Locust -- dried, fried and certified -- was the last item on the menu at The Prime Grill in Beverly Hills last Sunday night, where the Orthodox Union hosted its first Los Angeles "Halachic Adventure," a gastronomic, anthropological and academic safari through the traditions of kosher animals. The 15-course meal at The Prime Grill was the highlight of a three-day conference for lay people and kashrut experts on the latest in the ancient traditions of what observant Jews consider divinely sanctioned food.
Now I have to admit I wasn't going in with a very positive attitude. With everything going on in the world, the Orthodox Union was focusing on whether we could eat giraffe and quail? What about solving problems like Darfur and drug abuse and assimilation? (Yes, the OU deals with all of those, too.)
Are we such gluttons that we need our best minds finding more carnage pious Jews can rip apart with their teeth? I don't have a vegetarian instinct in me (except maybe the bug thing), but as I made my way into the Rodeo Collection in Beverly Hills, I was tempted to swap the yak I was about to be served for the trail mix in a baggie offered to me by Richard Schwartz, president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, who was outside protesting.
But while Schwartz, wearing a fruit tie and veggie kippah, was joined by nine protesters, more than 100 people were down in the glitzy atrium courtyard, and I followed the masses.
Somewhere between the sparrow, wild turkey and dove minestrone soup and the spice encrusted elk (not to mention the sauvignon blanc), I found myself appreciating, what this evening was about. Yes, it was about the food, but more than that, it was about dissecting, celebrating and preserving the minutiae of Jewish law that guides everyday life for observant Jews -- the niche avocation of The Two Aris.
Dr. Ari Greenspan and Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky are longtime buddies who do this on their own time and mostly on their own dime, because they love it, because it's fun and because, like anthropologists trekking to remote corners of the Himalayas to compile glossaries of dying languages, they are wholeheartedly committed to preserving traditions before it's too late.
Greenspan, 44, is a Kentucky-born dentist (and a mohel, a scribe, a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and producer of techelet, blue dye derived from sea snails used for ritual garments) who has lived in Israel for the last 18 years. Zivotofsky, also 44, is a Brooklyn-born ordained rabbi, shochet and professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University. They each have three kids and wives who are apparently amused enough by their exploits to support them.
For the past several years, the longtime friends have traveled through Israel and the world, interviewing shochets in their 80s and going on bizarre quests to places like Turkey to find fish mentioned in the Gemara.
"I think of them as the Jewish Indiana Jones," said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, director of synagogue services at the West Coast Orthodox Union, who helped organize the conference with West Coast director Rabbi Alan Kalinsky.
The OU in New York held its first dinner featuring the Aris in May 2004, after they heard about a similar dinner in Jerusalem. The L.A. conference included a free public seminar on Sunday and professional training for wine and cheese kashrut on Monday and Tuesday. But the OU did not make money off The Prime Grill event -- the $175-a-person charge went straight to The Prime Grill to cover costs.
That might seem like a lot of energy and resources spent on a quirky quest.
"I think of it as a family heirloom that's about to be lost," Korobkin said. "It may only have sentimental value, but to the family, it's the most important thing."
The two Aris got hooked on this when they were students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1981 and a newly observant friend stumped them with a question about whether pheasant is kosher.
The Torah gives physiological criteria for designating as kosher land animals (chews its cud and has split hooves) and fish (fins and scales), but no such criteria are given for birds. Instead, 24 types of birds are listed as not kosher, which leaves lots of room to figure out what is. For millennia, Jews have relied on a chain of tradition -- if my butcher's grandmother's grandfather's grandfather, who was also a butcher, shechted (slaughtered) the bird, it's kosher.
The Aris found out that the leading American rabbi had concluded it isn't kosher, because he could not find any tradition of kosher pheasant. But at the same time, Greenspan and Zivotofsky found a Yemenite rabbi who said his community shechted pheasant.
"All of a sudden, we understood that we were these 18-year-old schnooks and we held the mesorah [the heritage] in our hands," Greenspan said.
It was a few years before they also understood that those traditions would soon be lost, as Jews move away from ancestral homelands and acculturate into industrial societies. So they started interviewing ethnic rabbis in Israel, bringing along a video camera and a live or stuffed bird. They have traveled together to Ethiopia, Italy, Portugal, Turkey, Germany, Morocco, Russia, Gibraltar, Greece, Croatia, Spain -- and many other places to investigate halachic traditions. They have expanded from kosher animals to exploring matzah and different etrogim (citron fruit) -- including watermelon-size etrogim in Yemen.
And they continue to investigate animals with fuzzy designations. A "zemer" is listed in the Torah as kosher, and most scholars translate zemer as giraffe -- an animal that has never been eaten in the kosher world, though it has all the kosher features, as well as several feet worth of neck where it can be properly shechted.While the Aris and the OU are ready to serve up giraffe, we didn't get any at The Prime Grill, because a giraffe costs about $25,000.
So we settled for Murray the Yak. Murray was served very pink, with spicy Asian sauce and snow peas, and was pleasantly firm but mostly flavorless. I preferred the elk, which was tender and intensely earthy.
To my relief, we got appetizer-sized portions of everything, from the crispy pigeon to the blue marlin (a fish still listed on a widely publicized nonkosher fish registry, due to its similarities to the swordfish). There was a lot of food, but it was delicate and civilized.
And another thing to make critics think twice: Through the meal, the presentation included slides of animals such as the unsuspecting elk wallowing in a watering hole, mud dripping from its scruffy beard, antlers held regally above the grassy plain behind it.
Getting intimate with the animal I was about to digest wasn't something I was used to. It's easy to distance yourself from what you're cooking when chicken comes skinned and deboned, cushioned in foam and wrapped in cellophane. It's harder to do that when, as you are eating fleishig (meat) eggs, you see a slide of a sliced-open chicken with unlaid eggs still covered in a web of blood vessels (that's what makes them meat rather than pareve).
But that kosher "Fear Factor" moment passed, and as it turns out, I didn't have to worry about the locusts. We did see some really icky pictures of locust swarms in Israel, both from 1959 and 2004. After the last swarm, the Aris took samples to North African rabbis who had seen and eaten those very same locusts before.
But the OU wasn't ready to certify to locusts, since only very specific kinds of locusts are kosher.
So, after the etrog and pomegranate cake was served, a plate was laid before me with a brilliant slice of magenta sabra fruit and two chocolate locusts. They were solid chocolate -- no exoskeletons or wings inside -- made from molds fashioned in Greenspan's dental office.
As I bit off the head and then the wings from my chocolate locust, I imagined a huge grasshopper stuck in the pink goop they use to make dental impressions.
Now that's an image that finally grossed me out.