A Dining Adventure in Williamsburg
A while later, James sent me an e-mail. He lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, separate from but near the Hasidic community. He'd never eaten any Jewish foods other than from a kosher deli, and he was curious to check out food from his Hasidic neighbors. Was I interested in going with him and "filling [him] in on the nuances of Kosher cuisine"? I had never been to a Hasidic neighborhood and I didn't expect to find much of a vegan meal beyond a salad, but I was happy to embark on an adventure.
After months of scheduling attempts, we finally went on our journey to get to the meal in early October. I was careful not to pick a day when everything would be closed for religious observance, and I didn't expect to have any trouble during chol hamoed Sukkot. It was quite beautiful to see so many people sitting in sukkot on the sidewalks. A number of places of business were open, including a bakery where James bought presumably nonvegan baked goods. Even though the restrictions that apply to the first two days of the festival had been relaxed, numerous restaurants were closed. My best understanding is that festival restrictions during chol hamoed are flexible depending on the circumstances, but many restaurants close anyway, probably in part because many potential customers are eating in their sukkot rather than going out.
James had done his homework online, but almost every restaurant he knew of was closed. We stumbled into a kosher cafe that lacked impressive ambiance and was exactly what I had envisioned. We looked over the menu and I was willing to eat there, but James suggested we move on in the hope that we'd find something better. We didn't. We eventually gave up and decided to go to Foodswings, a vegan fast-food eatery in non-Hasidic Williamsburg. James said he'd go back on his own another time.
I tried to give James some background on Jewish culture and food. James is a devoted food blogger and he has traveled to Eastern Europe several times, so he certainly had a good foundation for what we were talking about. I realized that I wasn't about to turn him vegetarian, so I at least tried to explain the role of meat in the Jewish tradition from an angle that didn't exactly glorify it:
- Whereas many ethnic diets are known to be rather healthy, the schmaltz-centered Ashkenazi Jewish diet of the Eastern European shtetls was not a prime example. As Michael Pollan wrote in In Defense of Food, "Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet. This goes for the Japanese and other Asian diets as well as the traditional diets of Mexico, India, and the Mediterranean region, including France, Italy, and Greece. There may be exceptions to this rule—you do have to wonder about the Eastern European Jewish diet of my ancestors. Though who knows?"
- Of course, Pollan's ancestors' diets generally did not include as much meat as their descendants' do today, in part because of poverty, the availability of kosher meat, and suggested limitations. At the 2007 Hazon Food Conference, Rabbi Seth Mandel, head of meat supervision for the Orthodox Union, conceded that American Jews these days eat much more meat than they traditionally have. He said, "You have to understand, the Torah did not envision us to eat as much meat as we do. Rambam in the Mishneh Torah says that Jews should eat meat at most two times a week, and if Jews decided to do that, all the problems of kosher slaughter would be solved." I don't agree that all the problems would be solved, but otherwise Rabbi Mandel makes a good point.
- I gave an overview of animal welfare problems and other scandals in the kosher meat industry and mentioned that the trial of AgriProcessors executive Sholom Rubashkin would begin the following week. I credited AgriProcessors with changing the scale of kosher meat production in this country and the increased consumption of meat among kosher-keeping Jews. I referred to Nathaniel Popper's 2008 Forward article "How the Rubashkins Changed the Way Jews Eat in America."