Mixed Salad and Separate Cultures

Still working on a paper, still making short, standalone posts.  Gevalt.

This week, the New York Times Magazine supplement was entirely about food, and, although as a college student with a meal plan I am singularly uninterested in cooking, one of the articles caught my eye.  Food writer Frank Bruni tries to understand the success of the Basil Pizza and Wine Bar in a Hasidic neighborhood of New York City.

Bruni marvels at the Basil’s ability to attract Hasids, West Indian immigrant, and liberal ‘young professionals’ while hewing to the cultural and culinary demands of its Orthodox Jewish patrons.  Clara Perez, Basil’s owner, meets the requirements for kosher certification, but must also make sure the female waitress are wearing long skirts, and that they never join in on a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” since it is forbidden for Orthodox Jewish men to hear a woman singing.

The restaurant undergoes periodic surprise inspections to make sure that it is keeping kashrut.  And Rabbi Levy says he would be forced to revoke the kosher certification (making it forbidden for Orthodox to patronize the restaurant) if he discovered moral failings such as crude comedians or if young men and women at Basil were socializing “other than for matrimonial purposes.”

The article took the position that Basil represented an exciting compromise and a promising model for the somewhat segregated neighborhood, but I finished the article confused about what goal Bruni thought had been achieved. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly admirable about the ability of a cultural group to tolerate non-members who were scrupulously following their laws.

Is there something intrinsically valuable about diverse cultures occupying the same space?

When we talk about the virtues of diversity, we’re usually talking about more than a kind of anthropological fascination in seeing a different culture in real life. Diversity is supposed to bring another perspective to bear on our own prejudices and assumptions and help us root out false and destructive beliefs. This requires enough openness to dialogue and exposure to assemble some kind of marketplace of ideas and is always a threat to the culture to which you already belong.

Only the non-Orthodox are being exposed to alternate rules, but I doubt the emphasis on sex-segregation and impurity is going to have the same crossover appeal as Basil’s Parmesan and White Asparagus Pizza.

Does anyone else see a profound benefit for either community or a reason why this restaurant should be emulated?

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About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11174257204278139704 Charles

    Well there is a mild benefit for the non Hasids being exposed to another culture. I think you rightly point out the absurdity of diversity for diversity's sake ,which is held up as a desirable goal for a lot of people. Over all I would say the only real reason to emulate this place is if you are a restaurateur who wants to succeed in Brooklyn.