Food Chat: The Rabbi Talks Turkey

— by Hannah Lee

As we prepare for our national holiday of thanksgiving — whether by dieting beforehand, shopping and cooking, or doing chesed — Rabbi Meir Soloveichik has some interesting insights on the curious halachic history of the Thanksgiving turkey. He is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University (a great nephew of “The Rav,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) and recently nominated as one of the Forward’s 50 notable American Jews.  He spoke on Sunday to an audience of about 40 people at the newly opened Citron and Rose restaurant as part of its yearlong series on the philosophy of Jewish eating.

More after the jump.
Jews have embraced the turkey as food. According to the National Turkey Association, Israel is the world leader in turkey consumption at 26.9 lbs per capita, according to its latest survey conducted in 1999. The United States is second, with 736 million pounds of turkey consumed during Thanksgiving in 2011.

For some Jewish fowl history: The hoopoe was chosen as the national bird of the State of Israel in May 2008 in conjunction with the country’s 60th anniversary (following a national survey of 155,000 citizens). Rabbi Meir cries foul, because the hoopoe (duhifat in Hebrew) is treife (listed amongst the Biblical list of 24 forbidden birds); appears only once in a midrash; and when threatened, does not fight back but excretes a stinky fluid.  

Rabbi Meir votes for the yonah (dove), which is usually used to symbolize peace with an olive branch in its claws. Not so, says the Rabbi, quoting Kohelet that there is a time for war and a time for peace. Another historical anecdote: Harry Truman supposedly said to Winston Churchill that the American symbol is depicted with an eagle’s head tilted towards the olive branch, to symbolize the U.S.’s inclination towards peacemaking, but Churchill retorted that the eagle’s head should be on a swivel, to allow it to adjust for national security interests.

The Israeli national anthem has another stirring anecdote: when 30-year-old Moran Samuel won the gold in individual rowing (skulling) at the Paralympics Games in Italy this summer, the games organizers were not prepared with a tape of the Israeli anthem, so Samuel asked for the microphone and sang the anthem beautifully by herself. This was an athlete who’d already shown her fortitude when she had a rare spinal stroke. When she recovered, she trained to become a pediatric physical therapist and she switched from her sport of basketball to wheelchair basketball and rowing. Rowing, said Rabbi Meir, is the quintessential sport symbol of hope, with the individual pushing against the force of water towards dry land.

Another bird, the raven, also appeared in the Biblical account of Noah, but Jews have not adopted the raven, which is known as the symbol of despair and hopelessness. The American writer and literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe, agreed with this view in his 1845 poem, “The Raven,” with its refrain, “Nevermore.” The yonah, said Rabbi Meir, symbolizes hope for Jews, not peace.

Only the yonah and the tor (turtledove) are allowed on an altar in Biblical times. Both are archetypes of kosher birds, according to the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles): they have an extra toe in back; a crop and gizzard that peels easily; and they are not predators that grab their prey from the air in a cruel fashion. The Rema further teaches that Jews may not eat any unfamiliar birds, unless there is a mesorah (tradition) of it not being a predator. So, how did Jews come to enjoy the turkey, which was a New World bird that became popular in Europe after the Cortes expedition of 1519?

The turkey comes from a land of no Jews (notwithstanding the conceit of Blazing Saddles, joked the Rabbi). So, how did the Rabbis of the 17th and 18th century reconcile their halachic concerns? The bird must come from a land of Jews and its Hebrew name, tarnagol hodu (תרנגול הודו, Indian chicken), gives evidence that it was thought to originate from India (where there were known Jews). The English “turkey” derives from the merchants of the Turkish Empire and in Turkey, the bird is known as hindi.  Notably, hodu also means thanks in modern Hebrew, sharing a syntactic root with the Hebrew word for “Jews,” yehudim.

Why did the poskim (jurists) change their position on turkey?  First, the farmers (even the Ashkenazi ones) knew that the turkey is not a predator, and second, the Sephardim have a mesorah of eating turkey. They may not have known of Benjamin Franklin’s documented preference of the turkey over the bald eagle, because it is not predatory; it is unique to the Americas (while eagles are found elsewhere); and it is a bird of courage that would defend itself.

When the Jews first arrived in what is now the United States, from Brazil in 1654, they found a resting place, said Rabbi Meir, “the land of the turkey has fulfilled the hope of the dove.”

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik gives thanks for living in a country where Jews are welcome to the White House (as he was during the Bush administration) and where he davened maaariv (the evening prayers) there.  He ended his talk with a reminiscence from the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, who noted that the prized possession of his American Jewish friend is his citizenship papers. Only in America have the Jews experienced freedom fully and welcomed as equal citizens in the public square. It is especially poignant that on Thanksgiving we Jews have a national mandate to thank God for this country of religious freedom.

Citron and Rose, located at 368-370 Montgomery Avenue in Merion, is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday. For more information, please visit their website and follow them on Twitter @citronandrose; their phone number is 610-664-4919. To schedule an appointment with Citron and Rose Catering, please email [email protected]    

The Sustenance of Torah and Honey

— by Hannah Lee

If Jews are mandated to avoid superstitions, why do we have so many symbolic foods on the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe?  I was privileged to hear Rabbi Meir Soloveichik answer this question at the Chabad Center of the Main Line on Sunday night.  This was the inaugural event of a year-long Torah-and-food series being coordinated by The Kohelet Foundation to showcase the Torah knowledge, foodie esprit, and sharp wit of Rabbi Soloveichik, the Director of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. The series will also launch the kosher restaurant, Citron and Rose, due to open this fall.  The chef de cuisine, Yehuda Sichel, demonstrated two recipes that incorporate honey.

More after the jump.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious, began Rabbi Soloveichik, and Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs had a curious ritual wherein after multiple steps in his pre-game preparations, he would take his bat and carve out the Hebrew letters for Chai (life) in the batter’s box. It helped him hit over .350 in four straight seasons and score over 3,000 hits in his 18-year baseball career, primarily with the Boston Red Sox (but also the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays). It was even more remarkable because he was not a Jew!  His sister later was quoted as distinguishing between superstitions and her brother’s rituals for focusing the mind.  Each act helped Boggs to tune out the noisy stadium of people and concentrate on his goals.

The symbolic foods of Rosh HaShanah, the simonim, similarly help us understand what actions to take for the new year.  Sephardi Jews serve the head of a lamb while Ashkenazi Jews serve the head of a fish.  These foods represent thoughtful action in which the head should direct the body, just as a dog’s head should wag the tail and not the other way around.  (The rosh in Rosh Hashanah actually  means “head” and not “new,” which linguistically would be chadash.)  The decisions we make on Rosh Hashanah have the power to reverberate through the rest of the year. The simonim can inspire us to actively engage and focus on the aspects of life and the values that are truly important to us.

Honey almond crunch cake gale gandAbout 1,000 years ago, the Jewish sage Rokeach wrote about the use of honey smeared onto a tablet on the first day of school for young boys.  Honey cake, lekach, with Torah verses iced on top was similarly served to engender a love of learning. By the 14th century, lekach was the centerpiece of all Jewish celebrations. Up until the 20th century, lekach and schnapps were customarily served and referred to as shorthand for a Jewish celebration.

Jews are akin to bees in their service to God, according to a midrash (homiletic method of biblical exegesis) on Devarim, Deuteronomy, the final book of the Chumash, the Jewish Bible. Why are bees so central?  First, because bee honey never spoils.  (The Rabbi retold the story from Calvin Trilling about his mother serving leftovers whose origin no one in the family remembers.) Second, they offer one of the highest caloric content of any natural foods.  The Biblical Yonatan, in a battle with the Philistines, came upon a beehive and was revived by a taste of honey. Finally, it’s unique amongst foods that are kosher despite its source from a non-kosher creature.

Typically, products from non-kosher animals are not kosher, such as camel’s milk, because camels do not chew their cud and lack split hooves. Honey, however, is not technically produced as part of the bodily processes, whether digestive or mammary. Pollen is stored in the bee’s stomach but nectar is stored in a separate sac. Other bees in the hive add enzymes that turn the sucrose into glucose and fructose. Worker bees then evaporate most of the moisture by fanning their wings, leaving only about 18-percent water in honey.

Lekach, honey cake, reminds us of all the enjoyable experiences — the mitzvot, Biblical commandments — that are truly sustaining, being gifts from God. It says in Proverbs that Torah is like milk and honey.  Mother’s milk is a basic necessity of life, but honey represents all the delights of this world.  Just as the Biblical Shimshon (Samson) was able to take pleasure in the honeycomb that was created amidst the carcass of the lion that had attacked him, so too may Jews take joy from the belly of the beast of this complicated and maddening world. Me, I’m going to try Chef Sichel’s recommendation to substitute beer for the liquid in the traditional recipe for honey cake.

Citron and Rose, located at 368-370 Montgomery Avenue in Merion, will be open Sunday — Thursday for dinner.  Catering contact information: [email protected]. For other events in this series, contact [email protected].

Rabbis Bless Republican & Democratic National Conventions

Rabbis offered benedictions at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Last night Rabbi David Wolpe offered the closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention, capping a night on the heels of the keynote speech by President Bill Clinton and the roll call vote which officially renominated President Barack Obama.

Rabbi David J. Wolpe is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and a Philadelphia native. He teaches modern Jewish religious thought at UCLA. He was a graduate of the Akiba Hebrew Academy’s class of 1976.

Jewish day school does more than educate. It helps shape character. Its influence reaches far beyond the years we spend at school. I am glad and grateful for my knowledge, pride and passion for Jewish life and that is my legacy from Akiba Hebrew Academy, now Barrack.

Rabbi Wolpe is the author of such books as Why Faith Matters, Why Be Jewish?, Healer of Shattered Hearts and the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. He was named #1 Pulpit Rabbi in the U.S. by Newsweek magazine, and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post. Rabbi Wolpe writes for many publications, including The Jewish Week, Jerusalem Post, Los Angeles Times, and Beliefnet.com. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN and CBS This Morning and has been featured on the History Channel’s Mysteries of the Bible.

Last week, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik offered the benediction at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Rabbi Soloveichik is the associate rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, New York. His colleage, KJ’s spirtual leader, Rabbi Haskal Lookstein, is according to Mondoweiss “a sometime Obama ally. He [Rabbi Lookstein] delivered a prayer at the National Cathedral at the Obama Inaugural Run-up, and took heat from other Orthodox Jews for setting foot in a church. He attended the Rabin funeral with Bill Clinton. But Lookstein lately met with Obama and slammed him afterward.”

Food Series with Chefs of Citron & Rose and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik!

In anticipation of the new restaurant, please join us for an exciting Food Series featuring the engaging, creative and funny wisdom of Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and the culinary talent and skill of the chefs of Citron and Rose, Michael Solomonov and Yehuda Sichel.

First part of the series for Rosh Hashanah follows the jump.

Honey: How to Truly Bee Jewish
Honey has been associated with Jewish celebrations for over one thousand years.  What is it about the miraculous beehive that is so significant? And how can understanding honey’s symbolism guarantee that our new year will be sweeter?

  • When: Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 7:30 pm
  • Where: Chabad of the Main Line, 625 Montgomery Ave, Merion Station, PA 19066. Future installments will take place at the new Citron and Rose!
  • Cost: Suggested $18 donation will support local Jewish Day Schools.
  • RSVP: Space is limited, so you must reserve a spot. Please RSVP to [email protected] by Friday, September 7, 2012
  • Who:
    • Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik is the Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.
    • Michael Solomonov is the executive chef and co-owner of Zahav, and the executive chef at Citron and Rose.
    • Yehuda Sichel is a sous chef at Zahav and chef de cuisine at Citron and Rose.