At an event hall in early January, some 80 Californian foodies gathered to indulge in artisanal food prepared by Jewish chefs from the area.
The dishes were locally sourced and carefully presented. An organizer lauded the spread as food made “mindfully,” and a Jewish rabbi offered a reverential prayer.
No rubber chicken here — but each dish was intentionally treyf, or nonkosher.
On January 8, a Jewish food group hosted what it called the “Trefa Banquet 2.0” a playful nod to an 1883 event where nonkosher food was served at the ordination of the first class of American Reform rabbis. A century and a half later, the public Jewish consumption of treyf pushes the same buttons. Some find it scandalous, others delicious.
“The chefs are all already cooking treyf,” said Alix Wall, the food writer and Forward contributor who organized the meal. “This is an acknowledgment that this is the reality that we live in.”
The dishes included a peanut butter pie with bacon bits, a pulled pork kugel and a rabbit crepinette.
The 2018 treyf banquet was part of an ongoing meal series put on by a group called the Illuminoshi, which saw it as an opportunity to retell a mythic moment and highlight the nonkosher reality of the Jewish food scene.
The original event has taken on the power of an origin story, purportedly explaining the division of much of American Judaism into the Reform and Conservative movements over the question of whether modern Jews should continue to follow their religion’s traditional rules.
This year, as the crowd milled about, the featured speaker Rachel Gross, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, sought to put the scene into context — by diving into history and retelling the story of the 19th-century “treyf banquet.”
Held for the inaugural graduating class of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the original banquet featured such nonkosher foods as clams, soft-shell crabs, shrimp and frog legs in a lavish multicourse meal. As the story goes, a number of rabbis stormed out in disgust — offended by what they saw as a rebellious violation of Jewish law — and went on to form their own, more ritually minded denomination that would become the Conservative movement.
But was it really such a dramatic breaking point or intentional rebellion? Not so much, scholars now argue. Rather, the early Reform movement was really just serving the type of food that many American Jews were already eating at home. The story, instead, became much more important in the years after, to explain what, in the eyes of other denominations, separated them from the Reform culture.
“While I keep kosher myself, most American Jews do not keep kosher, and, historically, American Jews have had a wide range of eating habits, including rejecting traditional Jewish dietary laws and changing what it means to keep kosher,” Gross said. “The Trefa Banquet 2.0 was a wonderful moment to reflect on the ways that many American Jews eat, how they have talked about what they do and do not eat, and how American Jewish chefs cook.”
In the hours after the event, as news spread through social media, a backlash brewed. For the attendees, eating nonkosher dishes was either a delightfully transgressive or, as Jews who had long eaten treyf, a nonissue; for critics it was evidence that these American Jews are doomed to assimilation. A scathing post on the blog of Rabbi Natan Slifkin derided attendees as “proudly discarding Jewish law,” and dubbed the entire banquet an “event in poor taste.”
Organizers were surprised by the backlash. Wall, who was raised Reform but now moves in Renewal circles, said she wasn’t trying to offend or to impose her views on any other Jew. In fact, she argued that the type of locally sourced, eco-minded food she was serving was itself a type of ritual observance. All the pork, she noted proudly, came from a Jewish farmer who conscientiously raises the animals in Marin County.
“The whole humanly raised movement makes a lot more sense to me,” she said.
Rabbi Camille Angel, a professor of theology at the University of San Francisco, was one of two rabbis in attendance. She comes from a long line of rabbis and said that her father, a Reform-ordained cleric, made a point of eating nonkosher food at home. It was part of how he saw himself as a Jew and an American.
For that earlier generation of treyf-eating American Jews, “there was a pride in being modern and eating in an assimilated way,” Angel said. “In those days, Jewish tribalism wasn’t what we were going for.”
Over the decades, Reform Jews have returned to some ritual observances and restrictions, like dietary restrictions. Still others are exploring what some call eco-Judaism or eco-kashrut.
Dana Evan Kaplan, the author of “American Reform Judaism: An Introduction,” said that debates around dietary restrictions — of one form or another — in Reform circles are, clearly, still active.
“Today, as in biblical times, the idea that ‘you are what you eat’ remains compelling,” Kaplan wrote in a email to the Forward. “That the act of eating may manifest beliefs and values is just as rational a position now as it was in the past.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location of the farm that provided the pork for this event. The farm is in Marin County, not Southern California. It also misstated the academic affiliations of Rachel Gross and Camille Angel.
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.