Creating a Culture of Jewish Food on Yom Kippur Day

5770 Yom Kippur Day Sermon

Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein

Creating a Culture of Jewish Food on Yom Kippur Day

There are generally two topics which are taboo to discus in mixed company: religion and politics.  On Yom Kippur we add a third: food.

Today I have planned a sermon that deals almost exclusively with that very delicate subject matter.  Don’t worry, though, I will do so not to tempt your taste buds, but instead, hopefully, to remind us why we are not eating and drinking in the first place.  (I should warn you that there is one potentially dangerous area of the sermon.  At that point I will let you know, so anyone who chooses to can cover his or her ears.)

Let’s start with the other important “f-word” of this day: fasting.  According to the Torah, on Yom Kippur we are commanded to “Anitem et Nafshechem,” “to impoverish our souls.”  “Anitem” comes from the Hebrew word, Ani, for poverty.

While the Torah offers no explanation of what this word, Anitem, means, our rabbis, of blessed memory, have proscribed six specific prohibitions on Yom Kippur: not eating, drinking, wearing perfume, bathing, wearing leather shoes, or sexual relations.    By refraining from these activities we are literally impoverishing ourselves and forcing our attention away from our bodies and onto our souls.

Of course, as all of us in this room are no doubt aware, by depriving ourselves of our basic physical needs, we, in fact, focus more attention on these needs than on any other day of the year.  While there are other fasts in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is the only one where work is also prohibited, and thus we have little to distract ourselves from the pangs in our bellies and in our hearts.

As Americans in the 21st Century we live in a world of utter and almost incomprehensible abundance.  Nothing epitomizes this more than the search for non-leather shoes on Yom Kippur.  While leather used to be so rare that only the wealthy could afford such a luxury, it has now become so commonplace that it is difficult to find a shoe, of any kind, that does not include leather.  I, myself, always choose my Teva sandles, both because they are Israeli, and because when else can I wear them to synagogue and get away with it.

At no time in human history has food been cheaper and more readily available.  While the economic crisis of this past year has brought a slight increase in price in some of our basic necessities, compared to the struggles many of the people in this room went through in the 1920’s and 30’s, we still have it easy.

I am reminded of a story that I shared in one of my newsletter column’s this past year.  It involved a lobbying session I participated in a few years back in Washington DC, where, as part of a contingent of Reconstructionist rabbis, I visited with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorim.  Our group, led by Rabbi Shawn Zevit, had confronted Senator with the statistic that over 36 million Americans, including 8 million children, are hungry.

“I don’t like the word hunger,” Santorim said to us. “Hunger implies starvation and we all know that there are no starving people in America?”

While the Senator’s suggestion is, of course, ludicrous, he does point out the plenty that is seemingly available to almost every single person in this country.  According to statistics I culled in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, “US farmers now produce 3,900 calories per US citizen, per day.  That is twice what we need, and 700 more calories than they grew in 1980.”  She goes on to say, “in fact, all the world’s farms currently produce enough food to make every person on the globe fat” and can continue “to sustain world food needs even for the 8 billion people who are projected to inhabit the planet in 2030.”

To find evidence of this extreme production, one has to look no further than your own refrigerators or drive down the street to the nearest Wegmans or Topps.  I remember a call I received from Ashirah a few days after our arrival in Buffalo.  She had gotten lost in the Wegmans in Alberta.  And, I do not mean lost getting to the Wegmans on Alberta.  She had literally gotten lost in the store itself!!!

“Alex,” she told me, “you would never believe this.  There are twenty-seven aisles just for the checkout.”

Still, with all of this food readily available, how much do we really understand about where it comes from, what’s inside of it, and how it gets to our plates?

In her book, Kingslover, who is better known for her novels like The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Tree, tells the story of her family’s one year journey to eat locally.  She, her husband, Steven, and two children, Camille and Lily, move across the country from Tucson, Arizona, to rural Virginia, to experience life on a farm.  They commit themselves to growing as much of their food as possible, and, other than the one luxury item each family member is permitted, buying as much food from local sources as possible.

This, as the family quickly finds out, is not an easy task.  We are so used to eating foods out-of-season at any time of the year, we hardly have any sense of what in-season means anymore.  A perfect example of this is apples on Rosh Hashanah.  While we know that this is the traditional fruit of the High Holidays, how many of us are aware that the reason for this is this is also the time of the year of the apple harvest?  Yes, apples help us bring in a sweet new year, but they also remind us of what is happening in nature.

Kingslover uses her book to argue that Americans, as well as many people of the world, have lost their food cultures.  By this she means, that the secrets that were once passed down from generation to generation, about how to grow and prepare food, are no longer being passed down.  “Food cultures,” she writes, “concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place, and the complex ways of rendering them tasty.  These are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess.”

We have forgotten our roots, literally- our connection to the roots that grow in the ground.

In fact, so little is taught today about food production that, Kingslover argues, it is almost like we think the food magically appears for us at our neighborhood supermarkets.  She writes, “when we walked as a nation away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial.  Now, it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints.  Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore.”

By fasting on Yom Kippur, I would argue, we are reminding ourselves, that there is no fairy godmother of food.  That hard work does go into growing, preparing, and presenting food.  And, that despite the incredible food production of our nation and world, 800 million people live on the edge of starvation because they simply cannot afford to eat the plenty that our farmer’s provide for us every day.

Anyone who has any relationship with their Bubbe, or is a Bubbe themselves, knows that Jews have a very strong food culture.  And – (this would be the time to cover your ears) – from how our knowledge of how to make the perfect kneidelach, to what temperature to roast a brisket, (okay you can open them) Jewish food culture is very much alive today.  I have the luck of having married into a family that cares deeply about these traditions and preserves them from one holiday to the next.  Ashirah’s maternal grandmother Rose, who is now 97-years-old, still knows how to make a… and, you can close your ears again… fluffy matzah-ball and chicken soup (okay you can open them).  While she suffers from dementia, and has difficulty communicating with the word around her, her hands still have that precious food memory that was passed down to her from her long deceased family who, almost all, perished in the Holocaust.

Even on Yom Kippur, food is the centerpiece that all else revolves.  As they say in the Hillel world, if you are going to hold a program for students, just write “Free Food” in really big letters, and the name of the actual program in the smallest font possible.  Or in the joke about what connects all Jewish holidays: “we were enslaved, God saved us, now we can eat.”

Jewish cookbooks, like all other Jewish books, abound, and are filled with tasty and long standing recipes.  These recipes come not just from our Bubbe’s, but from over four thousand years of Jewish writing.  In the Torah, the laws for kashrut teach about what our ancestors believed about what foods are permissible or forbidden.  And, while the sacrificial texts from Leviticus, like the one we just read today, may make Reconstructionists’ squeamish, they teach us about how the priests both prepared and used food.

One of my favorite texts on Jewish food culture, comes from the pages of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, the first real abstract written about Jewish law.  A physician for the Kalif, he preached the value of moderation and while some of his teachings on food still hold true today, others not so much.  Here are just a few of the gems from his writing, several of which are extremely applicable to our environment here in Buffalo:

  • In the summer, one should eat unseasoned foods without many spices and use vinegar. In the rainy season, one should eat seasoned foods, use many spices, and eat some mustard and chiltit.
  • One should follow these principles in regard to cold climates and hot climates, [choosing the food] appropriate to each and every place.
  • All pickled fruits are harmful and should be eaten only sparingly in summer weather and in hot climates. Figs, grapes and almonds are always beneficial, both fresh and dried. One may eat of them as much as he requires. However, he should not eat them constantly even though they are the most beneficial of fruits.
  • Honey and wine are harmful to the young and wholesome for the old. Certainly, this applies in the rainy season. In summer, one should eat two-thirds of what he eats in the winter.

As evidenced by Rambam, just as Jews have lived all over the world in every possible climate, so too Jewish food comes from all over the world.  Every stop Jews have made, and often have had to make, along the way, has been an invitation to learn about the delicacies of that particular area and make them our own.  Many Jewish food didn’t start out Jewish at all, but became Jewish with the love and the care of our Bubbies in our Jewish home.

That said, when Kingslover talks about a food culture she is not only referring to the preparation of food in the household, but also how food is grown in our gardens.  And, for much of Jewish history, Jews have been forcibly removed from this segment of food culture.  While Judaism began as an agricultural religion, starting in the middle-ages, Jews in Europe and other places were forbidden from owning land.  This made us almost completely dependent on others in fulfilling our basic food needs, and made it much easier for Jews to be expelled the powers that be decided we were no longer needed, or they had more to gain by kicking us out.

Our synagogue president, Adrienne Crandall, writes about this in her October newsletter column: “This summer I had the good fortune to visit England.  I took an opportunity to visit the East End of London where a guide explained the history of Jewish England.  I sat in a synagogue, Bevis Marks, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Europe and listened to how the Jews were first invited to England by King William I (William the Conqueror of Normandy) around 1066 CE so that they could act as money lenders to aid the King in financing his endeavors.  But as our history so often reveals, this created a situation that eventually led to their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I.  They did not return for 400 years.”

At the turn of the 20th Century as Jews explored returning to Israel to create a homeland of our own, they realized that there was a sizable impediment to making this happen.  After all the many centuries of being off the land, how would we possibly able to reclaim our agricultural roots?  Nationhood would only be possible if Jews once again could grow and produce our own food.

To this effect, a group of ten men and two women, all of them teenagers, established the first Kibbutz in 1909 at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee.  They called their community “Kvutzat Degania,” after the cereals which they grew there.  And, while the work was backbreaking and dangerous, Degania grew in size to fifty members by 1914.

In 2001, on my year in Israel through the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I had a chance to spend time at Degania and learn about the trials and tribulations of the first Kibbutzniks.  The land that they dedicated themselves was filled with dust and mosquitoes.  They worked until they could work no longer, and then spent the night arguing about ideology.  Many of this first cohort died of malaria and starvation.

But out of this came some of the leading lights of modern Israel: A.D. Gordon, Joseph Trumbeldor, Moshe Dayan and, even, David Ben Gurion.  With Rabbi Amy Klein, and two other rabbinical students, I toured the famous cemetery down the hill from Degania, right on the edge of Sea of Galilee.  The passion of those first settlers came through on their gravestones, many of which were marked with pictures of mosquitoes.  Most remarkable was how young they were, and how much they sacrificed for all of us here today.

These are the words of the poet Rachel, a woman known just by her first name, who is buried in that famous cemetery:  “I have not sung you, my country, not brought glory to your name with the great deeds of a hero or the spoils a battle yields. But on the shores of the Jordan

my hands have planted a tree, and my feet have made a pathway through your fields. Modest are the gifts I bring you. I know this, mother. Modest, I know, the offerings of your daughter: Only an outburst of song on a day when the light flares up, only a silent tear for your poverty.”

On this Yom Kippur Day, I think about the efforts of those few Israeli pioneers.  They made many mistakes, including purchasing only male trees and not realizing why they would not spread their seeds, but they did something, that, I believe Kingslover would be proud of, they restored our Jewish agricultural soul.  After two thousand years of wandering, finally, we had been returned to a land flowing in milk and honey.

“L’Dor L’Dor, from generation to generation,” is a phrase we recite at the end of the Kedushah.  On a day like today we feel the very real thread that ties us to our ancestors.  It is as if our hands are extended through the ages from grandparent to grandchild.  And, by touching that long line of our Jewish past, we know the struggles our ancestors went through to preserve this faith we call Judaism.

Our fast is a way of showing our commitment to maintaining this line of knowledge.  Here in this room, we have once again stripped away the gadgets of the 21st Century, and stand impoverished just like our ancestors have been for thousands of years.

“Anitem et Nafshechem,” “to impoverish our souls,” by abstaining from eating and drinking, let us be reminded of the bounty that we have in our world.  We should not take our good fortune lightly.  In Judaism, food is spiritual nourishment as well as physical nourishment.  At the beginning of each meal we recite, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, Ha’Motzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz.”  “Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, who has allowed us to bring forth bread from out the earth.”  By this, we are saying that food is only made in partnership with God.

Nothing at Temple Sinai symbolizes this partnership more than our Tzedukah Garden.  Conceived of by one of my predecessors, Barry Schwartz, and then worked on for over ten years by our synagogue members, most notably Marty Bates, zichrono l’vrachah, may his memory be a blessing, our Tzedukah Garden demonstrates our commitment to a dictate that was given to us at the beginning of Genesis, “L’Avodah V’lishmorah,” “to till it and to tend to” the earth.  With all of the produce from the garden, goes to local food banks and other charitable operations.

This past summer I had a chance to work in the garden.  Now, I can assure you that I was not born with a green thumb.  My childhood was spent in the city of Philadelphia with very little land to call my own.  Coming to work with Marty, was extremely intimidating to me.  He stood tall, with his farmer’s physique and strong, weathered hands.  And, he seemed to know everything about the garden.  We rototilled the ground, I word I had not even heard of before this year, and smoothed it out for the planting.  I watched as he lay the strings to define the area of each vegetable that we would be growing.  Then, we planted.  Suddenly, within a few weeks, the barren earth was transformed into a bed of luscious growth.

On one of my days with Marty, I went close to his good ear, and asked him whether he had grown-up gardening.  “No,” he said with the wide smile he always carried with him.  “It’s just something I picked up along the way.”

In that moment, with the sun beating down on us, Marty was one of the first Kibutzniks, slaving at the ground, to ensure that our community and this generation would not lose its culture of food.

On this Yom Kippur day, in the spirit of our beloved Marty, let us remind ourselves about the sacred value of food.  May each bite you take at your break-the-fast, whether here or elsewhere, be for you a step closer to your understanding and appreciation of food.  In this age of overindulgences, let us choose not to overindulge, let us choose, “l’acaltah v’savatah,” “to eat and be satisfied.”

An easy fast, a safe fast, a meaningful fast to us all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *