Food For Thought
Staff Writer

A longtime professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, David Kraemer regularly ventures a few blocks north of the campus to shop at the Harlem Fairway.

At this New York foodie mecca, the mostly vegetarian Kraemer, who is the primary cook of his family, indulges his zeal for all things culinary while rustling up ingredients for Shabbat dinner.

The author of seven books, including an award-winning intellectual history of the Babylonian Talmud, Kraemer, 53, was finally able to unite his twin passions — Judaism and food — in his most recent book: “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages” (Routledge).

The first book to explore the history of Jewish eating practices from the Bible to the present, “Jewish Eating and Identity” argues that “Jewish eating is and has always been a ‘negotiation,’ that is, a struggle on the part of individual Jews and the community over where the boundaries of Jewish identity should be laid.”

Text/Context: Do you think food plays a more central role in Jewish culture than in other cultures? 

Kraemer: Jews pay a lot of attention to this, obviously much more so than Christians. There may be Christians of Italian descent or Irish descent with eating customs based on their national identities, but not Christian identity. This is an important distinction among the three major Western faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam … There’s a constant negation in Christianity of the ritual aspects of eating laws, saying that it’s the values that matter and the rituals don’t serve the values. Islam is somewhere in between the two: clearly, it has eating restrictions, but they are never as demanding as kashrut. 

In your book, you write that Jewish eating practices have historically divided Jews from one another as much as they have divided Jew from gentile. Can you elaborate on that?

Everyone knows that today Orthodox practice is stricter than Conservative practice, which is obviously stricter than Reform practice. Even within Orthodox communities, there is ultra-Orthodox and ultra-ultra-Orthodox, and issues over who the mashgiach is often divide one ultra-Orthodox Jew from another ultra-Orthodox Jew … It’s naïve to imagine that in the past all Jews, even within a community, were doing the same things … The easiest specific example is when the rabbis came on the scene in the first century and originated the practice of separating meat and dairy. There’s no evidence of that practice before the rabbis, and a large group of Jews would have continued the old practice. So rabbis who now had this new set of restrictions could not eat with non-rabbinic Jews on certain occasions.

What might a Rabbinic Era or shtetl-dwelling Jew think if transported to the 21st century and plunked down in the middle of one of the large new kosher supermarkets?

It has always been the case that kosher laws relate to the physical reality in which Jews have found themselves. When there were no personal flat plates and no forks, when people ate with their hands, obviously people weren’t separating forks and plates, which is one of the reasons you don’t find statements about comprehensive separation of meat and dairy dishes in medieval and rabbinic texts … In our day, the Jewish community has become quite comfortable, and there are more Jews living in close proximity — in Israel or Brooklyn, for example — than before. Large numbers of relatively well-off Jews can afford to suffice within their own community and not depend on the outside, so they can have their own supermarkets —and can therefore be more cut off from the outside than medieval communities, when you had small numbers of  Jews living amongst their Christian neighbors. In the Middle Ages some rabbis permitted Jews to use church ovens to bake their bread [even though the same ovens were sometimes simultaneously used for roasting non-kosher meat]. That’s because people didn’t have their own ovens and everyone shared the community ovens, which were owned by the Church. That’s different than today, when affluent households have two ovens [one meat, one dairy] and there are even some homes with separate Passover kitchens.

In addition to some rabbis allowing medieval Jews to bake in ovens that, by today’s standards, were far from kosher, are there other practices that used to be permissible that today would be frowned upon?

There is abundant evidence that Jews often bent the laws to allow for more lenient positions because of the realities in which they lived — in small communities, among gentiles — and because they wanted to enjoy good relations with their non-Jewish neighbors … In 1608, Leon of Modena (a prominent Italian rabbi) wrote that “from time immemorial our forefathers in Italy habitually drank ordinary [nonkosher] wine.” This was pretty radical, because Jewish eating laws wouldn’t permit that, but Jews wanted to live as good Italians and one way to do that is to drink great Italian wine. Otherwise they were being observant and keeping kosher, but they stretched and transgressed because this was a way to live as Jews and also as citizens of a broader world. 

You keep kosher. Have your own eating practices changed as you’ve learned more about the history of Jewish dietary laws?

I’m more conscious of certain things, but in sort of unexpected ways. Here in the Conservative movement, there’s a lot of discussion about what kind of eating out you may do and still keep kosher. I’ve always eaten in non-kosher restaurants: only vegetarian food, but I don’t insist it be cold. I’d always considered that a kind of compromise, but as a result of my research, I’ve realized I can actually affirm what I’m doing. What we eat is a profound expression of our identity, and I’m not only a committed Jew, but a committed modern American. My eating out in regular restaurants, including hot vegetarian or fish, that’s my way of expressing my modern American identity, and I’m willing to do that with pride.

On the other hand, you would think that having discovered that kashrut has become more and more stringent, that would lead me to practice at home in more lenient ways than I do. Based on the sources, it seems totally obvious that there should be no problem using the same dishwasher for meat and dairy, not at the same time but sequentially. But I still don’t do it, not because I think kashrut requires it, but because the community doesn’t do it. 

Over the ages, what have been the social benefits and costs of keeping kosher?

Obviously, one of the “benefits” is that it was and is a solidarity practice that allows Jews who maintain these practices to identify with one another, gather socially with one another, and it makes it difficult to do so with non-Jews and other Jews who don’t practice the way you do. In the past, when the prevailing diet was primarily vegetarian, it created less of a barrier between Jew and non-Jew than is commonly believed, but it was nonetheless some barrier. On the other hand, you have to ask yourself, how separate do you want to be? Jews throughout the ages have always asked that question. We negotiate our identities over the eating choices we make, and through the ages observant Jews have always compromised, broken, interpreted flexibly or ignored kashrut laws at times in order to make it possible to eat with their neighbors.

Julie Wiener, copy editor of Text/Context, Julie Wiener writes “In the Mix,” a Jewish Week column about intermarriage, and is also a food writer for the Associated Press.