pesach Rant

By request:

No offense everyone, but nothing else is going on my seder plate.

Orange, okay – that actually has a venerable history (I was told by a Moroccan rabbi,that Moroccans have put oranges on their seder plates for generations), but no apples, no tomatoes, no marzipan, olives, paper airplanes, tobacco, safety pins, boots to the head, old shoes, picnic tables, automobile engines, stuffed rabbits, keys, construction equipment, window glass, or used kleenex. Nothing. Else.

I’m happy to have people bring questions to the table, but the seder plate is the seder plate, and this addition of objects has gotten out of hand.
1. Charoset,
2. Chazeret
3. Beitza
4. Maror
5. Zaroa (Actually Selek, because our house is dairy)
6. Karpas
7. Orange
makes a perfect kabbalistic tree of the seven lower sefirot (which is actually why we have 6 plus the matzah, which is seven for the seven lower sefirot – bet you didn’t know that, did you?) adding anything else makes the sefirotic tree impossible, so nope, nothing else. I can talk about freedom without adding any other objects to my table

Bring out your Bread!

Bring out your bread
Its 48 hours before Pesach, and having read  ”The Year of Living Biblically”, I’m preparing a lamb to meet its end so that I can smear its blood on the lintel of my door… What’s that? I don’t have to do that? Okay, the neighbors will be so relieved…

I will still have to rid myself of my chametz, however, as I can not possess or own any during Pesach.  Before I engage in Bedikas Chametz, the search for chametz, I simply open my pantry- BAM! Bits of cereal at the bottom of the box. Legumes of all shapes and sizes, pasta and so on and so forth. On to the fridge. I half-eaten kugel from last week.  Some fruit salad. Cheese slices. Egg Beaters.

Anyone else find themselves snarfing down whatever odds and ends remain the week before Pesach?  Some people hate Passover cuisine.  After a week of leftover crumbs, I’m ready to tear into Matzah.   Whatever is sealed, I sell through a duly appointed process involving a Rabbi, pretzel logic and a certain number of he-goats and zuzim.

Those who do not avail themselves of the Rabbinic end-around of selling it on contract for a week with an option to an agreeable gentile have three options.  1. Keep your chametz and incur the wrath of the almighty and the sneers of neighbors.  2. BURN IT!

WOO HOO! Let’s burn everything in sight! It’s like Black Rock but with Bread! Its PAN-demonium!  After all, we wont have another huge bonfire for 40 days when its Lag B’omer so let’s have a Biscuit Inferno! Cue the Music!

But wait, isn’t burning things bad, like crossing streams in ghostbusters?  And can’t we do something with that stuff?  There may be some excellent items sitting around. A bag of flour. A whole cake. A loaf of bread. Peanut Butter. Perfectly good food.  Option 3: Donate.

In the Hagaddah we’re instructed Kol Difcheen- let all who are hungry come and eat. So how about it then? Donate your Chametz. You wont miss it.  Fine, keep that bottle of Blanton’s, but the rest?  Drop it at your local food pantry. Many congregations have a system set up for this.  And in Israel, Modi’in’s Biur Hametz Project is coordinating the distribution of hametz to needy African refugees and migrant workers.   That sounds so much more sensible.

It could be given to other as well.  In Morocco, it was apparently the custom to give Hametz to one’s Arab or Berber neighbors.  The Muslim neighbors would then repay the favor by supplying the pastries for the Mimouna festival at the end of Pesach.  Such a healthy symbiotic way to coexist. Maybe that’s fantasy and maybe there’s a broader lesson. But in the interim, donate your your Hametz. To paraphrase Monty Python, BRING OUT YOUR BREAD! (to which the matza replies, I’m not quite bread yet…)

Fes-TAV-al celebrates Uri L’Tzedek’s 100th restaurant

Mazel tov to Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization that pioneered an fair wage certification, has reached their 100th certification! If I weren’t at a bris this weekend, I’d be there.

“Pork Memoirs” presents: HAM-antaschen

This is a guest post from Pork Memoirs, a story project about pork and identity by friend-of-the-blog and food journalist Jeffrey Yoskowitz. His project seeks to “explore the struggles and celebrations of our often complicated relationship to the ‘other white meat.’” This Purim-themed memoir introduces Ari, a disaffected secular Israeli whose anti-religiousness manifested itself in baking pork-themed hamantaschen.

Ari Miller • Tel Aviv, Israel

Hamantaschen were an annual feature of my American-Jewish childhood. I made them with my mom and siblings. They were filled with poppy seeds because dad liked them, cherries because we all liked them and prunes because Jews will purchase any pie filling if put on sale.

When I became a baker in Tel Aviv it seemed only natural that I would make oznei haman, as the cookies are called locally. (It became hard to explain hash-entaschen in Hebrew, but that’s another story.) I have no religious leanings, mind you, it’s just that there are professional expectations of a baker. More »

Filed under Featured, Food, People

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The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook

This is a guest post by Naomi Kramer, longtime friend of Jewschool and even longer time lover of cooking and cookbooks.  

The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook, ed. Leah KeonigYou don’t have to love women or Zionism to enjoy the beautiful Hadassah Everyday Cookbook.  Non-female identified cooks, post-zionists, never-were-zionists, and everyone else will still enjoy the delicious eats from Leah Koenig. I regularly rely on its easy-to-browse recipes for hosting Shabbat dinners. I use it so much that I voted it for Best New Kosher Cookbook here.

For me, a cookbook needs a few key ingredients to get me excited: mouth watering pictures, tasty recipes, and guidelines that are easy enough but not written for four year olds. But this gorgeously-photographed book isn’t just sexy gastro-porn — though there are lots of spectacular photos in full color.  More »

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What’s On the Menu?

Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it’s getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they’re actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he’s generally aiming this for everyone) to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.

Both of these articles have a familiar tone: “What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!” And to some extent, there’s something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, “This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society.” Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren’t going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal – or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof’s Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn’t say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there’s no other food, you eat what there is).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let’s take the shabbat meals article: The title is, “With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough.” And yet, that isn’t actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article – let alone from my personal experiences. More »

A new food justice series: “Chewing on Food Justice”

food for allBrought to you by Pursue: Action for a Just World and co-sponsored by HazonUri L’Tzedek, and the Brooklyn Bridge CSA, comes Chewing on Food Justice, a series of events offering a breakdown of our broken down global food system. The kick-off is tomorrow night on the topic of defining “food justice,” and followed by food sovereignty in July and food workers in August.

Details below the fold. More »

Twilight of the Gold’s Borscht?


I’ve long agreed with the sentiment of this Wall Street Journal article- that Borscht is an underrated, under-appreciated food among the under 40 set. Though I know Russians my age who enjoy a bowl now and then, most of my generation has never heard of it let alone tried it. It is a low calorie, no-fat food but it somehow never has caught on as an item either among hipsters, health-niks or beet-niks (couldn’t help myself..). The Borscht Diet! Borscht-tinis! Hey, did you hear that new eastern european brass band, Borscht!

Somehow, outside of pockets of immigrants, this delicious cold soup has never made it to the culinary heights of other foods. Its interesting to read the inner workings of the Gold family struggling with the flagging sales of their flagship product. With all the Jewish foodies out there, I’m wondering if maybe they’ve missed something or if any has some sage advice for Borscht producers (hey- sage in Borscht?).