Illustration by Kurt Hoffman
It was on a trip to Madrid, about four years ago, that I finally understood the paradox of opposites: that there’s no such thing as opposites, really, and that what you get when you try to run as hard as you can in the opposite direction to your upbringing is, well, something quite a lot like where you started.
I’d been eating treyf for about six years before that. I’d grown up frum, in an Orthodox — though not closed or uneducated — community. I’d separated meat from dairy, I’d only bought from kosher butchers, I’d kept myself clean of the impure flesh of the pig. I’d drunk only kosher wine, eaten only cheese made with vegetable rennet, bought only bread baked by Jewish hands. All of that. For a long time. And then it seemed time for it to be over. And slowly, one by one, I started to eat the forbidden foods.
My therapist, incidentally, thought that this was all a bad idea. “You can’t resolve your issues with Orthodox Judaism by what you eat,” was the message of the slight frown on her forehead when I told her about my experiments. “What are you trying to achieve?” was what she said. I shrugged. It felt necessary, even while it was unexpectedly traumatic and difficult to put the unclean things into my mouth, chew and swallow. It felt like a thing that needed to be done. To get away.
And then I went to Madrid, a short trip with a friend, just a few days away. I picked a restaurant much-recommended on the Internet, Malacatin. The menu in English was hilarious, including dishes like “The Mercy of the Cabbage and Dried Ham Broth,” “The Serious Boiled Potato,” “The Bizarre Chorizo of Leon,” and “The Lack of Water from Lozoya.” We went there on Friday night. It was a coincidence, really. Freud, obviously, would say there’s no such thing as a coincidence.
There was only one meal we could have, apparently, even despite all the names of all those dishes: a cocido — a traditional meal in this part of Spain, which consists of many small dishes, but all cooked together and then served separately. First, there was a flavorsome meat broth. Then roasted meats, chickpeas, meltingly soft pig fat cubes, potatoes cooked in the rich stock, vegetables turned to molten sweetness in the slow heat of the liquid. It was all delicious. It felt tremendously comforting. Beautifully soothing. Astonishingly… familiar. Despite the ham hock and the lard cubes, the flavors were those of my childhood, as known to me as the dirt of my parents’ yard under my palms. It felt like home, that meal. It felt like a Friday night dinner.
It took only a bit of Internet searching to work out what was going on. There were a lot of conversos in Spain — Jewish people forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. Madrid had been a particularly Jewish city, once. This authentic regional specialty was a dish native to Madrid. The cocido is the converso supper. It served as a Friday night dinner for people who weren’t going to give up the flavors and textures and culinary ideas they loved so much, but who had to show how much pig they could get into one single meal, and how willing they were to eat it. In all of its treyf, hyper-treyf, treyf-of-treyfs, the very essence of all that is impure and unclean in the Torah written by God Almighty, in all that it tried to reject, that cocido was one of the most Jewish meals I’ve ever eaten.
And this has given me a way to think about what I’m doing. It’s not that I’m trying not to be Jewish. I couldn’t be. It’s that I’m traveling a journey made by millions of Jews before me — some forced, some willingly, some in tears and some in joy. This is a rather apt thing to begin to consider now, at Hanukkah — a festival about the influence of non-Jews upon Jews. The Maccabees weren’t just fighting to free the holy land from the infidels, they were fighting against those Jews who welcomed the infidels’ ways. The kind of Jews who went to the gym, read non-Jewish intellectual books, broke the Sabbath and thought it might be okay to try shrimp. To be honest, it’s not clear which side a lot of modern Jews ought to be on in the battle of Maccabees vs. Hellenizers.
The frum worry a lot about continuity. How do we know our children will be Jewish? We work at preserving traditions and culture, helping people of all ages to celebrate the richness of our heritage. And I don’t argue with that. I merely put my hand up and say: The journey away from the tradition is, too, a part of the tradition.
My therapist said, “Doing the opposite of something is still reacting to that something.” I’ve come to accept with some relief that the negotiation with treyf, the experience of eating it all for the first time, the savoring of new tastes and thinking about what they mean to me, well, who am I kidding? This eating non-Jewish foods — it’s just so Jewish.