In the 1977 classic, “Annie Hall,” Jewish Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) sits down for dinner with Annie Hall’s (Diane Keaton) WASP family. Alvy imagines that the Hall family views him as a Hasidic Jew. They have imprinted upon him their one misguided image of a Jew, regardless of what Alfie says, does, or eats.
This scene kept coming to mind when I was reading David M. Freidenreich’s “Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law.” Just as in the “Annie Hall” dinner scene, “Foreigners and Their Food” illustrates the way different religions project characteristics on the “other” in order to preserve their own sense of community or authority.
Despite its complex analysis of ancient religious prohibitions, “Foreigners and Their Food” is really about the simple act of breaking bread. In examining the laws regarding with whom we can and cannot share a challah loaf, Freidenreich seeks to answer the larger question of how we define “Us” and “Them” and, even more significantly, how we maintain this distinction over time.
Freidenreich analyzes food prohibitions regarding who is allowed to prepare and partake of our meals, a body of laws that might seem archaic to 21st Century Jews. The most orthodox and observant still adhere to the nuances of bishul akum, prohibitions on non-Jews’ involvement in cooking, but the vast majority of American Jews do not. Even among modern Jews who identify as kosher, few of us worry about the religion of the chef at Eden Wok who makes the General Tso’s chicken or the Kineret factory worker who molds the challah dough. If you refused to eat your 2nd Avenue Deli corned beef sandwich alongside a non-Jew, you’d be considered rudely insular, if not flat-out racist. Yet, these dietary restrictions were once one of the most discussed and debated issues among Jewish leaders, and they are Freidenreich’s prime focus.
The book has three separate parts to examine Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources on foreign food restrictions. Freidenreich applies a nuanced lens for examining an array of religious scholarship, including the Mishnah, several church councils, and the different schools of legal thought within Sunni and Shia Islam. The emphasis is on the way the intellectual elite within each of these religious communities analyzed food laws to define a community identity.
I found the part on Christian sources ,“Defining Otherness,” to be the most engaging of the sections. Freidenreich shows how the early Christ-believing community, Hellenistic Jews themselves, reinterpreted the same Jewish food prohibitions to argue the illegitimacy of Judaism.
Freidenreich carefully deconstructs how Christian theologians reinterpreted food prohibition as a way “to define Judaism as the very antithesis of Christianity.” Church elders argued that kashrut restrictions were imposed upon Jews not because they were chosen by god, but because god believed they were impure and needed constraints on their fleshy, carnal desires. The fact that Christians needed no such prohibitions was a sign of their inherent purity and holiness.
Religious authority was not the only issue at stake. The implicit recognition of cooking and eating as highly social acts with potential for intermingling is what fuels many of the seemingly inane intricacies of religious food prohibitions.
This fear of inter-religious meals makes sense if you recall any 1980s teen movie or your own high school experience. Remember how the cafeteria was sharply segregated into jocks, theater geeks, and stoners who sat at separate tables? Think about how little the different cliques communicated and, as a result, understood each other. Under the foreign food prohibitions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were like characters in “The Breakfast Club,” hermetically-sealed within their specific communities with almost no accurate knowledge of the “other.”
Conversely, through sharing each other’s foods, there is natural cultural diffusion. How many of your earliest friendships started when you traded your Warheads for Pocky sticks on the blacktop or baked brownies together at your first sleepover? Hundreds and thousands of years ago, the religious intellectual elites already recognized that eating and cooking held this social power, which, Freidenreich shows, is why they feared its potential to challenge their communal structures.
Ultimately, the greatest achievement of “Foreigners and Their Food” is Freidenreich’s ability to illustrate the tremendous significance of often forgotten food restrictions. In a world where our dietary prohibitions — be it kosher, halah, vegan, or organic — are deeply reflective of our social values, Freidenreich proves how critical a role they play in constructing our communities and, in turn, our perceptions of outsiders. As he shows us, who we eat and cook with reveal the way we view ourselves and form our relationships with others.