This Day in Jewish History / The Shellfish That Ushered in a Movement

The 'Treifa Banquet’ in Cincinnati was considered pivotal in formulating Conservative Judaism.

Nir Kafri

July 11, 1883, is a momentous date in the history of American Judaism: the occasion of the notorious “Treifa Banquet” in Cincinnati, Ohio, which many historians of Judaism hold at least indirectly responsible for the emergence of the Conservative Movement. The banquet, of course, was held to celebrate the ordination of the first graduates of the Hebrew Union College, Reform Judaism’s rabbinical seminary. Adding to the weight of the occasion was the convening of the council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella body of the synagogues of the young Reform movement.

The reason why the meal to this day holds a place in the collective memory of U.S. Jews is the menu, which included littleneck clams, soft-shell crabs, shrimp salad and frogs legs – to note just a few of the delicacies served that day.

Was the choice of dishes a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the dietary standards of traditional Judaism – all of the preceding dishes are strictly non-kosher – or was it more a reflection of ignorance within the organization that presumed to be a trailblazer for the rapidly growing Jewish population of the United States?

The day’s festivities began at Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple, as the commencement ceremony of the HUC’s graduating class of four took place. Following that, an invited guest list of 250 made their way to the Highland House restaurant, on Mt. Adams, overlooking the Ohio River, for a lavish meal – nine courses washed down with five different alcoholic beverages.

Although Rabbi David Philipson, one of the HUC graduates, wrote in his memoir six decades later that “two rabbis rose from their seats and rushed from the room” when the first course of shrimp was placed before them, contemporary reports don’t give the impression that the dinner was a contentious affair. (And the first course was clams; the shrimps were served only after the crab.)

The real hullabaloo came several weeks later, as Jewish publications from the East Coast began to weigh in on the dietary practices of their co-religionists on the Ohio River. Writing in the Jewish Messenger, published in New York, a dinner guest calling herself “Shulamith” expressed her indignation at how “there was no regard paid to our dietary laws.” In a 2005 article on the banquet in the American Jewish Archives Journal, Lance Sussman reveals that “Shulamith” was none other than Henrietta Szold, who had accompanied her father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, to the event.

Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of HUC, writing in The American Israelite, responded to the initial criticism by blaming the chef, Gustave Lindeman, claiming “we do not know why he diversified his menu with multipeds and bivalves.” (On another occasion, however, Wise had been known to refer to oysters as “ocean vegetables.”)

Lance Sussman, himself a Reform rabbi, notes that no less significant than the presence of shellfish on the table, and the mixing of meat and dairy, was the absence that day of pork. If the event’s organizers had wanted to make a point about Reform’s clean break with archaic dietary laws, surely they would have served ham. Suggests Sussman: “It is very possible that the sponsors of the dinner sincerely believed, from the perspective of ‘moderate Reform,’ that this one exception rendered the banquet religiously acceptable to Jewish traditionalists at the repast, particularly in a city that sported the nickname ‘Porkopolis.’”

Nonetheless, two years later, in 1885, when the Reform movement adopted its Pittsburgh Platform of principles, it rejected the laws of kashrut in toto, saying that they and other ancient practices were “altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state.”

A year after the Pittsburgh Platform was drafted, a new rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary, was established in New York. Meant to serve as a moderate bridge between Orthodoxy and Reform, it eventually led to the creation of the Conservative Movement in the U.S.

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