Despite spending a decade of his life researching, writing about, and even processing pork, Jeffrey Yoskowitz has never actually tasted the other white meat.
Speaking at the Upper West Side’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom last Thursday, Yoskowitz—the co-founder of Brooklyn’s Gefilteria and editor of the online journal Pork Memoirs—explained that he’s less fascinated by pork itself than the polarized reactions it inspires inside and outside the Jewish community. For something that’s mentioned only twice in the entire Old Testament, pork has taken on an outsized significance over the millennia as both a taboo and a marker of Jewish identity.
First things first: No one actually knows why Jews are forbidden from eating pork. Which, religious scholars have posited, is basically the point; we obey religious commandments because they’re commandments from God, not because of their logic.
That hasn’t curbed the flood of popular after-the-fact explanations, however, which Yoskowitz proceeded to debunk one by one. Some anthropologists, for example, have argued that Israel’s climate was ill-suited for raising pigs. In reality, an abundance of pig bones on archaeological sites show they were quite common. Scholars cite the absence of pig bones on certain settlements as proof that the occupants were Jewish, but this still doesn’t support the environmental-based thesis. The trichinosis theory—pork gets people sick, so the rabbis were just practicing good hygiene—doesn’t hold any more water; trichinosis wasn’t discovered until 1859, yet it became an explanation for an already ancient rule almost immediately.
Even if we knew why Jews are supposed to stay away from bacon, it wouldn’t explain why the taboo against pork is so much stronger than that against, say, shellfish. (You don’t see Israeli shrimp vendors set on fire, unlike a pork shop in the city of Safed back in 2007.) For that, Yoskowitz argues, one must turn away from Jewish law and towards Jews’ treatment at the hands of others.
Because pork played a central role in Greek and Roman culture, not eating pork immediately marked Jews as different. Pork subsequently became a symbol of assimilation—and when that assimilation was involuntary, domination and humiliation. Romans used to mock Jews by suggesting that they must not eat pork because they worshipped a “pig god”; the origin story of Hanukkah relates an incident where the Greek monarch Antiochus forced a woman and her seven sons to eat pork, then murdered the sons when they refused.
This pattern continued through the Middle Ages when images called Judensau—depicting Jews nursing from a pig—began to appear in Western European churches. During the Spanish Inquisition, forcibly converted Jews were often required to eat pork to prove their embrace of Christianity. Ironically, this gave birth to what is now one of Portugal’s most popular foods: the Alheira sausage, which is designed to look and taste exactly like pork but is in fact made from poultry. (The pots of lard that converted Jews would often leave boiling on their porches have fortunately gone out of fashion.)
It’s no wonder, then, that Jews have a fraught relationship with pork. Nowhere is that relationship more apparent than Israel, which has more laws specifically dedicated to pork than any other topic. In 1962, pork was even made illegal to raise and sell, with exceptions allowed for Christian Arabs and scientific research. This, of course, led to blatant loophole exploitation, like Israelis picking up pigs from Christian Arabs on Yom Kippur when religious watchdogs were stuck at services, and Lahav, the pork-processing kibbutz where Yoskowitz once worked as a volunteer, setting up a “research facility” next to its plant.
The pork ban reached its peak in the 1970s when Tel Aviv established a dedicated police squad for hunting down illegal swine. The crackdown eventually subsided in the 1990s when the fall of the Soviet Union led to a tidal wave of immigrants. Before long, a full sixth of Israel’s population consisted of Russians who hadn’t exactly kept kosher under strict communism, leading to an end on the ban and a rash of gourmet Russian pork shops.
Today, pork’s position in Israeli society—and the Jewish community at large—remains complicated. On the one hand, almost all fine-dining restaurants in the country serve pork; on the other, the taboo is still strong enough that the meat is euphemistically called “white steak,” and the government briefly debated changing the name of “swine flu” to “Mexican flu.”
Back in the United States, the opening of Traif in Williamsburg five years ago sparked a minor uproar. Named for the Yiddish term for non-kosher foods, the restaurant proudly served pork and shellfish just blocks away from one of New York’s largest Hasidic communities. Yoskowitz described attending the opening night and meeting a crowd of early regulars: a group of former Orthodox Jews who’d chosen the restaurant for their weekly gathering, which they’d dubbed “Traif Tuesdays.” In other words, they had managed to make eating “white steak” part of their Jewish identity, which theoretically forbids it—a paradox that, to Yoskowitz, summed up the current state of Jews and pork.
Photo: Dead Homer Society