As a consummate foodie, Noah Zvi Farkas says his mind makes instant connections between food and people. When it comes to his father, it is a well-done steak, cooked on the barbecue.
Last week I walked around the tidal basin in Washington DC. It was a beautiful spring day with the famed cherry blossoms in bloom, boaters on the water, and tourists scampering about. I came to DC for a conference and ended up meeting with several legislators on a number of issues important to me and too much of the Jewish community. What was not on the docket of the conference nor on the minds of the legislators were issues of food justice. Immigration, gun control, entitlements, education, labor rights, LGBT rights, and even genocide were all major topics of discussions from the plenary to the breakout sessions. When we “hit the hill” members of the house and senate came and spoke to us about what they were working on, and none of them mentioned even once, the 50 million Americans who do not know where there next meal will come from.
As we prepare for Tu B’Shvat, I can’t help but grow more introspective. Over the past century, Tu B’Shvat has evolved into a primarily mystical food holiday incorporating a Kabbalistic seder, dating back to 16th century Tzfat.
If you’re like me, January prompts you to reexamine a few bothersome behaviors — and make a few (or more) resolutions for the coming year. Making resolutions is a dangerous proposition, of course. A strictly goal-oriented approach gives us a flat, “all or nothing” mandate that can lead to failure. By February, our resolution has dropped off our spiritual radar, and we marinate our inertia in the guilt of giving up. As the negative emotions pile up, we risk (as the rabbis say), “begetting one sin with another” — creating a vicious cycle that leaves us in a spiritual mess. Instead, let’s take a deeper approach. Make a few life adjustments — for promises that you can keep.
My fondest memory of our Rosh Hashanah table is from even before we sat down to eat. As I was growing up, one of my chores on the Jewish New Year was to help set the table. Every year, as my mother would leave the plate of apples and honey on the table while she attended to some other kitchen task, I would sneak over and try to grab an apple slice off the pile, dip it in honey, and sneak out. The trick, of course, was making sure that pile of apple slices looked undisturbed. I had to choose my apple slice carefully, making the whole effort sort of like a fruit-base Jenga puzzle. Pulling on the right slice was crucial. Once I achieved success (yes! no one would know!) dipping it into the honey presented its own challenges. How to get the delicious bee-nectar out without spilling a drop on the white table cloth? It took a few years, but I mastered the art of rolling the apple slice just right so the honey would curl its golden fingers around the wedge like an infant reflexively grabbing his mothers finger. And then, crunch!
Out here in California, there’s a policy debate heating up about the labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs). Take the fantastical glow-in-the-dark potatomade with jellyfish genes, for example. Scientists claim that by reading the fluorescence on the leaves of this engineered potato, farmers can reduce water usage by glowing when they are ripe. Proposition 37 on the November ballot would require any food containing GMOs like this potato, to sport a special label. According to the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit pushing the passage of Prop. 37, major food companies have spent close to $24 million to defeat the effort. Even so, foodie activists are gearing up for a big fight in November. So what is all the fuss about? What does Judaism say about GMOs, and, is there a Jewish position on labeling?
By its very nature eating to me is a spiritual practice. There are two components to food. The “what” and the “why.” As for the “what” that’s the food itself. The “why” is the choice I make to eat knowing the history behind the dish and its connection to the community of growers, workers, and eaters with a sensitivity to the vulnerable in our community who do not have access to nutritious food. Foods without a “why” I call “Flat Food” because it is opaque and without context. The spirituality of eating, then, is measured by the depth of the “why.” This is, to me, the power and depth of our Jewish food ethic to know the context of every morsel that passes between our lips. And so, at the end of this week, when Jews worldwide observe Tisha B’Av, the day of remembrance for the destruction of both the holy temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively, the “why” or in this case, “why not” completely overtakes the “what.” On all other holidays we remember uplifting moments like our quest for liberty through story of the Exodus, or the celebration of harvests and bounties on Sukkot and Shavuot. Who could forget God’s saving grace through miracles of Chanukkah, and to lesser degree Purim? None of this is so with Tisha B’Av. This holiday is our darkest hour when our freedom turned into slavery (Lam. 2:9), when feasts turned to famine (Lam. 4:5), and when God’s saving grace turned into wrathful destruction (Lam. 2:4).
A lot of ink has been spilled about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas in New York City. The central question is whether citizens should sacrifice freedoms such as the ability to choose an oil tanker-sized soda in order to ensure more healthy society. This battle of values pits freedom against health: Is there anything Jewish about this kind of debate?
This is the first of a series of a monthly column by Rabbi Noah Farkas called Turning the Tables.