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A Festival of Bites: The London Jewish Food Festival

‘Sustainable food’ might still have the freshly-peeled glow of a newly enlightened movement sweeping the supermarkets, but to our recidivist shame and the torah’s green credentials, it’s as old fangled as they come. Deuteronomy forbids us to cut down fruit trees when in battle, requiring us to focus on sustainability even in the midst of destruction. As Jews, we are commanded to respect what we eat, and to know how and why it reaches our table.

Jerrold Bennett

This was the theme in action at a seductive-smelling Moishe House this Sunday in North West London. With a full day of programs, the inaugural ‘Gefiltefest: The London Jewish Food Festival’ aimed to shine a light, with tongue and snacks in cheek, on our relationship with food as Jews in the modern world.

Plans grew from a small Jewish cookery demonstration for friends to a sell-out day-long event for approximately 170 people with 30 prominent speakers from across the Jewish spectrum with participatory cooking classes in challah baking and Italian Jewish cuisine, talks on bee husbandry and Halachic debates over food.

“The success of Hazon in America – not just with food, but environmental – shows there’s great interest, importance and potential for doing something similar in the U.K.,” Michael Leventhal, the festival’s organizer, explained. “So much of our identity is tied in with food! You can explain every Jewish festival as – they tried to defeat us. We prevailed. We ate.”

But what to eat, exactly? For a faith that has spent millennia questioning its food, new questions have arisen in the last few decades, with no easy answers to be pulled from Halachic or secular regulation.

Genetically modified food is one such question mark, explored in an afternoon session: “Treyf Tomatoes: Jewish Perspectives on GM Food,” led by chemist and rabbinical student Lea Mühlstein. The Leviticus prohibition against kilayim, or cross-breeding, suggests that taking oh, say, DNA from an arctic flounder to engineer frostbite-resistant tomatoes would certainly not be kosher.

But in truth a certain blind eye in the name of getting by seems to be encouraged in the Mishna; or, as Star K, a worldwide kosher certification organization explains: ‘If it looks like a tomato, smells like a tomato, feels like a tomato and tastes like a tomato, it’s a tomato and it’s kosher.’

At least we can be relatively certain that GM tomatoes, regardless of certification, aren’t in pain. That is not always the case for animals killed in commercial abattoirs – or, as has become distressingly clear, those killed at kosher slaughterhouses. One of the more controversial and emotional subjects of the day, during which snacking ceased, was the final panel discussion with several rabbis and Dr. Oliver Samuel, president of the London Board for Shechita, about the ethics of kosher slaughter.

Audience members questioned the panel about the treatment of kosher animals prior to slaughter, and bemoaned the dearth of organic kosher meat. “I have members in my shul who are eating organic rather than kosher,” said panelist Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, of the New London Synagogue, acknowledging a growing discomfort with the lack of transparency regarding the treatment of animals across their life, rather than at the moment of their death, that for some causes personal priorities to break with Halacha. “Share this fact next time you’re round the table with the dayanim (judges). I hope they know that this is a voice,” Rabbi Gordon urged Dr. Samuel. Ultimately, the panel concluded, the push for change is up to us.

“We are immensely depressed about the lack of interest people have in looking around,” said the doctor, shaking his head at consumer-butcher loyalty. “Ask your butcher – and if he won’t change, you change. Make the market more dynamic.”

Across the day, eating and learning refused to be separated – as in chef Silvia Nacamulli’s morning session on Italian cooking in the Jewish tradition, as she waved a tray of fresh Pizza Romana under her audiences’ twitching noses. “You’re gonna eat these at the end, otherwise you’ll have one and you’ll go,” she said firmly. Proving that knowledge cannot be held ransom to candied fruitcake, she relented and passed the cookies around. Everybody ate. Nobody left.

A second series of Gefiltefest food-related events is scheduled for May 22nd, 2011.

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