At the Eucalyptus, a restaurant just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, 250 Orthodox Jews gathered in late July to learn Talmud and to discover what meat-and-milk tastes like.
The meat had been marinating in milk for, well, almost a lifetime. The dish was udder of cow, which, as the many rabbis in attendance pointed out, is recommended by the Talmud for anyone who wants to experience a taste similar to meat-and-milk without breaking Jewish law. It tasted spongy and decidedly creamy.
This was just one of 18 courses at this celebration of kosher-but-you-wouldn’t-have-guessed-it gastronomy. It was preceded by the Talmud’s recommendation for observant Jews who want to taste pork: a fish the rabbis called shibuta. This is thought to be the barbus grypus, a kind of large freshwater carp. Research by the organizers indicated that this was the first time that shibuta had been served at a kosher meal in Israel since the First Temple era.
For diners at the $100-a-head meal of unusual fare, the evening was a chance to expand horizons. “I think we all deal with the question of kashrut, and for the most part we feel a little limited by kashrut laws,” said Zvi Klein, a physician from Beit Shemesh. He said that “people are looking for a new taste experience within the laws. They don’t want to eat nonkosher, but are looking to taste new things.”
Organizing the evening were two detectives of sorts. For 28 years, Ari Greenspan, a dentist from Efrat, and Ari Zivotofsky, a neuroscientist from Beit Shemesh, have been traveling the world, searching for information about those species or parts of animals that Jews don’t eat today but are actually kosher. This was the fourth dinner that the two — both qualified shochetim, or religious slaughterers — have organized based on their research.
Just like crime detectives, their evidence comes in a variety of forms. With each course, they gave presentations featuring copious sources to support their conclusion that the food in question was kosher — hence the 6 p.m. start and midnight finish. Their evidence consisted of pages of Talmud, ancient manuscripts, old newspaper articles, scientific studies, exchanges of letters with some of the world’s most important rabbis and videotaped interviews with elderly shochetim, who recalled now-lost traditions from before the Holocaust of slaughtering such-and-such a species.
Most challenging are birds, which are deemed kosher only if an oral tradition exists saying that they are. The two Aris put hundreds of hours into finding reliable references to a given species being eaten in observant circles. As different species were known by different names in the Diaspora, this process also involves a clear identification of the bird being referenced in a given oral tradition.
The results of their labor were extremely tasty. Back in 2002, they bought two guinea fowl and drove around Israel from elderly shochet to elderly shochet. One bird flew away in the process, but they managed to find shochetim from Algeria, France and Israel who remembered killing the birds. For the pheasant, the ID came from a leading Yemenite rabbi in Israel and from an English shochet. Diners were treated to a wrap of tender guinea fowl and pheasant. The soup was sparrow, dove and pigeon; there was wild chicken and wild turkey, and there was a hybrid of Muscovy drake and female pekin, or Long Island duck.
In his presentation on the guinea fowl and the pheasant — during which he held live specimens — Greenspan spoke about how his work doesn’t end with the positive ID; he also has the challenge of sourcing them, and by the nature of the exercise, most are not eaten in Israel. “We went to the zoo and said that we needed a couple of pheasants, and they said, ‘Why?’ he recalled. “We said, ‘To kill them,’ and they said, ‘Get out of here!’”
After the bird courses came the fish courses. In theory, it’s easy to determine whether a fish is kosher: If it has fins and scales, it is. But in reality, it can be tough to call, and it was with the fish that the evening entered really controversial territory. The swordfish is widely considered nonkosher, as it supposedly doesn’t have scales. But Zivotofsky brought sources to suggest that this is a recent view that became dominant only since a list of fish put out by America’s Orthodox Union in 1951 categorized it as nonkosher. He invited diners to make their way to the lobby and feel the enormous swordfish that he had laid out on a table.
As for how Greenspan and Zivotofsky worked out that shibuta, the porklike fish mentioned in the Talmud, is actually the barbus grypus, they found a reference in a 19th-century halachic text to corroborate their linguistic research.
Highlights of the meat courses, in addition to the udder, included water buffalo, which was declared kosher by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in 2006. This was after years of research by Greenspan, Zivotofsky and others in which they completed biological studies to prove that water buffalo chew their cud and have cloven hooves as required by Halacha, or Jewish religious law. To satisfy the Chief Rabbinate, Greenspan and Zivotofsky also had to satisfy extra stringencies — to gather testimonies of slaughterers and prove that water buffalos have no upper front teeth. To this end they delivered a water buffalo skeleton to the desk of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
The final treat of the evening was fried locusts. These, it turned out, tasted a bit like tiny chicken wings. Kosher laws ban all insects except for four types of locust, but matching the biblical description with the locusts existing today has proved difficult, and led most observant Jews to avoid them. But Yemenite and Moroccan Jews claim to be heirs to the tradition of which locusts are permissible, and a collaborator of the two Aris, Bar-Ilan University locust expert Zohar Amar, has gathered testimonies.
Greenspan and Zivotofsky consider their kashrut detective work an essential part of keeping Jewish tradition going. If the animals they serve are not slaughtered for kosher food and eaten, the tradition that they are kosher will be lost. That is why they called the event the “Mesorah Dinner.” Mesorah, the Hebrew word for “religious tradition,” comes from the Hebrew root “to pass.”
“It’s not an eating orgy; it’s not an excuse for gluttony,” Zivotofsky said. “From our perspective, it’s to maintain the tradition — the religious tradition, the cultural tradition and the culinary tradition, part of which was lost as Jews have concentrated in Israel and America.”
Writing scholarly articles about such traditions is not enough, Zivotofsky said: “If you do a dinner where the foods are eaten publicly and with rabbis in attendance, then it gives them more weight.”
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, a rosh yeshiva, or academy head, at Yeshivat Har Etzion, the Harvard of Modern Orthodox scholarship, put it differently. “It takes abstract ideas and makes them concrete,” he said, as he examined the swordfish in the restaurant lobby.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org