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August 2, 2010 – 11:07 am20 Comments

A delicious looking cholent

By David Werdiger

I’m very pleased that the current season of MasterChef is finally over. My family is whole again; the kids are able to go to bed at their regular time; we are able to plan events during that timeslot without protest. I never took a liking to the show; I was put off by the huge amount of production that creates the drama and suspense around what would otherwise be an ordinary cooking competition. The whole thing seemed so overdone (no pun intended) and fake. Indeed, I was quite shocked at the degree some people had emotionally attached themselves to the show and some of the contestants.

The question it raised for me is this: what does MasterChef have to do with being Jewish?

Our religion has an intimate relationship with food and eating. In times of the Temple, sacrifices were brought and eaten in Jerusalem, most notably the Pesach lamb spit roast, enjoyed with matza. Every Jewish holiday has traditional dishes that we all love (or hate); and traditional Shabbat meals are a foundation of the family unit.

Various classical sources explain that there is a hierarchy of four ‘types’ of creation, listed in increasing consciousness, and increasing ability to connect with God:

  • Domem (lit. silent) – inanimate objects like the earth, minerals
  • Tzome’ach – plants (lit. that which grows)
  • Chai – the animal world
  • Medamer – humankind (lit. that which speaks)

What happens when a cow eats grass? The cow digests the grass, and through this process, grows bigger. In terms of these levels of creation, what has actually occurred is that one level (tzome’ach - plant) has been transformed into a higher one (chai – animal). A similarly thing happens when humans eat from the plant or animal world, the tzome’ach or chai is transformed into medaber.

Thus the process of eating is one of elevating matter from one level to another. However, it’s important to recognize this hierarchy, our place in it, and therefore, our relationship with food.

As is often the case, this is nicely illustrated with a Chassidic story: someone once asked their Rebbe, “what is the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew?”

The Rebbe called over Bentzion, a ‘simple’ Jew who worked around the household and quizzed him: “Did you eat well today?” to which he replied “Yes”. “Why do you eat?” asked the Rebbe. “In order to live”, he responded. “And why do you live?” Bentzion replied: “In order to be a good Jew and do as God wants”.

Then the Rebbe called over one of the local peasants for a similar exchange.

Rebbe: “Did you eat well today?”
Ivan: “Yes”
Rebbe: “Why do you eat?”
Ivan: “In order to live”
Rebbe: “And why do you live?”
Ivan: “To enjoy a good vodka!”

While eating is such an integral part of being Jewish, eating for its own sake is shunned. I’m not suggesting that we live an ascetic lifestyle; on the contrary, the world is meant to be lived in and enjoyed. The great Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who compiled the Mishna, asserted that he enjoyed every pleasure on offer in this world (exactly how that should be interpreted is an entirely different discussion). Rather, it’s a matter of keeping material enjoyment in context, and remembering that eating is a means, not an end.

So who’s the real Master … You? Or your food?

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  • Aussiebattler. says:

    What was the ‘simple’ Jew’s interpretation of, as “God wants,” and are we to presume that all peasants are immoral p*ss pots?

  • ariel says:

    Let’s take your case: yes.

  • Eli says:

    My journey from a secular to more a more observant Jewish life took in many stages. A lot of reading and in the earlier days much of it was the sort of “rebbe” stories that David retells here.

    My problem then and now is the manner in which the non jews have been portrayed. Stereo typically as drunken uneducated and soulless. In contrast the Jew no matter what his level always a cut above.

    In the story above no less the Bentzion, a ‘simple’ Jew is portrayed as intrinsically more enlightened than his also “simple” Russian peasant counterpart.

    How we can quietly nod our heads in agreement with this sought of nonsense ,yet shout from the rafters at the antisemitic portrayal of Shylock is profoundly hypocritical,if not embarrassing.

    Unfortunately this sought of attitude to the non Jewish world is endemic within the many orthodox,dare I say black hatted community. Not unlike the poison with which Palestinian children are fed, this world view is perpetuated constantly.I have witnessed it myself on more than one occasion, in the homes of very religious “upright” families. For many it seems like they never left the shetel.

    It’s time these “rebbe” stories bit the dust.

    Recently at work, one of my colleagues, a very religious woman, always interested in the Jewish holidays, their meaning and history, a student of biblical history, albeit from a non Jewish perspective, asked if she could read a recent Lamplighter that was left for another Jewish worker.

    I shudder to think what conclusions she may have come to had she read anything similar to the above.

    The Jewish world view must move on from that closeted, introspective us and them mentality.

  • Eli,

    You raise an interesting point regarding “Rebbe stories”, many of these do indeed contain racial stereotypes. This may be because the story itself highlights the difference in behaviour or attitude between the Jews and Gentiles of the time. It may also reflect an accurate picture of life in those times, where in these shtetls, the Jews lived a very spiritual life, and was sharply contrasted with that of their peasant neighbours (which was probably a far cry from the typical behaviour of Gentiles in the larger cities).

    However, suggesting that this genre of story is past its use-by date would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Stereotypes aside, the stories are filled with moral lessons, and paint a picture of Jewish life that many cherish with fondness.

  • Eli says:

    Moral lessons aside, the Rebbe stories perpetuate the racial stereotypes. There is no effort to separate the two or instruct the readers to view them in context. Hence as i have observed many continue to hold those views and deliver them to new generations without qualification.

    The “fondness” of that Jewish life to which you refer is perhaps more about nostalgia about how the Jews lived in pre war western Europe. There are many more modern Jewish stories by contemporary writers that provide moral lessons without the need to re visit to the “shtetel.

    There is an interesting article here http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/29901/out-of-focus/

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Hi David and Eli – I think the discussion is important. David I like your piece but have to admit I cringed a little when I got to the story bit.But it would be a shame if the whole idea in your piece was overlooked – about the gourmand and gourmet focus of our culture.Its not just the obsession with fine food its also about the proliferation of junk at the other end. And I reckon the Jewish world is far from immune. Kashrut (however you define it for yourself) makes you mindful of what and when you eat and puts limits on how you approach eating. Kashrut also offers a great incentive to eat fresh – the less processed, the less supervision required – and Pesach in particular could be a week of really enjoying meat (if you eat meat), fish and fresh fruit and vegetables. But I am staggered by the amount of seriously processed KLP food available (my children are addicted to the instant cakes which taste like chemicals to me) and I think in some cases Pesach rather than a back to basics becomes all about processed food (instant mashed potatos in a disposable carton!!!), disposable plates and cookware – for many its the factory made festival!. I have also been struck reading the discussion about kashrut elsewhere on this site how different this is to the kashrut of my grandparents which was cautious but pragmatic, mostly because there was so much less processed food, very little choice and very little expectation of eating meals at restaurants. I think the obsession with food manifests at both ends of the spectrum – too much and poor quality at one end and a mad focus on (overpriced) fine food at the other. I reckon one of the most important things you do as a parent is prepare a home cooked meal from fresh ingredients for your family most nights, and sit down to eat it together. Food is elevated when shared at a table.

  • Mandi,

    What made you cringe? Was it the stark and antiquated stereotype in the story? Or, looking past that, was it the underlying suggestion that Jews and Gentiles are fundamentally different, and that Jews can/should live a life that is more meaningful?

    I get the impression that some Jews struggle with an apparent conflict between egalitarianism, and the notion that we are God’s chosen people. This topic is probably worthy of further exploration.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Hi David – and I thought I had succesfully steered the discussion back to the safer ground of food…

    The cringe element was in response to what you have called a stereotype – and the sense I had, was why does the merit of my cultural position depend on denigrating someone else’s.. why is comparison even necessary?

    But absolutely I do struggle with the idea of what the parsha today calls “Am segulah” – and I think its a difficult thing to discuss on a blog because of the very different frameworks that people discuss this under, in terms of the nature of their (our) faith, and how willing they (we) are to interpret/re-interpret text and tradition – here the idea of chosenness.

    But I’m happy to have a go.I’ll start by channeling Chaim Potok. In Wanderings, he wrote about his experience in the 1950s” I lived at ease in the core of my faith…Then I entered the American army…In the shattered villages of Korea, exquisite temples of Japan, in the teeming Chines hovels of Hong Kong, in the vile streets of Macao all the neat antique coherence of my past came undone…My early past had prepared me for everything except the two encounters I in fact experienced : a meeting with a vast complex of cultures perfectly at ease without Jews and Judaism…the loveliness and the suffering I saw in the lives of pagans”

    When I read these words at age 16 they challenged me enormously.And over the years I have moved away form any belief that Judaism has a monopoly on truth or the path to a meaningful life. And I absolutely struggle with the conflict between chosenness and egalitarianism. I suppose while I feel deeply Jewish, I’m not more Jewish than I am human.

    Cant we just talk about food?

  • Here’s another angle on the food issue, particularly relevant to this week’s parsha, Re’eh.

  • Eli says:

    Potok in many of his books including “The Promise ” and “The Chosen,explored the conflict between Jewish values and secular culture. Like many Jewish writers of the day, they grew up in orthodox or very traditional Jewish homes.

    For many Jews the confines of the shettel or close knit religious communities in the cities were a buffer, a filter to the ideological,spiritual and cultural values that surrounded the Jews. The battle fronts were multiple and so layered defenses were necessary. The antisemitism they faced surely vindicated the community leaders need to protect their flocks.

    In this weeks Parsha as you and David have already alluded, G_d commands us to “cleanse” the land of its inhabitants, to insure that the Jews do not take up the practices of the peoples that G-D found abhorrent. Interesting enough Kashrut is also included. Which makes Davids post and our responses that much more interesting.

    Jewish history is a trail of constant sliding away from the traditional, it makes you wonder why G-d chose us, a stiff necked people in the first place. For some the word “chosen” implies better, higher. I see it as somewhat different.

    G-d needed to show the world that in spite of our failings (Man), in spite of unfortunate circumstance and even after prolonged hatred and institutionalized racism, the Jew has been able to overcome, succeed and even influence the world around him.

    This doesn’t make us special or unique, but a source of encouragement in the darkness of apparent futility. There is no conflict between chosenness and egalitarianism nor between Jewishness and humanity.

    It is in the humanity of our Jewishness and the egalitarianism of our choseness that directs man on how to be better and closer to that which G_d had designed.

  • Aussiebattler. says:

    ariel. Keeping your comment short. Are you feeling a bit hung over from drinking all that ceremonial wine?

  • ariel says:

    It’s better than that VB you drink, aka formaldahyde.

    Are you aware that your best friends in the Taliban would deny you the right to drink? Oh well, I’m sure you’d look good in a burka.

  • Aussiebattler. says:

    ariel. Your US political friends and CIA once funded and trained the Taliban. The so called “war on terror” is a smokescreen for the emergence of American hegemony in Central Asia.

  • While some of these comments are totally off topic, they do resemble a cholent!

  • frosh says:

    Way off topic, but anyone who considers the CIA a particularly friendly entity toward Israel is highly ignorant about such affairs. In actuality, the CIA is quite hostile toward Israel.

  • ariel says:

    in any case, if the choice is US hegemony or Shari’a hegemony, I’ll take the former any day of the week and twice on Shabbos!

  • Aussiebattler says:

    David Werdiger. “Cholent” – true!

    Obviously I haven’t given my correct name, but I do sincerely give comment with out being, or meaning to sound anti-Semitic.

    I wish you well.

  • hmmm says:


    But of course you ARE anti-semitic…

  • Aussiebattler says:

    hmmm. hmmmmm, how can you say that, I love kebabs, tabbouleh, kababs, felafel, houmous… whoops! Sorry, is David’s topic is european cookery? : ) I love that too.

    I think the idea of cooking eggs in their shell in a chalent is so cute! My mum made wonderful beef stews with doughboys (dumplings)on top. I think for a child to find a cooked egg in the shell in a chalent would be as exciting as it was to find a sixpence in a Christmas pudding.

    Thanks to David’s article I intend to cook a chalent this week-end.http://www.jewishmag.com/43mag/cholent/cholent.htm

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