The Garden of Eden was a milchig, or dairy paradise, and so it was that Gefiltefest, the second annual Jewish food festival, followed suit. At the festival on Sunday, a dog woke up from a quick schluff in the sunny patch beside his rabbi’s chair to find that he might have summarily been made a vegetarian.
The complexity of our relationship with meat — as Jews, ethical consumers (and pet-owners) — was a running conversation across the day, which was hosted by the London Jewish Community Centre in suburban North London. More than 50 sessions shaped an infectiously earnest investigation couched in poetry, urban beekeeping, Japanese Jewish cooking (highly recommended: recipes here), politics and Judeo-Islamic dialogue — something for “however you find your way into Jewish life,” explained LJCC Marketing Director Mandy King.
In sessions such as “Is Eating Ethically More Important than Keeping Kosher?” and “Transparent Shechitah: The Ethics of Slaughter,” panelists continued the discussion hotly framed at Gefiltefest’s inauguration last November, when Rabbis Natan Levy and Jeremy Gordon spoke out against the lack of available kosher organic produce and the Halacha-versus-ethics dilemma this poses for their communities. They challenged Dr. Oliver Samuel, president of the London Board for Shechita to lift the veil and organize a visit to a kosher slaughterhouse.
“This is not a spectator sport,” Dr. Samuel insisted, and certainly Rabbi Levy testified to the blood and the uncensored brutality of the poultry abattoir he saw. But he also spoke with first-hand fervor of the transparency and scrutiny of the shochet (ritual slaughterer) and proposed a redirection of energies: either to engage certifying bodies such as the Soil Association, which currently disqualify kosher meat from organic status, or devolve and develop other certifications for ethical, kosher meat.
Initiatives such as Hazon’s New Jewish Food Movement and Magen Tzekek’s ‘ethical certification for kosher food’ are already beginning this process, and the panel concluded that next year’s Gefiltefest should host a session focusing on the practicalities: where people can find these organizations, and how they can help further their goals.
Five thousand years of developing dialogue, tradition, and circumstance and still, this is a conversation that in many ways is just beginning. Complimentary sessions seemed to locate the 21st century audience in an awkward position: at the height of both our remove from the natural world and our awareness of environmental responsibility on a global scale.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, in a morning session on the Birkat Hamazon, or grace after meals, spoke about this alienation from the rhythms of the earth, from the seasons, and from the lives that we end when we eat meat. It is in the Birkat, he argued, that we make a space for restoring a connection: taking a product from the earth and by the blessings, locating sustenance in our relationship with God.
(For the record, Rabbi Wittenberg is a practicing vegetarian of twenty years. His dog, as yet, is not.)
Defying anyone to talk this much about food without getting hungry, Spice Caravan, a collective of refugee women from the Horn of Africa returned to run the catering. Last year’s festival was their first Jewish event, but that trepidation had given way to bustling confidence and new equipment, specially purchased to comply with kosher supervision for the day.
“We have the potential to do a lot, to raise a lot, build bridges between communities,” said organizer Michael Leventhal over the phone last week, busy with plans for Gefiltefest and for his own upcoming — sustainable kosher — wedding.
Certainly it’s harder to argue with your mouth full, but Gefiltefest wasn’t a summit of pomp and overture; it was a gentle celebration of community and its diverse flavors as they meet and hit hardest, on the tongue.