Wednesday, July 7, 2010

eating treif

When I was little I used to sleep with two other little girls down the block. In those days, they were called 'colored' and we were called 'jew' — small 'j', said with attitude. It was an adjective. But it was also a verb. Their names were J and J and they were twins, a year older than I. J and I would play under the covers. J, her twin would cry.

One day, J and J came home from Sunday School with the bad news.

"We're going to hell!" she cried. Sister J cried too.

I felt really bad for them. They were going to hell? I mean, I knew that I wasn't. So. Something we were doing was bad for them, but I hadn't a clue exactly what. I think right there I became a little anthropologist, wanting to figure it out.

J went and washed her mouth out with soap — providing herself with her mother's usual punishment. When dad was around, it was the strap — but he was a cook in the Navy, and was close to never home.

The whole world of moral imperatives became something exciting and fun, and worth exploring. I mean, what did it feel like to get your mouth washed out with soap? (The strap sounded interesting too, come to think of it). It all sounded so exotic and quaint.

Their whole house smelled intoxicating, especially weekend mornings. Mrs J made it clear to me that what was sizzling in her skillet was not for me, and eventually I got the idea that she thought that if I ate it, that I'd go to hell too.

I knew that wasn't true.

One morning, J (my J, not crying J) brought me a gift under the covers. One piece of stolen perfectly crisp bacon, right out of the frying pan. The taste was, well, exotic, intoxicating, and downright ineffable (was this my first mystical experience? The salt and fat combo so irresistible to humans?).

And then there was a scream from the kitchen. Of course Mrs J would have counted out the pieces and discovered that one was missing. She hollered at J (my J, it could only have been my J), and then (what a thrill!) she hollered at me.

"Go wash that mouth out with soap!" she commanded, fearing for my soul. I jumped up and complied instantly. What a let down. Boring. And I didn't feel any different. This just reinforced that all these rules, punishments, and eternal hellfire stuff was theirs and not mine.

Fall Semester is coming up, and it looks like the enrollment in my Jewish Mysticism class just isn't going to make it — and the first thing I thought of was this tale of J and J, and the delights of eating treif.


Don't get me wrong; I love this class. I'll miss teaching it this semester. But still, it brought up the treif story first. Most of all, it seems, I'm gonna miss the treif. After all, I can study Jewish Mysticism on my own, right? You might also say that I could really eat treif at any time I want, too, but it just wouldn't taste the same, would it?

Here's what I discovered. Every time I teach a class on Jewish something or other, I seem to eat a meal that includes treif before the class begins. I've apparently been doing this for, well, decades. At first I thought it was funny, a coincidence, or a just plain balancing things out (like making my kids study Arabic if they want to study Hebrew). But now, I'm not so sure.

Cause when I think of treif, I remember J. And when I remember J, I remember her terror at the possibility of going to hell. I remember great irresistible salty smells, broken 'rules' and the letdown of a mouth full of soap bubbles (maybe I hadn't done it right), and then well, I get stuck.

Pork and parsha? Forbidden fruits, so to speak... I mean, what's the connection?

My default for the moment is still the 'balancing things out' explanation, until someone can come up with something more satisfying. That the treif somehow reaffirms my identity as an anthropologist and not, say, as a theologian (god forbid!), not a practitioner, but a rational, analytical being.

Bottom line: for Fall Semester, it looks like no Jewish Mysticism (at the university, anyway) and (an equal sorrow) it looks like ... no treif.


  1. I don't think that I'll ever be shomer kashrut (although I may try to keep kosher for holidays just for the sake of ritual). I had a turkey, bacon, cheese sandwich at cafe flore the other day and had a somewhat erotic experience. Can treif be mystical? Absolutely.

    I'm sad about the myaticismclass and hope that we can find other venues to talk about it and maybe read together. Maybe you would be willing to share the syllabus with me anyway.

  2. Question is, do you do fried bologna and mayo on white, the ultimate goyische faux pas for the aspiring yudling?

  3. wow, that must be some serious arcana of either kashrut or the composition of bologna! is it pork? who knew?

    I haven't eaten fried bologna since we were on food stamps when I was a kid. But I'm full of white trash goyishe surprises in my culinary repertoire.

  4. By the way, I had a very similar discovery about hellfire and the nature of good and evil vis a vis religious rules when I finally had sex for the first time. Oh. This is what all the fuss is about. And god did not strike me down. And I fuckin' loved it. More please!

  5. More please indeed! But that hellfire fear put an end to our explorations, and that was the end of that for a long time to come.

  6. Oh, no, not going to happen? I'm sad! I was sort of getting excited about the idea of coming there and giving your students little bits of Cairo manuscripts to puzzle over and keep. I was going to cook some up later this month.


  7. What the hell kind of goyim have you been hanging out with, anyway? Fried bologna, mayo, and white bread are each revolting, and the combination can only be a horror show. Gah. And I thought lutefisk was bad!