"Trayf: pronounced TRAYF, to rhyme with 'safe.' From the Hebrew teref: 'torn to pieces.'"
--Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish
The big news is out in Brooklyn. A new restaurant called Traif opened up in the heart of the Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg by a young Jew named Jason Marcus who says he "likes bacon with everything." The opening was covered in lots of different media, including The New York Times. It's been a hot topic in the blogosphere. When Marcus asked rhetorically if he could be a good Jew who eats pork, the responses poured in. They ranged from "It's a free country, and the restaurant is no different than any other non-kosher eatery" to "He may be a good person but he's definitely not a good Jew." Where do you stand?
Some wondered if it's a good business idea once the novelty wears off, and others felt it was sure to attract Chabadniks who would undoubtedly park a tefillin stand right outside the entrance. It is a potential magnet for outreach to those who have turned away from Judaism. In the words of one Hasidic activist, the name is, "a red blinking light to not enter."
Marcus is not the only one to challenge the prevailing kosher norms in such a bold manner. In 1883, Hebrew Union College in Cleveland hosted the infamous trayf banquet, a celebratory dinner to honor their four newly ordained rabbis while making a point about kashrut by serving shellfish and pork products.
With all the discussion, some basic terms may need more explanation. What does the word "trayf" actually mean? I turned to The Joys of Yiddish for help. In addition to the pronunciation above, Leo Rosten explains the technical meaning and offers an amusing usage:
An animal not slain according to the ritual laws and by an authorized shochet; any food which is not kosher..."Oysters and shrimps may taste delicious, but they are trayf."
Keeping kosher to many, however, is not only about the technicalities of the way meat is slaughtered or the way that food is supervised in production. For many it refers to a way of life and has led to a new category of thoughtfulness, ethical kashrut, where we are not only concerned about the animal slaughter but about the conditions of workers who provide the service. In fact, Rosten covers this aspect in his definition as well: "To form a noun, trayf becomes a trayfeneh (woman) or trayfnyak (man) - someone untrustworthy, malicious, tricky, of whom you should beware." Keeping kosher is not only about what goes in the mouth but what comes out of it and the way we act in the world.
Kashrut observance has historically been a way to ensure that Jews eat with each other and not in the company of non-Jews. It creates both inclusionary and exclusionary conditions that can be the cause of profound companionship and divisiveness at the same time. In a Sh'ma article, "Kashrut and Community," Ruth Abusch-Magder (from Hebrew Union College) makes the case that we need to be more considerate of those who keep kosher:
It behooves those who do not observe kashrut to become educated and aware, without judgment, just as one would about other food restrictions, such as those compelled by allergies. Before resenting someone who requires a kosher eatery, consider whether there would be similar feelings about accommodating a Muslim person who ate only halal.
Abusch-Magder also sensitizes us to the additional costs and obstacles in kosher observance and the cost to community when we are unwilling or unable to have complex conversations about our eating differences:
Unwilling to confront some of the complexities of kashrut, we lose the possibility of growing as a community, of celebrating and struggling together, and of looking beyond our assumptions about each other. When we figure out how to break bread together, we open the possibility of true understanding and companionship.
This new restaurant will probably not "open the possibility of true understanding." It may shut some important doors because of another Yiddish word: l'hachis - doing something with the express intention to hurt, belittle or embitter. To get back to the original Hebrew translation, trayf is to be torn up in pieces. But the buzz that the restaurant has created does contribute to a community-wide conversation that we have to have about the role of eating habits in modern Jewish life. Is food only about taste and hunger or is it also about socialization and intentionality? For Jews, how we eat and who we eat with is more important but also much more challenging.
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