Judaism: Fresh is Best

by Rabbi Thomas Gardner

I once read an autobiography called Turbulent Souls, written by a man who grew up Catholic. It was only after he had become an adult that he learned that both of his parents had been born Jewish. My favorite part of the book was when he acknowledged that he probably should have guessed earlier, since after returning from Mass every Sunday, his father would eat  gefilte fish, while singing to the author’s mother My Yiddishe Mama.

When we think of a Jewish person, what do we think of? Do we think of a man with a long white beard with a black hat? Does he eat gefilte fish and sing Yiddish songs? Does he have a strong accent and live in the Northeast?

Fewer and fewer people have parents or grandparents who spoke Yiddish. Matzah ball soup and gefilte fish are more likely to be items that we eat only when we gather for a specifically Jewish meal. When my father was growing up, one of the condiments always on the table was a jar of schmaltz. Not many people keep schmaltz on the table today.

The truth of the matter is that the culture we think of as “Jewish,” is specific to a certain time and place. The Jewish culture of Morocco or India is as foreign to us as, say, Lutheran culture, if not more so. Even the culture of Eastern European Jews, from whom much of our so-called Jewish culture comes, would look strange to us if we went back a few hundred years.

When people convert to Judaism, they sometimes feel at a loss because they missed out on Jewish culture growing up. Their father didn’t have schmaltz on the table. Nobody drank “two cents plain.” Yet those cultural markers speak more to nostalgia than to anything integral to Judaism. American Jews today live all over the country. Most of them don’t speak Yiddish, and most of them don’t have beards (given that half are women). There are African American Jews, Asian Jews, and Native American Jews. There are Jews who have grown up with every kind of family, and with every kind of religion.

Yet while many things change, some things remain the same. Jewish food from any country and in any time period is meat or dairy, but not both. The way we celebrate holidays may change, but the holidays themselves stay the same. The Reform prayerbook may have changed a little more than the Orthodox prayerbook, but both would be instantly recognizable to our ancestors.

The power of Judaism comes from the fact that it has a wonderful and beautiful culture, which is rooted in things that do not change– G-d, the Torah, the People Israel, prayer, study, and charity. Culture changes all the time, although often too slowly for us to notice. If it didn’t, it would not be as meaningful to us. But we should never mistake the culture of Judaism for the heart of Judaism.

According to Rabbi Larry Hoffman, it only takes one generation for something to become a Jewish tradition. If you did not grow up with Jewish culture, make your own. Your children will feel that much more connected to Judaism.

There is a story about a table of scholars. Each one took a turn boasting about his illustrious ancestors, and quoting their teachings. When Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce’s turn came, he told the table that he was the first eminent person in his family. However, regarding wisdom, he had learned some from his father, a baker. His father had taught him that the freshest bread is best, and that no one likes what is stale. The same, said Rabbi Yechiel, applies to Judaism.

Rabbi Thomas Gardner is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge, LA.

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11 Responses to “Judaism: Fresh is Best”

  1. avatar

    Thank you for writing this piece–people need to hear it. I am frankly quite sick of this obsession with Fiddler on the Roof-style shtetl nostalgia and Eastern European “Yiddishkeit” above all other kinds of Jewish culture. What about the rich and beautiful Sephardic/Iberian Jewish culture? What about the Arab/Muslim-influenced Mizrahi culture? What about the stately, dignified, intellectual Western European Enlightenment tradition from which Classical Reform emerged? All of these are just as robustly and authentically Jewish as “Yiddishkeit”, but are vastly under-appreciated and misunderstood.

    More concerning is the glorification of CULTURAL Jewishness of all stripes over genuine RELIGIOUS commitment.

    I think your suggestion that those who did not grow up with Jewish culture “make their own” is brilliant! I did, in fact, grow up with a rather stereotypical Eastern European “Yiddishkeit”-influenced atmosphere, but have now grown somewhat tired of its annoying, clichéd stagnancy. My soul is deeply infused with Jewish religion and Torah, and that can persist without the culture. I think that many more might find meaning in Judaism if it were not thought of as so much of a “package deal” with the culture and ethnicity.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    @Jordan Friedman

    You say many more might find meaning in Judaism if it were not thought of as so much of a “package deal” with the culture and ethnicity.

    If that is indeed the case, why is it that so many more people identify with the culture and ethnicity than identify with the religious aspects of Judaism, and that the sector of Judaism that most embraced “religion” and most eschewed “ethnicity” has transformed itself from a dominant position in Reform Judaism to an insignificant place on the margins.

    @Rabbi Gardner

    You say we should never mistake the culture of Judaism for the heart of Judaism.

    As your elegant post suggests, the culture is the body, and it cannot exist without its heart — but equally the heart cannot exist absent the body.

    Even if we construe Judaism as ONE religion, we cannot construe it as having one culture, and the “rich and beautiful Sephardic/Iberian culture” to which Jordan refers is no more my culture than is that of the Mexican mariachis and their Day of the Dead. It’s just that the Mexican culture is more familiar to me — and it’s easier to find tacos than falafel. The Jewish cultural phenomenon of egg rolls and chow mein on Christmas day is the case in point that makes the point!

    • avatar

      While your “heart and body” analogy is poetic and eloquent, I don’t think it’s really applicable to Judaism and Jewish culture. An authentic personal religious commitment to Judaism can indeed survive when supported by a culture which is something other than a specifically “Jewish” culture. These days such an arrangement is rare, as you observe, but it is certainly possible. Personally, I do not claim to be devoid of “Yiddishkeit” or “Jewish culture”. I grew up with it, and could never totally get away from it even if I tried. I just prefer to express it in non-standard, non-stereotypical ways. Surprise me, though, or tell me something sad, and the first exclamation on my lips will invariably be “OY!”.

  3. avatar

    I have to be honest, after finding this post through the URJ tweet, “#Judaism is about values, beliefs and community, not about how you dress or what you eat,” I started skeptically reading what I assumed was an attack on halachic dress and kashrut. I am pleasantly surprised. Thank you for your thoughtful post. As a convert in the Reform Movement (though now Conservative), it’s frustrating sometimes when I don’t understand a Yiddish phrase or other typical cultural references, but I wouldn’t want to abandon this Jewish culture for my own entirely made up culture. I have had to learn the cultural aspects of Judaism just as much as the religious and mold that with my background (Lutheranism, ironically enough) into my own Jewish culture. The religion, the dominant old culture, the different cultures, and the new culture all come together in Judaism in a great way.

    • avatar

      Funny, while I also enjoyed the post, I was somewhat disappointed that it was not an “attack on halachic dress and kashrut”.

      You speak of learning the “cultural aspects of Judaism”, but there is no such thing, because followers of Judaism (the religion), have many different cultures. Perhaps you meant to refer to aspects of the culture that is prevalent in your particular Jewish community (most likely Ashkenazic). Judaism is a religion that transcends culture and even ethnicity–Jewishness is a construct that differs depending on culture.

      I am not entirely sure why you find it “ironic” that your background is Lutheranism, but I really hope that it has nothing to do with the association of German culture with American Lutheran communities. Despite the Holocaust, there is no contradiction between German-ness and Jewishness. There has historically been a very distinctive and beautiful German-Jewish culture which, believe it or not, was not limited to the ultra-assimilated German Reform Jews who modern Jews of all stripes love to criticize. There is (or was) a distinctively German Orthodox minhag as well, and for a while in the US, there was even a distinctive Conservative minhag found in communities with lots of German immigrants who had grown up in German “Reform” temples which were more traditional than American Reform temples. Traces of this can still be found on the East Coast, where some Conservative synagogues still have lovely pipe organs.

  4. avatar

    When I converted, I told my rabbi I was converting “Sephardic”, mostly because I adore north African cooking. 🙂 I grew up in the South, where slaves brought African cooking in the 18th century. By default, much of what they brought is also native to Mitzrahi cooking and the cooking of Jews of North Africa: watermelon, black-eyed peas, okra. I grew up with the tradition of black-eyed peas and collard greens for New Year’s, never knowing this was a Rosh Hoshana tradition from the Mahgreb. Flavors like mint and cinnamon and hot pepper sauces were as common on my grandmother’s table as salt; who knew they were also features of Jewish cooking outside of Europe? And don’t even get me started on “fish frys”. So the “Jewish traditions” in my house are likely to look a lot like the “Southern traditions” of central and east Texas. Shalom, y’all.

  5. avatar

    Jordan, I’ve missed you. No, I meant what I said, which was inclusive of the non-Ashkenazic cultures within Judaism, though, yes, in a predominantly Ashkenazi community, I haven’t learned as much about those other cultures. As for the irony of my Lutheran upbringing, it is simply because Rabbi Gardner specifically pointed to Ltheranism as a foreign culture.
    Shabbat Shalom!

  6. avatar

    Rabbi Gardner, shalom!

    You quote the story that … “His father had taught him that the freshest bread is best, and that no one likes what is stale.”

    I find it incomprehensible why reform jews always regard their brand of judaism as fresh and “modern” and that of orthodoxy as “stale”, or “outdated” or primitive, as if reformists have a monopoly on currency and orthodoxy is pigeonholed as applicable to a different time. True you did not say this here, but the implication is tangible from your descriptive of reformism.

    First of all – it’s simply untrue. Never mind the fact that God is eternal and Torah is eternal and therefore all of the future was foreseen, so “modernity” too was long ago accounted for – because many reformists may well have trouble with these premises in the 1st place. But why think that modernity singularly applies to the Reform movement? Sure if we were to compare the clothes we wear then you may well appear more in step with the Gentile world we are embedded in, but this surely cannot be your measure of modernity, can it?

    That we orthodox practice Mitzvot that Jews practiced millennia ago, whereas Reformists do not – is this what disqualifies us from modernity? Do we not have iPhones like you, or not drive Cadillacs?

    Why obfuscate the true delineation between us – when modernity has NOTHING to do with it? (Again this question I direct to you but not because you made this point assertively here, but rather for the sake of my curiosity that your metaphor made me think of.)

    I was taken aback by your stale bread metaphor. For I always saw our metaphor better represented by aged wine!

    Kol tuv!

  7. avatar

    Jordan, Erin and Sarah, hi!

    What we eat, or how we dress, or the songs we compose, etc. do not define Jewishness, provided all these meet the required parameters of the Jewish Code of Law (eg., modesty, kosher and sacred lyrics). What defines Jewishness is both Genetic (born of a Jewish mother) (or properly converted) as well as Halachic (keeping to our Torah-required tradition). Nothing more, nothing less.

    See how Jewishness has survived, how Torah kept us unique and pure, despite the forced separation of Jews across continents and across millennia of history, and despite the persecutions wrought upon us. The external differences that cropped up are understandable and do not divide Jews, God forbid. And if anything, diversity among Jews is as natural a phenomenon as it was that the forefather of the Jews, Jacob (Israel), had no less than 12 sons/tribes.

    The Torah portion that describes the sacrifices the tribal heads prepared for the Mishkan’s inauguration, (in Naso, I think) is repeated word for word 12 times in the Torah. You would think the same large group of words could be said once, and then let it say “similarly for all the others”. But no – Torah repeats the same details 12 different times – just to show that each tribal chief had his own unique qualities of thought when he brought his sacrifice. Every Jew, in fact, is a world onto himself and unique.

    Which is why the “Sephardic/Ashkenazic” distinction is rather superficial if not outright silly, so long as core values remain in focus.

    We are all, after all, one big happy family!

  8. avatar

    The difference between Reform and Orthodox is that Reform has moved forward and Orthodox has not. There is much Jewish history in the past 2000 years (mostly unpleasant) that has changed the face of worldwide Jews. We need to accomodate these *New Jews* that have ‘risen from the ashes of our ancestors’. Reform does, Orthodox does not.

  9. avatar

    I would disagree with you, besauce it seems to me that there are certain groups within Judaism that are just as intolerant of others’ view points as some movements in Islam. Is Orthodox Judaism seeing Reform or Conservative movements as legitimate? No. The only way it accepts the other two is that they are doing the minimum of what Jews did in Egypt and can be easily reintegrated into the Orthodox movement if they become baalei tshuva. But you can say the same thing about Islam – if a Muslim recants his wrong belief and joins the other side, he will also be seen as a legitimate Muslim.On top of that, there are movements in Islam that are different in their outlook from the violent majorities. It’s just that the visible majorities do seem to support the very intolerant versions – like Iranian shiite Islam for example. If you are really wondering where the difference lies between Judaism and Islam is that Islam was initially a very intrinsically political movement, while Judaism wasn’t (if anything, Judaism is intrinsically ethnic, but not intrinsically political).

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