Panel Asks: Can Non-Kosher Food Be Jewish?

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Jewish learning organization Limmud NY recently held their annual retreat, full of workshops, classes, and panel discussions.

With the recent resurgence in the Jewish food scene (not to mention a few millennia of Jewish culture emphasizing food), the retreat naturally confronted one of the biggest debates in Jewish food and identity today: can non-kosher food be called Jewish?

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At an event entitled “The Food Panel: Fusion Foodies Talk,” three diverse Jewish food experts addressed the controversial subject, prompted by celebrity chef Ilan Hall’s bacon-wrapped matzo balls at his restaurant The Gorbals in LA.

Rabbi Mary Zamore, editor of “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic,” suggested the dish could even be anti-Semitic; other critics had previously called it “confrontational cooking.”

But Shannon Sarna, the blogger behind The Nosher, called the dish “very cool.” And Michael Twitty, the author of “Afroculinaria,” invoked Mile End Deli in Brooklyn. The hot spot has revived traditional Jewish dishes, putting a modern spin on pastrami (it technically serves Montreal-style smoked meat), chopped liver, and tongue. But the restaurant is definitely not kosher.

Interestingly, all three panelists agreed that Jews should avoid defining foods as more or less “authentic,” reflecting both historical diversity and changing demographics.

Many contemporary chefs are taking on dishes that could be considered inherently Jewish: generally traditional Ashkenazi dishes or Middle Eastern cuisine. But many of these new producers of pastrami, brisket, lox, gefilte fish, hummus, falafel, and schnitzel do not want to incur the additional costs of keeping kosher, or want to use treif ingredients.

Some question the connection between kashrut and Jewish identity, as a minority of American Jews keep kosher. Even landmark restaurants like Katz’s Deli, Sammy’s Roumanian, and Russ and Daughters are not actually kosher, but kosher-style.

Meanwhie, kosher food does not always mean traditionally Jewish. Kosher restaurants include everything from pizza to sushi to French steakhouses.

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