October 1, 2008
I'm not sure where this Spartan nightmare came from, but if I had to guess, it would be that I've been talking too much lately with a couple of religious Jewish women who want to start a mini-revolution on how Jews eat.
These culinary rebels believe that it's difficult to connect with God and the spiritual demands of the Holy Days while we're injecting 3,000 calories of eggplant salad, hummus, brisket, potatoes, sweet and sour chicken, honey cake and cookies -- and then desperately reaching for the Zantac.
In other words, they believe that kosher and holy eating should reflect not just what we eat, but how -- and how much -- we eat.
This is a painful time for me to consider such notions, with my blessed mother cooking enough food for a Third World country as we prepare for the annual rite of nonstop holiday meals for 20 people. It's fair to assume that my mother, and probably most of the mothers of her generation, wouldn't know what to make of a movement that called for light eating and portion control.
It's not just the old generation. Food, particularly large quantities of delicious food, is a traditional and accepted way of honoring guests and holidays. In my hometown of Montreal, you know how much someone is honoring you by the variety of protein they serve you. If they serve you, for example, brisket, chicken, meatballs and lamb, they probably want you to hire their daughter for a summer internship. If you only get chicken, you probably owe them money.
Here in Pico-Robertson, most of us have, I'm not kidding you, about 125 Thanksgiving-level meals a year. Do the math: Just the two Shabbat meals a week account for 104, and when you throw in all the annual holiday meals -- which include, by the way, not one or two but eight elaborate meals for a holiday like Sukkot (four meals in the first two days and four more in the last two days) -- well, that's a lot of Zantac.
This injection of many millions of guest-honoring calories is one reason why people walk very slowly around here during the holidays.
But one observant Jew who never walks slowly is the trim and perky Deborah Rude (pronounced Ruday), one of the culinary rebels of the neighborhood. Rude, a mother of two, bills herself not as a dietician, but as a "livitician" ("Don't diet, live it!" said the slogan on her business card).
I checked out her office the other day, and, as I pondered the display of flax seed oils, pumpkin seeds and other organic goodies, I couldn't resist asking her if she remembered a specific moment when she snapped -- when she knew that her future would be devoid of starch and protein overload.
It turns out that moment was six years ago, at a Shabbat lunch she was invited to in the Hancock Park area. As she recalls it now, all the food platters on the table had a variation of one color: brown. The overcooked potatoes, the kugel, the cholent, the chicken, even the green beans, she said, were "brownish."
She promised herself that day that in the future, all her Shabbat meals would have lots of color, freshness and variety -- and, most of all, be served in small portions. In fact, when she hosts her Shabbat guests today, she actually serves the portions herself and never leaves any tempting platters on the table.
"The less we eat," she said, "the more energy we'll devote to singing and speaking words of Torah."
That noble sentiment is shared by another health rebel of our neighborhood: Susan Fink, a mother of four and a member of B'nai David-Judea Congregation.
Fink is hip to the dangers of caloric overload under the cover of religious celebration, but her big thing is the spiritual and physical value of exercise. She's a personal trainer whose goal is "to promote a healthy lifestyle for mind, body and spirit."
Many of her clients, she said, are fellow observant Jews who see exercise as a way to enable their continued indulgence of those neverending festive meals.
Fink tries to set them straight -- "two bites of kreplach can be the equivalent of 30 minutes on the treadmill," she warns them -- but it's not easy.
"We the Jews are very attached to our food," she said, in a sharp burst of understatement.
It is this deep attachment to food that my friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller reflected on when I asked him for his thoughts on the subject.
First, he quoted a rabbinic scholar and ethicist of the 19th century who connected the Hebrew root for eating with the Hebrew root for destruction, suggesting a dark side of culinary indulgence.
Then he got more spiritual.
"Not eating is not suffering," he said, "it's elevating ourselves to a state of transcendence. The fast, on Yom Kippur, reminds us how little material we really need; that we can do with less meat, with less bread, with less of everything. It makes us soar away from our animal side toward our holy and spiritual side."
Of course, this is the same guy who once served me about five courses when he had me over for dinner, and who made a special announcement at a recent Hillel retreat that "all of you must try these amazing desserts!"
I guess you can call it the disconnect between our intellectual instinct and our primitive urges; between knowing the value of moderation and succumbing to that extra helping of noodle kugel; between understanding the benefits of high-fiber nutrition and surrendering to our grandmothers' mouthwatering tradition.
If Judaism is about negotiating the tension between opposite impulses, this is surely a very Jewish subject.
Have an easy fast.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.