Then and Now, Trying to Demystify Kosher Rites

A Century Ago, Familiar Efforts To Reconcile Faith and Science

Kosher Le Dresden: The International Hygiene Exhibition of 1911 presented Jewish dietary practices in a positive light.
wikimedia
Kosher Le Dresden: The International Hygiene Exhibition of 1911 presented Jewish dietary practices in a positive light.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 02, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Within the past few months, circumcision and other Jewish rituals such as kashrut, the dietary laws, and shechita, the kosher butchering of animals, have been the subject of considerable attention, much of it condemnatory. But then, that shouldn’t occasion too much of a surprise: For centuries, and continuing into our own day, the corporeal practices of the Jews, from the way they mark the male body to what they ingest — or don’t — are typically regarded as the most distinctive thing about them.

Separating the Jews from the rest of the body politic, circumcision and kashrut gave rise to suspicion and hostility on the part of the larger, non-Jewish world. The advent of modernity did little to soften such views. On the contrary. Negative sentiment toward these practices actually accelerated in the wake of the Emancipation of European Jews, which sought through both legal and cultural means to transform them from strangers into citizens. Circumcision, kashrut and shechita, it was widely thought, got in the way.

Under the circumstances, latter-day champions of these age-old traditions had to jump through all manner of hoops to justify, reassess and reinterpret them in terms consonant with modernity’s emphasis on the commonweal and the commonplace. Demystification would be one way to describe this process of reinterpretation; rationalization would be another.

One of the most fascinating exercises in demystification, and arguably among the best intentioned, took place in 1911 in Dresden, Germany, at the International Hygiene Exhibition. Drawing more than 5 million visitors from around the world, it was a great hit with the public, which relished the exposition’s “kinematographic projections” and “moulages,” or lifelike wax reproductions of the human body. The International Hygiene Exhibition, The New York Times enthused, is the “greatest object lesson in the realm of public hygiene which the world has ever seen.”

Another American visitor, Dr. William J. Robinson, the editor of “The Medico-Pharmaceutical Critic and Guide,” was particularly enraptured by the openness with which the Germans talked about sexual matters. Noting how the section on venereal and sexual diseases was “crowded from morning to night,” he couldn’t resist a dig at some of his more puritanical American counterparts. “Had Anthony Comstock walked into that section, he would, I fear, have immediately gotten an apoplectic shock,” Robinson wrote, referring to America’s great champion of censorship. “In this country such an exhibit would be absolutely unthinkable.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.