Ham and angst
February 17, 2010
Although Jon Stewart regularly makes the Forward’s annual list of 50 most influential Jews, he doesn’t pretend to be a Yiddishe role model. On a show taped last Yom Kippur, he joked about eating a “Baconnaise and lobster omelet with a side of Jesus toast” that morning.
The joke made me a little sad. Stewart has no obligation to “represent” the Jews — but he incorporates enough Jewish identity and pride into his act that I thought he might show a little more deference to his roots on the one day of the year that even gentiles know is a pretty big Jewish deal. If he wasn’t going to pull a Sandy Koufax, then at least he could have gone with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — it would have been the mentschy thing to do.
I know, I know — I’m Mr. Pluralism. But it’s stuff like this that turns me into Rabbi Kvetch.
Last week my old colleague Lisa Keys wrote an article for Tablet about a bacon fetish among Jewish foodies. She met Dan Levine, aka “Porky LeSwine,” who cofounded BbqJew.com. The site is dedicated to “news about North Carolina pork barbecue, a topic which enjoys religious-like devotion.”
The article describes the menu at LA’s Gorbals restaurant, which serves “bacon-wrapped matzo balls, pork belly braised in Manischewitz, and Israeli couscous pudding with bacon brittle.”
And she interviews David Rosen, cofounder of a competitive barbecue team called Jubon’s, whose mascot is a yarmulka-wearing pig. Its slogan: “At least the salt is kosher.”
“It’s a little controversial, but so what?” Rosen says. “We’re not out to offend.”
(Of course not. Who would possibly be offended by a yarmulka-wearing pig?)
Tablet is a smart on-line magazine, and Lisa asks some smart questions. Is the trend just empty sacrilege? An inevitable symbol of our post-ethnic, multi-identity era? A marketing ploy on the part of hipsters?
The trend reminds me of comedian Nick Kroll’s joke: “You know who likes fried chicken? Black people. You know who else likes fried chicken? Everybody.” There’s a name for assimilated Jews who enjoy bacon: human beings.
No, it’s not the bacon-eating that bugs me — rather, it’s the need to wrap (sometimes literally) their bacon around Jewish symbols and references. I don’t care that it’s sacrilegious — I mind that it’s trite.
Last year, another on-line magazine, Jewcy, ran a piece about the bacon obsession among many of its hipsterish Jewish readers and contributors. “The truth is, bacon represents a perfect extreme: a completely gratuitous and delicious rebellion from a defining tenet of Judaism,” wrote Jessica Miller. “Bacon is hilarious in its offensiveness. And it just tastes so good.”
I get it: a hilarious and delicious rebellion from a defining tenet of Judaism. But what are they for, exactly, besides proudly and loudly flouting those tenets? When the Reform movement issued its Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which nullified the laws of kashrut among its followers, the goal wasn’t just to rebel or celebrate forbidden, ahem, fruit. It was a principled stand, intrinsic to their understanding of “modern spiritual elevation” — to which they felt the ancient laws were actually a hindrance.
Similarly, militantly secular kibbutzim would hold a feast on Yom Kippur. It was an adolescent rebellion for sure, but there was method in their badness. For all their “sacrilege,” the secular kibbutzim, when all is said and done, succeeded in creating a new kind of Jew and helped establish a Jewish homeland.
A cuisine featuring “bacon-wrapped matzo balls” sounds like rebellion, but seems more like a plea for attention — and attention from the very people the chefs are presumably rebelling against, the way a grade school boy will yank the hair of a girl he likes. The pig with a yarmulka seems based on a need to broadcast “the type of Jews we aren’t,” as opposed to the “type of Jews we are.”
My belief in pluralism is genuine. I don’t buy the idea that there is a single ideal way to behave or contribute Jewishly. I think Jon Stewart belongs on the Forward 50, alongside David Zweibel of Agudath Israel of America and Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism. All have their part to play — even the rebels.
So if you want to wear your “BaconJew” T-shirt, knock yourself out. I don’t think it’s offensive, just banal. I’m less interested in cutesy iconoclasm than in how people relate to tradition. Reform Judaism and Zionism and Hasidism and the havura movement all challenged their era’s notions of the kosher and the treif, the sacred and the profane, and created something new and rich and meaningful. Come to think of it, Jon Stewart often brings a biting outsider’s perspective to his political satire that’s a Jewish tradition in itself.
That’s the kind of rebellion I find interesting. As the punch line to the old joke goes, it sure beats a ham sandwich.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.