he October 1949 issue of Commentary featured a peculiar entry—a strange reflection, almost but not quite a short story, that was nestled quietly between one essay by Franz Rosenzweig and another by John Dewey. It was called “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street” and was the work of Isaac Rosenfeld—a brilliant young writer then considered the equal of his boyhood friend Saul Bellow in talent and possibility.
The piece drew its inspiration from the initial prohibition given by God to Adam when it came to eating from the fruit of the tree—the starting point for all subsequent biblical and rabbinic dietary restrictions. The setting for Rosenfeld’s story is a Lower East Side delicatessen surrounded by onlookers who stand transfixed as they watch, separated by a glass window, “kosher fry beef” coming off the slicing machine. With delicious literary skill, Rosenfeld describes the overpowering gravitational pull these chunks of kosher would-be bacon have on all those so fortunate, or unfortunate, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, to cast their gaze on the mysterious, alluring, and altogether forbidden delicacy.
Rosenfeld leverages the scene to deconstruct all of the Jewish dietary restrictions and regulations from Eden onward: milk/meat, kosher/treif, the prayers before and after eating and otherwise. He describes how these rules are meant to guard against not just prohibited food, but forbidden sexuality. We desire most that which we cannot have, like entry into non-Jewish society—an aspiration signified by a Jew’s voyeuristic gaze through a glass window. “Kosher Fry Beef, ‘Jewish Bacon,’” Rosenfeld writes, “is food in the form of the forbidden, an optical pun on kosher and treif.” He describes the crowd standing “in a sexual trance.” The trance comes from the forbiddenness, which extends from food to, well…: “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 most interesting thing about the piece, however is not its risqué content—which, by today’s standards is altogether tame, or, if you will, pareve—but rather the reaction to it in the Jewish world. Angry letters poured in to the magazine from every corner. M.L. Isaacs, the dean of Yeshiva University, was appalled by the “indecency” of the article. Samuel Kramer, then president of the New York Board of Rabbis, spoke of his “grief and shame” over the “scandalous piece.” Rosenfeld was roundly condemned in the Hebrew and Yiddish press—for his vulgarity, for his second-rate literary talents, and for being a self-hating Jew.1
The most vicious attack came from the pulpit of Park Avenue Synagogue, the shul at which I serve as senior rabbi. Rabbi Milton Steinberg went into full attack mode. He delivered a scathing sermon against Commentary, criticizing its editorial staff’s decision to publish the piece. Steinberg mimeographed hundreds of copies of his sermon and, with the help of a journalist friend, sent copies out to the national leadership of American Jewry. Still not satisfied, he contacted the entire membership of Commentary’s then-publisher, the American Jewish Committee. “If you approve of pornography and anti-Semitism peddled under the imprint of the AJC, you may not be interested in the rest of this letter,” Steinberg wrote. “Please re-read the Rosenfeld article. It is not only smut, but actually anti-Semitism worthy of the best efforts of Streicher and Goebbels.”
A novelist of note himself as well as a scholar, Steinberg was arguably the dominant voice of American Jewry in his day. And while there were those who countered that freedom of expression was at stake, in the months that followed, the leadership of the AJC would apologize for running the piece and Elliot E. Cohen, this magazine’s editor, would offer a grudging acknowledgment that he had done wrong (“certainly there was one anecdote that was in very bad taste”). A mini furor of midcentury American Jewry, all over the thought of kosher bacon.
That is pretty much where things have stood for just shy of 70 years, until an article in the New York Times brought it all back. Nathaniel Popper’s September 30 piece is about the development of something called “clean meat,” also known as cell-based agriculture. Cells taken from an animal can now be isolated, put into a solution that mimics blood, and encouraged to replicate. Still in its infancy, the technology has excited animal-rights activists and environmentalists delighted at the prospect of lab-grown meat brought to market without the moral and ecological costs associated with meat consumption. The first “lab hamburger” was served in 2013, and a race is underfoot to create the first commercially available product.
It is an advancement that has brought about the possibility of something that neither Rosenfeld nor Steinberg could have imagined possible—a world with actual kosher bacon. As the rabbinic thinking goes, if meat is defined by way of the slaughtered animal it comes from, then cell-based “clean meat” is not meat and therefore it would not be treif.
This is not an open-shut case, and I have no idea how this new non-meat meat will taste, but what is clear is that we are living through the most significant culinary transformation for American Jewry since the 1997 koshering of the Oreo, and arguably the most significant food development for Jewry ever. Not just meat, not just pork, but the possibility of a bacon cheeseburger, with all the toppings! And you can hold the guilt! The glass window separating the Jews of Delancey Street and the kosher bacon of their fantasies has been shattered. Go ahead, Adam and Eve—eat that fruit! The forbidden has become permitted, the illicit made lawful!
This entire conversation, though prompted by a development in food, is about far more than the dietary choices any one individual or family makes. My assumption is that the vast majority of non-Orthodox American Jews consume “the other white meat” or, at the very least, order from what I call “the other side of the menu.” The question I am raising, rather, is philosophical in nature, namely what it means to be a Jew in a time where one can—without hesitation, shame, or guilt—delight in precisely those things that have been proscribed by Jewish law for millennia, those things that have kept us differentiated as a people throughout time.
In retrospect, I think what Steinberg and his contemporaries understood in 1949 was that they were living through a transformational moment for American Jewry. The traumas of the Holocaust had yet to be absorbed, the continued survival of the State of Israel was not a given. World Jewry was bruised, battered, and vulnerable in so many ways. As for American Jewry, we were shifting geographically, economically, and culturally from the insular, working-class, immigrant communities of the first half of the century to the integrated, upwardly mobile, and suburban communities of the second half of the century.
Rosenfeld’s article touched a nerve because he said, by way of the tantalizing image of kosher bacon, all that needed to be said about everything that hung in balance in his time—and Steinberg knew it better than anyone. To give voice to the Jewish desire but inability to attain entry into the non-Jewish world; to suggest that our dietary restrictions are some sort of Freudian psychosexual mechanism to inhibit contact with the non-Jewish world; to put those thoughts in print for Jew and non-Jew to read and by a Jewish author no less; that was what we Jews call a shanda—a shame, a disgrace, a matter to cause scandal. Steinberg reacted as he did because he somehow understood what was at stake if the ideas that generated Rosenfeld’s piece became commonly accepted.
A great deal has changed for American Jewry since 1949. You can track the transformations in all sorts of ways—marital choices, economic advancement, educational achievement, and so on. Boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish society have been blurred in a way unthinkable to our predecessors. Television is but one of a million ways to measure the distance traveled. We have moved from Bridget Loves Bernie—the short-lived 1972 hit sitcom about an interfaith couple canceled due to protests from both the Jewish and Catholic communities—to our age of Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Friends, and New Girl, in which depictions of interfaith relations have become so commonplace that they have ceased to be transgressive and worthy of comment at all.
Once upon a time, being Jewish was an impediment to professional and social advancement, and one’s Jewish roots were spoken of in hushed tones. Jews changed our names and our neighborhoods in hopes of fitting in. Not any longer. Jews have gone from being the “other,” to “just another.” Somewhere along the way, as noted by many sociologists, Jews have become “white people.” In this country, if you fill out an application for college, the fact of your Jewishness never comes up. Being a Jew is no longer the distinguishing external marker it once was. From the First Family right down to our own families, the most interesting thing to say about being a Jew (or marrying a Jew) is just how uninteresting it has become. Ours is a time when the proverbial kosher bacon is no longer a fantasy but a reality.
It is this, our present reality, about which we must be willing to ask all the hard questions. What does it mean to live in a time when there are no barriers, no stop signs, and maybe not even any speed bumps preventing a Jew from participating fully in non-Jewish life?
If one can lead a fully integrated existence as a Jew in America, and if one believes, as I do, that every human being is created equally in the image of God and that Judaism is but one of multiple equally valid paths to seek out an unknowable God, then what precisely is the compelling argument for a young person to choose to lead a Jewish life?
If there are no external markers differentiating us from the world in which we live, then what are the internal markers by which our faith and people will remain compelling and distinct? If all faith traditions are of equal merit, then what exactly is the argument for an interfaith couple to create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, all the more so for a non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism?
Taken as a whole, the challenges of our time are a good thing. It is a blessing to have been born into this country and this age of unprecedented freedoms. But they are freedoms that come with a challenge, the challenge of how to inspire, educate, and support Jews to help them live passion-filled Jewish lives—lives that could, if left to their own devices, just as easily tip the other way.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, men and women have gazed at the fruit of the tree, face-to-face with the possibilities and consequences that come with the decision to reach out and eat of that forbidden delicacy. For the first time in a long time and maybe ever, Jews can reach out and grab that fruit without any of the consequences of yesteryear—and even more interestingly, the question of what is and isn’t forbidden, what is and isn’t kosher is in play.
The flourishing of Jewish life in America will always depend on our people’s ability to balance an appreciation for the blessings and choices of our lives with the restraint required in order to remain a distinct people. For some, that restraint may manifest itself in keeping kosher; for others, keeping Shabbat; for others, Jewish summer camps; and for still others, some combination of those and other particularisms. Jews on Delancey Street in 1949 or on Park Avenue in 2018 or who knows where in 2087 needed, need, and will continue to need some speed bumps, some stop signs, and some measure of internal discipline in order to live a life of difference and thus make a difference as Jews in our blessed society.
1 The controversy is well described in Steven J. Zipperstein’s 2009 book, Rosenfeld’s Lives, published by Yale University Press.