Tuesday and Wednesday, May 17-18, 2011* the 28th-29th days of the Omer * SWPS Conference
The conference, “Jewishness in Contemporary Culture: American and European Perspectives,” took place over Tuesday and Wednesday, May 17 and18 at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS). Several days before I boarded the plane to come to Poland, I completed my conference presentation on the food practices of contemporary Orthodox Jews. It is never easy to squeeze one’s research into a 20 minute talk, but I gave myself lots of time to figure out how to present in polite company a lecture about such topics as the cultural importance of animal hindquarters, the need for bug inspections, and the polluting effect of non-Jews on kosher food. I must have managed to be inoffensive, because afterwards the only members of the audience who exhibited discomfort around me were the Jews.
I was on the conference’s “scientific committee.” What this meant is that I got to read the submitted abstracts ahead of time, agree with all the wise decisions made by Lucyna, and reap the credit earned by her hard work and that of her student assistant Emma.
There were about 30 presentations, and because some sessions were held simultaneously, I heard about 20 talks, and really, they were all good. The plan is to publish them, and if I heard it right, the research falls into two distinct volumes: the first would include the papers with activist, optimistic, we-can-do-diversity themes (these are the American perspectives); while the other would include papers that focus on cultural insularity, denial of mass slaughter, and anything gloomy (the European perspectives). I’m sure that the introductions to these books will express this in more sophisticated academic language.
While the mind is being stretched by theories about the construction of memory, the stomach remembers that it needs food. For weeks – let’s be honest: months – before I departed Los Angeles, I worried that I would starve in Poland. I can’t bear to eat meat and fish, and I heard that the only vegetables available are cabbage, carrots, and beets. Somehow I imagined that I’d exercise exquisite self-control in the presence of the foods that are not good for me, that is, pastries, bread, and milk products. So here’s the truth: I have probably already gained five pounds due to the abundant good food and my lack of self-control. The dairy products are terrific, and I could see why from the train rides when we viewed the rich green farm fields with cows munching happily on abundant grass. There are many varieties of beautiful vegetables in restaurants, market stalls, and grocery stores. Warsaw has a great variety of restaurants: franchised fast food (KFC, McDonalds), every second restaurant describes itself as Italian, and one can even buy a dish that fancies itself Mexican that is called “tortilla.” This is a little bit of stew containing no more than 4 beans tucked into a thick folded wheat pancake that is topped by marinara sauce. The food here is rather bland. They keep the hot spices in locked storage and release them by permit only to South Asian immigrants for use exclusively in their homes and restaurants.
On my days walking through Warsaw, I passed lots of stalls featuring freshly baked rolls, bread loaves, and stuffed pastries. In one “swap meet” type market (somewhere between a regular L.A. farmer’s market and The Farmer’s Market on Fairfax and 3rd), there were meat markets aplenty filled with cuts of cow, fish, ducks, venison, and multiple segments of the poor pig. Pierogies are everywhere, whether stuffed with meat or vegetables (the delightful word for mushroom is grzyb), and in one restaurant we ate “lazy pierogies,” so called because instead of taking the trouble to stuff the dough, all the ingredients are just mushed together and boiled.
Since 1974 I’d been hearing tales about Michael Schudrich (Poland’s chief rabbi) from a mutual friend, so we hung out one evening and we talked about – what else? – shechita (kosher meat slaughtering) in Poland. Among other things, I learned that Poland’s shechita business is in the hands of a non-Jewish Polish businessman. Several days each week, he brings unblemished cleft-hoofed ruminants to a slaughtering house which is staffed half the day by Israeli Haredi shochtim [slaughterers who tremble in awe of God] and the other half of the day by Israeli Hasidic shochtim [slaughterers who are filled with pious joy]. The businessman sells the kosher meat to Jews in Europe and to Israel, and the unacceptable cuts go to European non-Jews or to Muslims in Turkey and yes, even Iran, to be sold as hallal meat. Michael told me with obvious pleasure that anything labeled “kosher” in Poland must have his approval; this is actual Polish state law. He rejected the practice which is becoming more widespread in Pico-Robertson, that of requiring kosher certification for vegetables out of concern for bugs. “People must learn how to wash vegetables,” he said emphatically. He is correct, I said to myself the next day, when a lovely little green aphid crawled delicately over a lettuce leaf in my salad bowl and made its way to my fork.