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Of Fish Tacos and Otherness –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 2, 2014 | 5:30 pm

Photo courtesy Shutterstock.com

I grew up in the 1970’s in one of the only Orthodox Jewish families in a small Connecticut town.  I did not know then that kosher keeping Jews could eat in a restaurant.  I never had eaten in one and the thought of doing so did not even cross my mind.   Once a year we would make the three hour drive to Manhattan where there were, I think three or four kosher restaurants.

I was recently in Los Angeles walking along Pico Boulevard near Robertson where almost every restaurant, perhaps 20 or so, is kosher.  Sitting in one of the LA kosher Chinese restaurants as my company critically evaluated the food, I remembered myself as a child eating my once-a-year lunch at Moshe Peking, eating such “exotic” food, and thinking, this must be the best food in the entire world, how lucky am I, how lucky are the Jewish people to have such a gift, a fancy restaurant to eat at in New York City. 

Fast forward to last week, eating fish tacos on Malibu Beach where the only restaurant, and indeed prominently located across from the Malibu Peer, is kosher.  One would not have known if they did not look for the hashgacho, the kosher supervision symbol, that it was kosher, and no doubt the many non-Jewish Asian tourists eating there did not. 

It seems in 40 years the relationship of Jews to restaurants has revolved 180 degrees.   To sit in one of the few kosher restaurants in the 1970’s was to feel that one had been given a perhaps all too indulgent gift, taken a bit of the non-Jew’s ambrosia.  Now the restaurant itself is Jewish and it is the non-Jew who must enter our domain if they wish to have the most trendy food on the trendiest beach. 

Perhaps there is a danger in this, the Jew riding at the crest of the popular wave, the Jew becoming the measure of society instead of the outcast who is allowed periodically to feel a bit like everyman when eating out.  Perhaps suddenly, the other has become everyman, the outsider can now feel not only like the insider but like the measure of all things.  I wonder how this might take its toll on what it means to be a Jew in exile, on what it means to be a Jew at all. 

Perhaps the greatest irony is in that our rabbis created certain food laws to keep the Jew separate from the non-Jew, for instance not eating their cooking or their bread and so making it more difficult to socialize with them, in their world.  Never did they imagine that those boundaries would erode due to the non-Jew eating the cooking of the Jew, that the Jew would become the measure of society at large, or at least of the trendy fish taco joint in the most prime location on Malibu beach. 

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