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Judaism Under the Microscope

October 23, 2009 – 9:34 am14 Comments

Adapted from VisualParadox.com

Adapted from VisualParadox.com

By Liz Paratz

The medical world today is very proud of its shiny fabulous new tool, called ‘evidence-based medicine’. EBM, as it is known in short, is basically the simple-sounding idea that you don’t do anything without having data to show that it works.

For example, 500 years ago, it was pretty cutting-edge to hand your crippled arthritis patient a bottle of snake oil and tell them that this being the Year of the Snake, it would do the trick. But now, prior to prescribing you must know that the snake oil was tested on 5000 arthritic patients with incredible results.

The developer of EBM is usually said to be Professor Archie Cochrane, a Scottish epidemiologist of the 1970s. But I believe the Jewish community already had a strong tendency towards this sceptical, evidence-based approach long before Cochrane gathered his first set of data. One of the best examples of the Jewish scientific approach is the question asked when any issue, personality, or indeed arthritis therapy is mentioned, ‘Yes, paracetamol indeed, but is it good for the Jews?’ And surely Professor Cochrane would agree; after all, what use is in vitro effectiveness if you can’t prove clinical efficacy in a given population?

Now there’s even a website – GoodfortheJews.com – that seems to have crunched almost every newsworthy issue. Recent headlines include Are Jewish Celebrities Good For The Jews?  Is Twitter Good For The Jews? Is Paul McCartney Good For The Jews? and Are Holocaust Movies Good For The Jews?’ with detailed analyses in the attached articles. This 6000-year-old tradition of scientific in-depth debate and paranoid over-analysis is surely the clear intellectual ancestor of today’s evidence-based wunderkind.

But, while obviously the world is a much better place thanks to our frantic examination of whether all those externalities are good for us, we should also remember to sweat the small stuff. Luckily, micro-analysing our Jewish lives has been preoccupying (mainly Jewish) doctors and scientists for decades now. And amazingly, such ethno-specific EBM research has made it into some of the most prestigious medical journals.

I’m talking about articles on the medical benefits and side effects of chicken soup, tefillin, gefilte fish, Shabbat, sheitels, milchig versus fleishig, using bobby pins to secure your yarmulke, brit milah and more. It’s all out there in the scientific literature; sometimes analysed in excruciating detail, and sometimes just a case study description. Every aspect of Jewish life has been teased apart and investigated to see just what we’re doing to ourselves every time we so much as daven next to a rigid-backed chair (very dangerous, it turns out…)

This week’s article kicks off a series which will broadly investigate 3 main areas of Jewish life – Jewish food, religion and chagim – and release the findings on what is good for the Jews, and what isn’t working so well. So, let’s stop debating the Jewish relevance of iSnack 2.0, Obama, and Ahmadinejad’s alleged Jewish heritage, and turn to the medical academia in order to start this literature review on the ultimate question of them all, ‘Being Jewish ; is it good for the Jews?’

Part 1. Jewish Food ; good for the Jews?

1A. Chicken Soup

Any discussion of Jewish food surely starts with ‘Jewish penicillin’ – chicken soup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many researchers have dedicated themselves to investigating the hypothesis that chicken soup is, in fact, ‘good for the Jews’ (and everybody else).

Back in the 1970s, the first articles started appearing; one that deserves a particular mention is the ground-breaking Effects of drinking hot water, cold water and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance. In other words, these valiant researchers gave their subjects either hot water, cold water or chicken soup; and then measured how fast they were able to blow out their shnot. Drinking chicken soup seemed to confer a clear performance advantage, allowing you to blow your nose at a sprinting 9.2mm per minute. Obviously, a discovery of such importance got everyone in the scientific world pretty excited, and the journal articles started flowing thick and fast (maybe even approaching 9.2mm/min).

The more serious Therapeutic Efficacy Of Chicken Soup came out in 1980, and reviewed the nasal mucus velocity findings along with Maimonides’ original advertising copy for chicken soup (‘an excellent food, as well as a medication for the beginning of leprosy, and fattens the body substance…’) It concluded approvingly, ‘The judicious use of chicken soup as an important element of the therapeutic approach to upper and lower respiratory tract infections seems to be fully justified’.

From this point, it seems that the floodgates had completely crashed open, chicken soup was the new aspirin, and whoever had invented it was surely entitled to a Nobel Prize – if only they could untangle the competing claims of all the bubbas. Researchers from the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv (including the Head of the Department of Neurorehabilitation, no less) rushed in to begin the real campaign ; it was time that chicken soup was recognised as not just a drug, but as an ESSENTIAL DRUG.

To clarify, the World Health Organisation has several ‘essential drugs’ – their benefits have to be evidence-based, efficient, flexible, forward-looking and ‘as relevant today as 20 years ago’. The chicken soup researchers – who seem to be entirely serious despite sounding more ridiculous than I do here – begin with the point that chicken soup is of course as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.

They go on to contend that it does indeed meet all the other criteria. The lack of any randomized clinical trial is breezily explained away by the fact that you just couldn’t possibly have randomization, with a blind group who received no chicken soup, because to deny anyone chicken soup would be unethical. Furthermore, they ask, how could you even pick a target population (ie cancer patients, arthritis patients) in which to test it, when chicken soup is well-known to cure everything?

Although chicken soup hasn’t yet become a WHO-classified drug, it has accrued a few more articles in its support. It’s now also recognized as inhibiting neutrophil chemotaxis (movement of the inflammatory white blood cells), since a breakthrough study tested multiple components of the pot, with samples including the ultra-scientific, ‘near the chicken’, ‘top of pot near onions’, ‘top of pot near carrots’, ‘around the matzoh ball’, and of course the much-dreaded ‘upper lipid phase’ (in other words, the gross schmaltz on top).

And despite the obvious dangers of telling your mum she’s not making her chicken soup quite right, the authors of Chicken soup revisited: Calcium content of soup increases with duration of cooking are clearly fearless, suggesting you should update your fortieth-generation family recipe by chucking in a bone. Allowing the bone to cook in the mix for as long as possible allows the bone to break down a little, releasing calcium ions into the soup. This increases your calcium intake, theoretically helping to lower your risk of osteoporosis.

But of course, as with any person or soup that becomes too popular for its own good, there are always the haters. Some mean-spirited doctors out there have fuelled debate with their articles claiming that chicken soup can cause hypernatremia (too much salt in the blood), anaphylaxis, as well as the obvious risk of choking to death on that calcium-rich bone.

So, good for the Jews or not so much? At this point, it seems bubbacillin is a winner, especially for readers in the early stages of leprosy or with really slow nasal mucus. And even for the rest of us (hopefully the majority), there’s nothing like a warm bowl of the chickeny stuff to chase away the neutrophils. Just take the bone out first.


Liz is a 5th-year med student, obsessed with coffee and finding juicy veins on everyone’s arms. Between coffees and cannulations, she mimics the famous room full of monkeys bashing away on typewriters, hopefully producing meaning at some point.

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