A banquet that would have had strictly observant Jews reaching for their heart pills took place on Sunday at San Francisco’s Brick & Mortar Music Hall where bacon, pulled pork and other treif dishes – prepared by local Jewish chefs – were served to guests.
According to this report the Trefa Banquet 2.0, blessed by a local rabbi, was a recreation of a non-kosher banquet held in 1883 by leaders of the early American Jewish Reform movement to commemorate the ordination of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
As the story is often told, a group of rabbis stormed out in protest and ran off to start the Conservative movement.
But as Jewish studies professor Rachel Gross of San Francisco State University told the crowd Sunday night, that story is only partly true.
Our story starts on July 11, 1883, one of the most infamous days in American Jewish history. It was a hot and humid evening in Cincinnati. Two hundred and fifteen guests had assembled at the Highland House, a resort and restaurant, overlooking the Ohio River.
They included a who’s who list of the most elite Jewish leaders in the United States, as well as local non-Jewish civic leaders, Christian clergy and professors from the University of Cincinnati.
The banquet was an elaborate, ostentatious affair: The guests were treated to:
An orchestra and elaborate printed menu adorned with bright blue feathers that promised nine courses of French cuisine paired with five alcoholic drinks. The menu’s list of dishes, its language and its visual appearance all suggest how the celebration was part of the excessive banquet culture of its era.
Most of Gross’ material came from the research and work of Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Following his lead, Gross argued that to most of the guests, there was nothing remarkable about the food.
Almost every violation of kashrut (kosher) was in evidence – seafood, non-kosher meat, mixing milk and meat. This tells us, and we know from an enormous amount of other historical evidence – including cookbooks written and used by Jews – that it was normal for many American Jews in the 19th century not to keep kosher. I do not think that this menu was intended to be provocative.
It is not until Rabbi David Philipson’s eyewitness account of the event written 60 years later in a 1941 autobiography that the myth of the founding of the Conservative movement creeps into the story. He wrote:
Terrific excitement ensued when two rabbis rose from their seats and rushed from the room. Shrimp had been placed before them as the opening course of the elaborate menu.
(In fact, the first course included clams, not shrimp.)
Gross said Philipson went on to connect that moment to the founding of the Conservative movement.
Yet the historical evidence points to a different origin of the Conservative movement: the Reform movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, in which, among other things, they renounced kashrut as an archaic practice that was:
Entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state.
The following year, the Conservative movement’s flagship body, the Jewish Theological Seminary, was founded.
One guest at the event was Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Asked what she was eating, she cheerfully replied: “Bacon!” and popped another tiny chocolate cup filled with peanut butter pudding and bacon into her mouth.
Another guest was Rabbi Camille Angel, formerly of Congregation Shaar Zahav, San Francisco’s historically gay synagogue. She proudly identifies as a:
Second-generation lobster-eating rabbi.
Angel said her family delighted in this sort of thing.
My mother loved sending me to school during Passover with a lunch of matzah with ham and cheese.