Shellfish and pork served at San Francisco Jewish banquet

Shellfish and pork served at San Francisco Jewish banquet January 11, 2018

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.

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  • AgentCormac

    I for one am surprised and, quite frankly, dismayed that any orthodox religion worth its salt doesn’t have strict laws regarding any of the following crimes: How many times one is allowed to breathe per day. Which cloud formations a person is allowed to look at. Whether they’re authorised to go outdoors after a certain amount of rain has fallen within the previous 17.35 hours. On which days of the week a believer is allowed to stroke their pet dog/cat/hedgehog/goldfish – and for how long. How many beech hedges they are entitled to have around their property. (And, of course, how high (and therefore close to heaven) those hedges can be without offending god.) Which variety of tomatoes they are allowed to grow in their greenhouses. The brand of socks they can wear. The proximity they can get to an ovulating rhinoceros without it becoming a mortal, punishable-by-death sin. And which types of plankton can be inadvertently consumed without the risk of eternal damnation. It simply beggars belief that this kind of thing has been overlooked for so long.
    Oh, nearly forgot – which kind of batteries are allowed in a modern wristwatch.

  • I am the author of the piece you’re liberally quoting from. I don’t think you’ve made it sufficiently clear where your words and end and mine begin. Also: Your headline is a little ignorant of kashrut; shellfish (and other seafood that lacks fins and scales) are the only seafood that aren’t allowed. That may sound like a small detail, but I’m (partially) in the business of correcting misconceptions about Jewish tradition.

  • Robster

    AgentCormac! Now that’s a business plan, need to insert silly hats in there somewhere.

  • Barry Duke

    Thank you David for pointing out the error in the headline. I’ve corrected it.

  • LadyN

    I’m not particularly interested in how some religious rules come about, but can easily imagine they are the result of something fairly mundane, as in someone (with power in the community) had some bad pork or shrimp and said “I’m never having that again”. I had a bad bout (is there ever a good bout?) of salmonella and have hated the smell of chocolate ever since. Don’t think I’d get too far creating a religion that bans chocolate though.
    And AgentCormac, for the rhinoceros it’s 1 diaulos (2 stadia) unless it’s a Wednesday.

  • Broga

    Barry. Well done. Good to know someone is ensuring the superstition is the correct superstition.

  • barriejohn

    Religion poissons everything (sic).

  • Brandon

    The Shellfish Gene.

  • Brandon

    The Cod Delusion.

  • Brandon

    Why I’m Not a Crustacean.

  • Brandon

    Letters From a Young Aquarium.

  • Brandon

    Science in the Sole

  • Brandon

    Brief Candle in the Shark.

  • Brandon

    Why Orwell Batters

  • Angela_K

    And in other news, Jewish extremists are moving to Canvey Island in Essex, I wonder if they will be grabbing land and building settlements?

  • Jobrag

    If you can get around the rules with the red ribbon thing or having automatic lifts aren’t there any loopholes that would allow the odd bacon sandwich?

  • Brian Jordan

    Muslims eat bacon – made from halal chicken. Would that do? (I’ve no idea what it tastes like and I rather dread to think, after eating chicken sausages.)
    A late friend of mine who was Jewish confided that he loved a bacon butty but rarely indulged in case he let the fact slip one day and upset his family.

  • L.Long

    You can safely violate any rule by a dimwitted gawd that thinks a piece of string around the block is the same as the main house!

  • Jobrag

    Brian Jordan
    A long time ago I was in a freezer ship discharging in Kuwait and Saudi, part of the cargo was “breakfast beef” I never got a chance to sample it.

  • sailor1031

    Interesting piece of history, although the menu’s bad french makes me cringe a little, who puts “boef (sic)” under the heading “Poissons”?; and the wine pairings wouldn’t fly today (sauternes with the consomme?) but those folks sure could eat.

  • StephenJP

    Brian Jordan/Jobrag: in my last job I spent far too much time in Saudi Arabia, and one of the breakfast regulars is “beef bacon” – ie rasher-like objects made from spiced and cured beef. Just about OK when grilled crispy.
    Slightly OT, but another example of religious lunacy: the Today Programme on Radio 4 today had an item on the forthcoming TV documentary about the Crown Jewels. The producer (I think it was) revealed that they had been told not to film the Coronation Crown from overhead, “because only God is above the Crown”!