Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Adam and Eve on Delancey Street

On the Horizon welcomes informal explorations—i.e., kibbitzes—on matters high and low. Here the novelist Isaac Rosenfeld, pondering “Jewish bacon,” is led into some speculations on the subterranean relations between sex and kashruth.  In a book review published previously in this magazine, under the title “Kreplach” (November 1948), Mr. Rosenfeld had something to say about the esoteric significance of another Jewish culinary item.

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It is months now that a crowd, several rows deep, has been gathering at the window of an East Side delicatessen store to watch Kosher Fry Beef come off the slicing machine. The process is simple and uninteresting. A flat chunk of meat is placed in the machine by one girl and received four feet away, at the end of a wire conveyor belt, by another girl, who wraps the slices in cellophane and stuffs them in a little cardboard box. The slicer is perfectly ordinary, the wire conveyor is not worth a second thought, and neither are the girls, both of whom look even more unattractive because of the blue waitress’ uniforms, with beige collar and cuffs, that they wear. The chunks of meat are like gnarled pastramis, but resemble greasy driftwood much more than anything edible. Yet the crowd comes on and stands at the window oblivious of the burden of parcels, of errands and of business; no comments are made, they stand in silence, not to interfere with one another’s contemplation, as they follow the course of the slices, from the blade to the box. To be sure, some of the spectators may never have seen bacon or its kosher analogue. But what is there in bacon, kosher or treif, so to draw a crowd?

I spent I hate to admit how much of my own time in this study of Fry Beef, but learned only that it was a subject peculiarly designed for my own speculation; for I had already published a review in this magazine (“Kreplach,” November 1948), showing that our old Jewish joke about the little boy who fears the sight of kreplach is related to our older preoccupation with the coming of the Messiah. Here was another mystery of food, to my taste; and I nursed it along, and had even written in my mind the first sentence of my essay, as it stands above. But the days went by, the crowd grew, and still the clue was lacking. I was attempting to locate the primal scene within the lifetime of the spectators, and I would long have continued in this mistake, looking for the appropriate infantile memory to account for the fascination of this spectacle, had it not occurred to me that it was not to the childhood of present adults that I must turn, but to the childhood of our people. Now I am prepared to say that this scene had its origin in Paradise.

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When the Lord forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree, He started something which has persisted throughout our history: the attachment of all sorts of forbidden meanings to food, and the use of food in a system of taboos which, though meant to regulate diet, have also had as their function—perhaps the primary one—the regulation of sexual conduct. With their first disobedience, Adam and Eve acquired knowledge of sex (woe to the prospects of clear thought on this subject, that even then this should have been called Knowledge of Good and Evil!). The first food taboo was a sex taboo. Since then we have been subjected, through Biblical and oral law, to an overwhelming number of injunctions against the eating of certain animals and certain parts of others, and have been forbidden to eat blood and enjoined to salt and soak meat, lest any blood remain. The simple act of eating has become for us a complicated ceremonial, from the preparatory phases of ritual slaughter, through milchigs and fleishigs, kosher and treif, to benedictions and postprandial prayers. It is for such reasons, among others, that the Jewish religion enjoys the reputation of being one of the most worldly and immanent, one of the most closely connected with daily life. What Sacred Communion is to Catholics, the everyday mealtime is to Orthodox Jews. He who eats, according to Law, Jewish cooking that has been prepared according to Law, becomes a communicant, in virtue of mere animal hunger, also with a mystical body; and while the Sabbath chalah is a special loaf, no consecrated wafer is necessary to this communion by way of the digestive tract. Daily rye or pumpernickel sufficiently embodies the Host.

There is great charm in a religion that can thus run coalesced along the two lines of sacred and secular without any apparent break; it avoids the usual dualism, the conflict in belief of realm against realm. No doubt, the faithful draw some advantage from this harmony, which perhaps can be observed in a balance of character, a sense of being at home in God’s world. But dietary laws lead us more directly into the demerits of this system, the first of which is that any blemish in such a smooth course is hard to confine to a single spot and tends to spread over the whole. If our close and continuous touch with the world is anywhere spoiled, as it is, I should say, precisely in the respect of food, the trouble will affect, through the same parallel, anything in this world which our religion has linked with food, all along the line. As our food taboos are also sexually repressive, serious damage occurs.

With the Jewish taboo system in operation direct reference to sex is unnecessary. A well regulated Jewish household, a Kosher Home, takes care of the matter unconsciously—and this is the most harmful method of repression. The direct verbot offers at least the advantage of naming the forbidden object; one can be aware of what is going on, and it is always possible to rebel. Where the repression is indirect, a gradual squelching and baffling of the natural impulse takes place; instead of rebellion, there is only perplexity. (An analogous technique, quite apart from any religious atmosphere, can be observed in some “progressive” nurseries. When teacher catches the children masturbating, instead of spanking or scolding them, she rushes up with an armful of dollies.) Kashruth should be permitted only to Hasidim. Where a natural enthusiasm and use for joy are lacking, the ideal of a Kosher Home becomes an insidious ruin of life. The food taboos are all that is needed.

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It has been observed, I believe also in COMMENTARY, that the hysterical mother who stuffs her infant with forced feedings (thereby laying in, all unwittingly, the foundation for ulcers, diabetes, and intestinal cancer with each spoonful she crams down the hatch) is motivated by a desire to give security to her child. Basic security being unavailable to Jews in a hostile world, food becomes a source of the satisfactions society withholds. The choice of food in this substitution is not accidental. Already a magical object, it is naturally selected to work wonders. The esteem in which this agency is held is shown in the number and prominence of eating establishments in Jewish neighborhoods. In the block of our delicatessen store there are also a restaurant and two lunch counters. Parked at the curb, stands a hot dog wagon bearing a beach umbrella, and next in line, a little metal stove on wheels where you buy baked sweet potatoes, and another for roast chestnuts. The ice cream cart, attended by a man in white uniform, is present every day, as are also several broken laundry baskets of salt Stengels (“Why Go Hungry? 3 for 10¢), with shabby old men and women in charge, and a knish wagon, potato and kasha. Every other day or two there appear on the same block a stall, carrying candies and nuts, and a tub, on a wheeled platform, filled with chick peas. All of which is to say nothing of the itinerant peddlers of fruits, vegetables, and ices. There is hardly room for the haberdasheries and men’s and ladies’ shoe stores, two of a kind, to squeeze in side by side; these have been overshadowed, for they sell stuff of lesser value in which a momentary security, or none at all lies. Eat, eat, eat. Not that we are never sated: food is not food and it cannot satisfy a hunger that is not hunger.

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Here at the delicatessen store the crowd stands in a sexual trance. For Kosher Fry Beef, “Jewish Bacon,” is food in the form of the forbidden, an optical pun on kosher and treif. Treifes is of the whole world of forbidden sexuality, the sexuality of the goyim, and there all the delights are imagined to lie, with the shiksas and shkotzim who are unrestrained and not made kosher. (Pork, as you may learn from the street lore of children in Jewish neighborhoods, means the uncircumcised.) And the businessman stops in his rounds to look at kosher bacon, and the housewife stops at his side, and in their minds thoughts of the golden shiksa, wild and unrestrained, and the husky shaigetz do or do not appear; no matter, for in the popular sexual culture, where thoughts of the moment are not the issue, these emerge as eternal forms: shaigetz and shiksa are our yin and yang, the poles of sex. It is sad evidence of the sexual displacement in Jewish living that the sexual forms in the popular Jewish conception should derive not from the Song of Songs or any indigenous source within the presumably rich and close-textured contact with life Judaism maintains, but from a forbidden exogamy, symbolized in food taboos. And, worse, in the end, it is not merely the shaigetz and the shiksa who are taboo; the sexual object per se is treif; for within the culture it is overlaid by the all-nourishing mother, the authoritarian father, both under the incest ban. The sex object as lover, for the majority of us, is always out of bounds. (The counterpart of this complex, at the root of anti-Semitism, occurs in the popular sexual culture of the Gentiles in the form of a delusion about the sexual superiority of the Jews, who, represented as a lecherous people, are supposed to enjoy greater freedom from restraint. Our restraining rituals are held to be magical devices for bringing potency to Jews and injury to non-Jews.)

The complex centering in kashruth is not the only one that works on sex. There is also milchigs and fleishigs; and this, I think, is the arch taboo. My own Orthodox grandparents would tremble, as though some catastrophe had occurred, if milchigs and fleishigs ever came into contact with each other; and with good reason. This is the sexual taboo not only of exogamy, but of the sexuality of the tribe itself. It is the taboo of sex as such. Milchigs, having to do with milk, is feminine; fleishigs, meat, is masculine. Their junction in one meal, or within one vessel, is forbidden, for their union is the sexual act. (The Jewish joke about the man with cancer of the penis bears this out. He is advised by the doctor to soak his penis in hot water. His wife, finding him so engaged, cries out, “Cancer shmancer. Dos iz a milchig teppel!—who cares about cancer? You’re using a milchig pot.”) The measures taken to make kosher again vessels that have come in contact with the opposite food-sex—boiling, burying in the ground—are surely suggestive of the sexual nature of the contamination. They recall the Biblical laws of purification—bathing, lying apart a certain number of hours—for one who has been sexually contaminated by, say, a woman in her period. It is hard to see how anyone could doubt the unconscious sexual quality of the milchigs-fleishigs ban in the minds of those who observe it. Otherwise how account for the zeal with which the law dividing milchigs from fleishigs is up held by the faithful, and for their explosion into virtual terror at the least infringement? No one takes mere food so seriously.

Meanwhile the crowd gathers at the window where “Jewish Bacon” is cut and packaged, and stands entranced, devouring its totem in a moment of license that stretches out for five, ten, fifteen minutes of a hot, busy day. Reluctantly, still possessed, they tear themselves away, and recovering practical consciousness, rush down the street—to stop again at the corner, where they are lured from fleishigs by das ewig Weibliche in the form of an egg cream. There is time for a quickie, to try once more to satisfy this hunger which is not hunger, to drown this anxiety in the bottom of a paper cup.

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