Saturday, December 25, 2010

MO Jews and Food

I know this isn't exactly a revelation, but the way Orthodox Jews eat, especially on Shabbat, is GROSS!

The shul TH and I joined a year ago has "hot kiddush" on Shabbat, meaning that kiddush includes Cholent (a kind of beef stew made in a crockpot so as not to violate the laws against cooking on the Sabbath). Everyone always runs at the food, and I can't say I haven't been guilty of this, too. I guess one difference is that TH and I consider a kiddush with cholent lunch, but many of the people at shul don't. They go to another meal afterwards! That is grooooooossssssssssssssss. I realize that some people don't eat that much at kiddush, and that those who do may not eat that much at lunch--either or both can be attending primarily for the socializing, especially by women--but isn't there something wrong with sending a message that the holy Sabbath is primarily about stuffing your face?

I grew up in a Reform home in which politeness and decorum, in shul or elsewhere, was prized. I realize that the Orthodox world, and even the Modern Orthodox world, does not necessarily put a very high premium on either quality, and I have gotten pretty used to davening while kids are running up and down the aisles. As long as they are not screaming, I'm okay. And I realize that this rushing at the food is about a lack of decorum almost as much as it is about a generalized lack of mindfulness regarding the advisability of face-stuffing. (Wasn't that last sentence beautiful? I have a doctorate, you know).

A possible source of my frustration may be what I learned as a kid about keeping kosher. We kept kosher at home (kosher meat, two sets of dishes, etc., except that we did not insist on kosher supervision for canned vegetables and other processed vegetarian food). This came largely from my mom, who grew up Conservative. Kashrut is very fraught in the Reform Movement, and people would ask my parents why we bothered. For those who wouldn't back away after the "Katrina's mom's parents have to be able to eat here" explanation, my dad, who had not grown up in a kosher home, would launch into a speech about kashrut and holiness. This is something most of you have probably heard, but the general point was that kashrut is about kedushah, or holiness. Even though human beings have animalistic appetites, we do not have to give into them all of the time. We can choose which foods to eat and which foods not to eat, and we can say a blessing before and after eating, and this all reminds us that we are not animals but special creations of God, that food comes from God, and that we should be mindful of, and thankful for, that.

Because I went to a Jewish school that was kosher, many of my friends kept kosher, and I never felt entirely comfortable in the homes of Jewish friends who did not keep kosher. It was a cultural divide, really, and sort of a surprise, which I assume is what people who don't keep kosher feel in a kosher home. But I guess I always assumed that people who did keep kosher did so at least partially for the reasons that my dad outlined, which had something to do with holiness and mindfulness. So belonging to a Modern Orthodox (MO) shul has been kind of a shock. My family and many of my Jewish friends in college and many in the Jewish community in GradSchoolTown thought a lot about why they performed various ritual mitzvot. Part of joining an MO shul, which really has smart, friendly rabbis and a nice community, has been seeing, in person and in a very concrete way, that so many of our fellow congregants are going through the motions of doing the mitzvot. I always assumed that being Orthodox was hard, and so those who do it must be on a higher spiritual level (or something) than I, but it has pointed out to me that in NYC, being Orthodox isn't that hard. There are kosher restaurants and employers who may have a vague idea what Sukkot is and your pick of Orthodox day schools and synagogues, etc. So if Orthodoxy is all that you have ever known, the theory goes, and you like the community aspect, then you do the mitzvot because you have always done them, and you don't think about why. It's not my job to decide how other people do mitzvot; this whole thing has been a culture shock, though. Plus, it means that "why do we do this mitzvah?" discussions at Shabbat meals tend to fall very, very flat.

And since Orthodoxy tends to look at kashrut as more of a mechanical issue than an ethical/moral/mindfulness one, I suppose that, for many, even among the modern Orthodox, there is no inherent contradiction between keeping kosher and stuffing your face with sugar and fat for three hours at a time, at least twice, on Shabbat. But that doesn't mean I can't think about my own behavior and, God willing, in the future (but not in nine months), my kids'.


frum single female said...

wow! i think that kind of kiddush situation that you described happen more in ny orthodox shuls rather than orthodox shuls outside of new york. where i grew up which was in the midwest it was not quite so gross at a kiddush and there was much more decorum.

And Sarah Laughed said...

I've heard an opinion that on Shabbat, it's one's "divine soul" that eats, whereas during the rest of the week, it's one's "animal soul." According to this, eating a lot on Shabbat is a way to sancify Shabbat and God.