Razie Brownstone ventures out of her home somewhere in the US, boards a bus, enters a cafe and eats bacon for the first time to mark her 90th birthday. Being Jewish, this is an act of defiance – and one that turned her into a minor celebrity when she featured in a short documentary, Bacon & God’s Wrath.
Her celebrity status is bound to boosted by a piece by Joshua Rothman just published in The New Yorker.
Rothman reveals that Brownstone had recently become an atheist.
Razie tells us about her strictly religious upbringing, which seems to have brought her little joy. As she describes how using the Internet led her to atheism (‘Some of my most intimate thoughts and questions . . . were so common that the Google could anticipate it!).
Something is at stake in her decision to try bacon: it’s a way of marking a transformation – of asserting that, even late in life, it’s possible to change. It’s also, one senses, a way of claiming independence from the fear of death that can haunt old age.
Religious faith is a consolation; if you trade it in for bacon, have you made a good trade? I’m an atheist, and I think I would give up bacon in exchange for the conviction that the universe has a purpose. By the same token, faith becomes vulnerable to skepticism when it links itself to more or less arbitrary decisions about diet or dress.
Razie, of course, hasn’t traded belief for bacon; she has traded it for the freedom to follow her own conscience, to do and think as she sees fit. These, the film seems to say, are the signs by which we communicate, to others and ourselves, our ideas about the fundamental questions of existence. Look how small they are!
Razie reminds me of my own Jewish grandmother. They share a way of talking, an unpretentious intellectualism, and – judging from the art works and tchotchkes in Razie’s apartment – an aesthetic. My grandmother is ninety-three and, to my knowledge, has never kept kosher. I’ve never asked her about her views on religion. Now that I’ve watched Bacon & God’s Wrath, I will.
In this short and sweet little documentary, Razie discusses her highly orthodox upbringing, telling us through a series of delightful illustrations of her family life and its deep connection with the local synagogue, with the wrath of the Rabbi always looming over any mischief she should get up to.
Throughout her life, the rites and traditions of her childhood have remained an overwhelming presence. Since discovering the Internet two years ago, however, Razie’s life has been turned upside-down … Razie feels more connected with the world around her than she ever did at the synagogue. She begins to find the concept of religion ridiculous as the web opens her eyes to the wider world.
And so Razie decides to try her bacon. She seems relieved at first not to have been stricken down by the arm of the Lord, and yet somewhat underwhelmed by the final outcome. A real feeling of “all that fuss over nothing”.
Razie herself is a charming and open narrator, proud of her heritage, but determined to open herself up to the modern world. Her mix of cynicism and underlying fear is wonderful to watch, and her easy-going reaction to her mission will raise a smile in even the most cynical viewer. Bacon and God’s Wrath is a thought-provoking and life-affirming documentary which should not be missed.