A recent culinary phenomenon has caught my eye: the steady advance of “kosher bacon,” a meat product that looks and tastes like the real thing.
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What intrigues me is not its popularity, or the ways in which once intact boundaries between kosher cuisine and its nonkosher counterparts have been increasingly erased. What I find most eye-opening is that no geshrei seems to have accompanied this trend: No “woe is us,” no collective hand-wringing, no doomsaying.
It is a measure of how much American Jewry has changed over the years that the last time kosher bacon or beef fry, its preferred, euphemistic designation, was featured prominently in the American Jewish press – way back in 1949 – all hell broke loose. I’m referring to Isaac Rosenfeld’s “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street.” Published in Commentary, in a column reserved for “informal explorations – i.e., kibbitzes – on matters high and low,” it unleashed a floodgate of, well, commentary, rendering its author either a culture hero or a traitor, depending on where you sat. Or what you ate.
Rosenfeld, a gifted, highly regarded writer, was prompted to produce the piece after having espied groups of Jews standing in rapt silence before the window of a Lower East Side delicatessen as “Kosher Beef Fry” was being sliced. What held their attention week after week, he wondered. “What is there in bacon, kosher or treif, so to draw a crowd?”
Instead of answering the question, Rosenfeld went on to offer up his own interpretation of the dietary laws: They were, he argued, a sexual taboo. To his way of thinking, the function of kashrut was to regulate sexual behavior and to police appetite. Characterizing these age-old culinary do’s and don’ts as an exercise in repression rather than a celebration of covenant, the writer put it this way:
“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.”
Bucking more modern interpretations of kashrut as a health-inducing form of eating, Rosenfeld also insisted that living one’s life in terms of kosher and treyf, milchig and fleishig was bad for you. Only the Hasidim, he suggested, should keep kosher. For the rest of us, “where a natural enthusiasm and use for joy are lacking, the ideal of a Kosher Home becomes an insidious ruin of life.”
“Adam and Eve on Delancey Street” became the talk of the town. Everyone had something to say about it. Some thought the article violated the canons of good taste. Others thought it old hat, a repetition of tired psychoanalytic notions that “linked just about everything to sex.” Still others thought Rosenfeld’s musings were disgraceful and called them “foul,” “disgusting,” “filthy and pornographic.”
Rosenfeld’s fans and friends also weighed in. In letters to the powers that be at Commentary, they inveighed against what they took to be the Jewish community’s prudishness, its baleful disregard of freedom of expression as well as its insensitivity to the intellectual pursuits of its younger members who, “after all, [were] much more taken with Freud, and Reich, D.H. Lawrence and Joyce, than with the Shulchan Aruch,” or so the future art critic Harold Rosenberg would have it.
The brouhaha died down soon enough, but not before temporarily rendering Rosenfeld persona non grata at Commentary and prompting a number of readers to cancel their subscriptions to the magazine. The “explosion,” as one of Rosenfeld’s friends put it, hit him hard. “It’s just about blown over by now, and I can come out of hiding,” Rosenfeld wrote in a December letter to his aunts, which appears in Steven Zipperstein’s poignant and sensitive biography, “Rosenfeld’s Lives.” “It was really such a shock for me that there should have been such a crazy reaction.”
These days, it is hard to imagine that “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street” would become a cause célèbre. We’re much less easily shocked than our predecessors. It takes a lot to propel us into high dudgeon. Besides, some of us keep kosher while having our bacon – kosher bacon, that is – too.
Even so, the Rosenfeld affair is one for the books. For several months in 1949, it highlighted just how far the established Jewish community of postwar America was willing to go to accommodate a poke in the eye and a jolt to the system.