Yael Wagner // Santa Clara, CA
There’s a Chinese folk saying, “Chinese can eat everything that has four legs, except tables; everything that flies, except for airplanes; and everything that is found on water, except boats!” From the point of view of the hungry, making a choice to avoid a certain food is viewed as less than smart. Why would you avoid a good source of proteins (ok, fat too)?
The Pig, among few other animals, is a loaded meat for Jews. Dear old Bible orders us, “the swine, though he divideth the hoof, and be cloven footed, yet he chews not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall you not eat, and their carcass shall you not touch; they are unclean to you“ [Leviticus 11:7-8]. This is the pig load Jews have been carrying around ever since.
My parents grew up in religious homes; strictly Orthodox on my mom’s side, kid-friendly Orthodox on my dad’s side. I grew up in a looser Israeli home, yet a kosher one. Spaghetti Bolognese was made of beef/turkey and served without cheese; chopped liver was never fried in butter, and we never had milk with our meat-based lunch. Yes, the observant don’t mix dairy and meats together.
But… in the pantry, well sealed in hiding, we had one small frying pan and a knife. These were used on the rare occasion of some good swine making it to our house. In a home where everything was open for discussion, we didn’t talk about it. Every now and then it provided delicious teasing material about hypocrisy. My own place had no aspirations to be called kosher.
In 1991, I landed in Canada as Director of Academic Affairs for Tel Aviv University. My job took me to Canada’s universities, Israel-centered events and fairs, study abroad program fairs, etc. I met with University staff, overseas programs’ officials, Jewish student organizations, community activists, and many others.
This is when the unexpected happened. While working hard representing Tel Aviv University, Israel’s largest university, and an open minded, knowledge seeking institute, I represented Israel. Slowly, I realized that whether I cared or not, I was expected to act Jewish. Funny. No one actually forced me; no one accused me of not making the Jewish threshold. But after saying once too many times, “it’s OK, I can eat this [Pork/Ham/Bacon] sandwich, no problem” and getting an awkward look, I got to the point of accepting the expectation. I stopped eating pork at all public events. No pig for me.
As much as I hate hypocrisy, I become a public kosher Jew and it was by choice; my choice. The non-Jews I was working with felt more comfortable when I avoided pork and other piggy meats. By standing out (as the kosher one among all those other representatives of international academic programs), I was actually fitting in. Go figure.
Years later, I no longer tease my parents about their hidden pan. I don’t bring bacon or ham into my home, only prosciutto on occasion. Logical? No. Rational? It doesn’t have to be. My inconsistent relations with the pig are part of my identity. Judaism is a part of it too; not the orthodox Jewish practice, but Judaism as a culture, heritage, and tradition, a tribe I was born into, with collective memories and shared past.
Yael Wagner keeps the blog Blogitto Ergo Sum