This past March, pork was the main course of conversation at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. Presenting a rich and complicated history of the relationship between Jews and the forbidden “white meat”, Jeffrey Yoskowitz spent the evening tracking both Talmudic and secular understandings of the biblical dietary prohibition.
Opening his presentation with the example of Traif—a restaurant in Williamsburg featuring a spread of all things non-kosher and located near the very edge of a tightly-knit Hasidic community in Brooklyn—Yoskowitz put forth his thesis that pork is the dividing and defining line between observance and non-observance among Jews. The nuance within this tension, however, is the significant point that for some Jews, engaging with pork is an important aspect of their modern Jewish identity.
For Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli, to take one example, hockey practices from his Canadian boyhood were typically finished off with juicy pork sandwiches, so the chef felt it a necessity to include this nostalgic dish in his Jewish delicatessen. On the other hand, one Israeli chef could not fathom featuring pork on his menu until the passing of his mother. Conversely, Yoskowitz cited a Jewish comedian who had once expressed that consuming different kinds of pork products actually reminded him of being Jewish and made him proud to be a part of a legacy of Jews.
Pork has become a catalyst for conversations of Otherness, survival and assimilation. In his engaging lecture, Yoskowitz discussed with impressive visual and first-hand accounts, medieval anti-Semitic depictions of Jews and swine. The crowd contently munched on a spread of Yoskowitz’s addictive gefilte fish (available through his company, The Gefilteria), Portuguese bread, and kosher-takes on bacon favorites as he further explained the past and present of the underground pork market of Israel.
Yoskowitz finished his discussion with the unique symbolism of a Shabbat candle made of lard fat, produced by Brooklyn artist and trained-butcher Jake Levin. The candle evokes a Hasidic understanding that in “the time to come” (the days of the Messiah) the pig will be returned to the Jews as a kosher animal. The candle is homage to the hope for an era when all foods will be pure and just.