Erica Brown

It’s Not Just About The Menu

Some decades ago, as the American Jewish community was becoming more deeply entrenched in its denominational ruts, Dennis Prager wrote a provocative article, “Beyond Reform, Conservative and Orthodox: Aspiring to Be a Serious Jew.” In it he wrote that he cared little about denominational affiliation. What he cared about — what he felt was the question of the hour was — are you a serious Jew? Wherever you are on the spectrum of observance or intention, is there depth, meaning and purpose to your Jewish life? There are serious Jews who take Jewish law seriously. There are serious Jews who take Jewish culture seriously or prayer or Jewish history or the Hebrew language. Fill in the blank.

And then there are scores and scores of people today who, on surveys, check “just Jewish.” This may be a reaction to pigeonholing people to movements. To the credit of sociologists and demographers who use this expression, it’s a whole lot better than the sterile and irritating word “affiliation,” which may mean paying membership and little else. But “just Jewish” does not mean much as an identity marker because it doesn’t describe what one thinks, does or feels as a Jew. It may, at base, simply mean that someone is not lying about his or her faith or ethnicity. That’s a pretty low bar; it’s worse than pareve.

I say this as a response to my article on making Jewish organizational dinners kosher. I am gratified by the dozens of you who wrote to me or commented on my article, “Exclusion On The Menu.” A special thanks to Esther Kaplan from Commack, L.I. It’s been a really long time since I got a letter that was hand-typed. I loved it.

More readers than I realized are clearly struggling with feeling excluded when they go to Jewish dinners. Practically speaking, a number of “serious” Orthodox donors shared that they do not give to certain organizations because they feel that their money is welcome but their company is not. But it was not just Orthodox or traditional readers who contacted me. A host of people who work professionally or on a volunteer basis for the Jewish community feel disappointed by the choice their organization or another makes to ignore the kosher option. This has little to do with observance and a lot to do with stirring authentic Jewish feeling at a Jewish event.

This is a critical conversation — not only about kosher food but also about “kosher” pluralism. Aaron Potek, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About The Menu” (Opinion, May 20), does not feel that Jewish organizations should serve only kosher food and is not bothered by the difficult plastic wrap that is always a struggle for me. He wants us all to feel uncomfortable to accommodate pluralism. I get that. I often say that comfortable people don’t grow.

But let’s be clear. I’m not now or ever going for what Potek called “the frummest common denominator,” but trying, instead, to avoid the lowest common denominator, the least substantive glue that connects us as a community. I’m going for content, for solidarity, for unity, for ritual, for history, for connection, for intimacy with our tradition, for a Jewish flavor that is not made with a bland consommé powder masking itself as chicken soup.

We’ve all had more than enough of kosher style, Jewish-lite and just Jewish in our organizational life. A religion that’s over 4,000 years old, that has produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers and has shaped Western civilization deserves better than the lowest common denominator of anything.

Today we barely use Hebrew in Jewish communal life. We too often ignore Jewish texts or teachings, valorizing at times our own woeful ignorance. We sometimes minimize the role or significance of Israel because of political differences. We now say Jewish values as a substitute for Jewish law. While so many Jews are experiencing namaste in yoga and Far Eastern traditions, in the Jewish world at large, God is virtually absent from the conversation. This version of Judaism is so lukewarm it’s passionless. Why would anyone support or invest in something so bland and lifeless? It is, in essence, a betrayal.

I still want you to make your dinner kosher. But don’t do it for me. Like a good Jewish mother, I’ll just watch you eat. Make your dinner and your organization more than just Jewish. Let’s not sit on the sidelines and reduce a magnificent, majestic tradition to an empty pluralism. We are too content-rich, history-saturated and purpose-driven to do that to our people. “To be a serious Jew, Prager writes, “one must attempt to be committed equally to God, law, and peoplehood. Imbalance toward any of these has had terrible consequences.” Indeed. 

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).