"I eat bacon, Parma ham, prawns, lobster, scallops – although they can be very chewy.”
Jenny, a customer service executive from Loughton, Essex, grew up in a kosher home, eating kosher food alongside her parents who also — she thought — kept kosher. “At my batmitzvah, my parents gave me the option to decide whether to eat treif. So I tried it, and I liked it.”
However, Jenny’s decision to eat treif if not as straightforward as it sounds. A committed and involved member of the Jewish community, she went to a Jewish school, works for a Jewish company, grew up in a Zionist youth group, spent her gap year in Israel and regularly attends Aish events and Jewish young professional dinners. She’s even on first-name terms with her rabbi.
(In fact, Jenny is not her real name, but she didn’t want people in her community to be able to identify her).
Nonetheless, she’s not ashamed of eating treif, although when she reveals this to friends they are often shocked.
“I like the idea of picking and choosing what works for me,” she says. “I still feel just as connected to my Judaism.”
Could eating treif become mainstream?
The idea of being Jewish in a way that makes sense to you is not new. But could eating treif ever become a mainstream feature of practicing Jews?
Alix Wall thinks so. Wall is a food writer from San Francisco, contributing editor to J Weekly, personal chef and founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals.
As a proud and open treif eater (she wrote about her relationship with pork for the blog Pork Memoirs, saying: “By the time I learned that we Jews aren’t supposed to eat pork, it was already too late”), she thinks that “keeping kosher is an arcane system that doesn’t make sense at all” in the modern world.
“It’s from another era,” she adds. “It doesn’t apply to us.”
She tells me this as we discuss her most recent Illuminoshi project, the Trefa Banquet. And as we talk about previous Illuminoshi events — including a latke cook-off and a tour of a local dairy with a cheese tasting — she sits underneath the canopy from her chupah, which now serves as a decoration in her home office. Talking to her, I certainly don’t feel like I’m interviewing someone who rejects Judaism. In fact, Wall sees eating treif as almost an integral part of her Judaism.
Her mother was hidden during the Holocaust, rescued by her nanny and brought up as her illegitimate daughter. As Wall says: “These were poor people and it was wartime. She ate what they ate” and, later on, continued to eat pork “because it linked her to this woman she loved who had raised her”.
The Illuminoshi is a gathering of Jewish professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Wall makes it clear that it isn’t a deliberately anarchic group — the Trefa Banquet, while garnering more publicity than some of the other events, does not define the Illuminoshi. “Food is an easy way for people to connect. This is a way to celebrate that and learn who the Jews are in the [local] food industry.”
Wall has received a lot of comments since the event — positive but also very negative. “I’m not out to destroy the Jewish people,” she says, adding that she is surprised by how widespread news of the banquet became.
There was an original Trefa Banquet
The banquet was originally imagined as an educational resource. There was an original Trefa Banquet in 1883 — used by the early American Reform movement to make a statement by serving treif dishes at a celebration marking the ordination of the first American Reform rabbis. At this event, a group of rabbis stormed out in protest.
“This is seminal to American Jewry but not all American Jews know about it,” says Wall. “I thought this would be a great event, but only if someone could teach about the original [banquet] — not just a bunch of Jews getting together to eat treif.”
This year’s meal took place at the beginning of January at Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. Eighty guests, including three rabbis, listened to a panel of talks and then indulged in a buffet of, well, treif. This included peanut butter pie with bacon, pulled pork potato kugel, Reuben sandwiches, rabbit crepinette.
One of the rabbis — Rabbi Sydney Mintz — even said a bracha over the meal.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of British Reform Judaism, is taken aback by this, adding: “There’s a halachic category called a bracha l’vatala, a wasted bracha.”
Wall does point out that Rabbi Mintz took it upon herself to make the bracha spontaneously, and that there were vegetarian dishes for those who didn’t want to eat treif.
Does this highlight a difference between UK and American Jews? Rabbi Janner-Klausner thinks so.
“The old American Reform is so different from British Reform Judaism,” she says. “It’s like night and day.
“Could an event like this happen here, with our rabbinate? No – and I don’t think it should. It’s not our culture and I don’t want it to be.”
Nonetheless, Rabbi Janner-Klausner acknowledges — and celebrates — the fact that “people are Jewish in lots of different ways. But giving it a hechsher, by using religious language” — that’s a step too far.
Wall admits that, although the majority of American Jews identify themselves as Reform or unaffiliated, a similar event might not have been possible in a more Jewish area of America.
“San Francisco is known to be one of the most assimilated areas in the country; it’s not like we’re living in New York,” she says.
But would she host it again? “I would say so — it was a success,” she replies, citing a Yiddish saying: Az men est khazer, zol es shoyn rinen ibern moyl/If you’re going to eat pork, eat it until your mouth drips.
“Even when our people were Yiddish speakers, people were breaking the kashrut laws. This is proof to me that I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary.”