Looking in

I recently wrote about the feeling of sadness I get when I pass up an opportunity to do something I either can’t do any more because now I am observant, or never even did but always wanted to and now that I can… I can’t. Here I want to, by focusing on one particular, persistent example of that in my life, come at the issue at a slightly different angle but, again, within the theme of understanding the difference between the sacrifices of becoming religious and just growing up.

When as a young person I imagined the successful future me I always had a vision of dining in a “fancy” restaurant, after the hours when regular people and families eat, with clients or colleagues or, I suppose, dukes and earls and magnates.

This fantasy was not entirely realistic for several reasons, most of them having to do with my own decidedly blue-collar bent at the trough. There is a fine euphemism for this – “meat and potatoes man” – but I had already experienced considerable class anxiety when out and about in groups where by virtue of some occasion we were eating in some sort of place where I wasn’t going to like anything on the menu. I don’t think it was a proletarian upbringing that was entirely to blame; others in my household had no problem with many of the things that I not only did not like, but the thought of which I found thoroughly nauseating. Then there was the whole wine thing… but ultimately I did not let this intrude on my fantasy.

Well, of course, by the time we got to what might have been just that fantasy scenario, considering the fortunate circumstances that sometimes attended my professional experiences, we had made the Change.

Notwithstanding a couple of attempts at going along for the ride – the fruit salad thing, the special order thing, etc. – it didn’t take long for all concerned to realize that this really was not going to work. Even when on the friendliest of turf, back home in New York City where there are plenty of perfectly fine “business restaurants,” it was never going to be that fantasy.

Of all the things one gives up based on a reasonable belief that it is what God wants one to do, this one is not too compelling, is it? I know it isn’t.

But I never really shook it. When I leave my office and walk to the bus station or the train station, I pass innumerable restaurants, be it 8, 9 or 10 in the evening, full of nattily-attired people glamorously quaffing their vintage je ne sais quois and elegantly appreciating their braised fillets of savoir faire. No, I don’t gawk at them in the windows as I walk by. But even peripherally I cannot avoid perceiving their suave enjoyment of the good life.

I was reminded of this as I attended a week-long conference far from home for lawyers who work in one of my areas of specialty. Each time, at the end of the day’s professional development activities, I head back to my hotel with a shopping bag full of generic groceries so I can make yummy sandwiches in my perfectly nice hotel room, passing on my way into the hotel all my colleagues attired in their fine-dining togs and waiting in line for cabs to whisk them to the most renounced and exotic temples of gustatory and social Nirvana the city of that year’s conference is known for.

Yes, when this happens, I feel a little sad.

But I do have an internal dialogue that is credible, and it helps, and it is to a large extent a function of adulthood as much as anything I might ever have seen in a mussar [ethics] book.

First, the low-hanging fruit: I always had a certain ambivalence about this fantasy, and in order to get past the many sources of anxiety that accompanied it, I had to deny them. That’s what makes fantasy work. But in reality, the person I saw in the restaurant window was never, and could never, be me. My dad never had cocktails at seven followed by dinner at 11, surrounded by charming, witty and arch colleagues. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, no, but wasn’t there something very right about where my dad had dinner every single night of my childhood: At our kitchen table, and finished by seven?

And yes, I don’t like fancy comestibles, though granted you can really gussy up a piece of beef if you are motivated enough. But why eat in a place where I’m going to be embarrassed not to try the special, which tonight is a poached something which is really just a large tick, or a flying thing that looks entirely too much as if it just landed on the plate, or part of an animal you thought they stopped serving some time after the Industrial Revolution?

Ok, so I am charming and erudite myself, don’t you know? But in reality, when I look in that restaurant window, do I think the swells enjoying each other’s swell company are talking about the things I would want to be charming and erudite about? Yes, sometimes they are; if I am in the company of lawyers, for example, I can count on a certain percentage of war stories, judge stories, money stories. But the conversation does not stay there; and I have heard the chatter. What do they talk about? Skiing. The latest movie. “Relationships.” Their children’s progress in prep school; on the varsity crew; in rehab. Kids today!

There was never a version of me that would have considered such prattle worth even a good steak dinner.

My conclusion is that I am not fantasizing about myself in that restaurant. I am fantasizing about someone else, just as when I read Dick and Jane in first grade I really though I would grow up to be a father like their father. Whom they called, unlike anyone I knew on East 12th Street, “Father.”

I mostly got past that, too.

Part of the issue is class insecurity, I admit it, but far more, to the extent it can be separated, is being a Jew and acting like a Jew, religious or otherwise. Jews can teach themselves to have these conversations, and certainly to eat these foods, but what they are doing is teaching themselves to be something other than, our tradition teaches, they really are.

He wasn’t religious, but my dad never wanted to do that.

So why would I?

42 comments on “Looking in

  1. Ross #40: Less is more.

    I was also “missing something” in my cholent even though I was trying everything I could think of to make it taste better.

    Then I tried subtracting instead of adding, and it somehow worked.

    Here’s my recipe: Start with one medium (or half of a large) whole peeled white Idaho potato per person. Add one small whole peeled white onion per person. Lots of water.

    Wash well one sixth of a bag of pearled barley, one sixth of a bag of large white lima beans, one sixth of a bag of red kidney beans, and add. If there are more people, add more beans proportionately (estimate twelve people to a full bag).

    Add one half teaspoon salt, one teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon onion powder, one half teaspoon garlic powder, one half teaspoon ground black pepper. That’s all. Don’t bother adding stuff like paprika, honey, oregano, red pepper sauce, ketchup or oil. That only detracts from the flavor.

    These spices are NOT per person. If there is a large crowd and a large crock pot, you could double the spices above, but obviously it’s no good to have six spoons of salt for twelve people; either put half a teaspoon for a small pot of cholent or a full teaspoon for a large pot of cholent.

    Per person add beef middle chuck, take out the bone (cheaper than flanken and less fatty), calculate about one third to half a pound per person, depending on whether there are other side dishes and if there are big appetites.

    Add lots of water (make sure all ingredients are well covered), cook on the lowest cooking setting of your crock pot (not Keep Warm, but what used to be called Medium).

    If you want to have kishka or kugel in your cholent, cut into portion sizes and wrap the pieces into little foil packages which you place into the pot after all of the other ingredients.

    That’s all. Now you can call me up and scream at me if your next week cholent comes out lousy.


  2. Before hats, we were discussing food. Anybody have one ingredient to put in cholent to make it great? I know this was mentioned before and recipes were posted, but I can’t find them. I’ve been making the cholent for years. I put the entire Dead Sea in the pot, and it still comes out bland. My wife is kind…she smiles and probably remembers her marriage training too.

    Just one quick ingredient…that’s all I need. It’s a good week to experiment…it’s a small cholent so we don’t have fleishig leftovers.

  3. Mr. Cohen, I’m sorry, but what Reuven is doing in this example is reinforcing his thinking about the treif restaurant, as evidenced by his obsession with avoiding it. We don’t need to be licensed psychologists to see that Reuven is fooling himself.

    The feelings of deprivation are real and need to be dealt with, but you are not going to bludgeon the yetzer hara into oblivion in this crude fashion. Obviously, one must avoid outright temptation to sin, but just “feeling deprived” shows him where he needs to do some avodat hashem and introspection.

  4. Once upon a time there was a sincerely righteous and very intelligent Baal Teshuvah named Reuven.

    When Reuven walked from his Manhattan office to the subway that led to his home, he passed by a very fancy treif restaurant. Walking past it always made him feel like was being deprived.

    One day Reuven discovered that he could avoid that feeling by walking a slightly different route that did not bring him past that restaurant.

    When it was not possible for Reuven to walk along the alternative route, he avoided feelings of deprivation by focusing his eyes downward towards his shoes whenever he passed the treif restaurant. By not looking at the restaurant, he prevented it from entering his thoughts.

    And they all lived happily ever after :-)

  5. Pre-JFK, American men generally wore hats outdoors. It was part of the same uniform as a business suit.

    Time marches on.

  6. I, for some reason, am not bored by well-made gefilte fish, cholent, and potato kugel, supplemented by other tasty dishes.

  7. But old habits die hard. We have had yeshiva guys as guests and served up nice dishes from those cookbooks. The looks on these guys faces said, “Uh, where’s the chicken leg and potato kugul cube like we have in yeshiva every week?” But they still say (as best they can), “Rebbetzin (hee hee), your cooking is delicious.” It’s good that at least they’re practicing for married life.

    Hey, I appreciate the work my wife puts in, but I have memories, too, and sometimes I envy these guys.

  8. There is absolutely no reason why Kosher cooking has to be the boring same old same old. With the plethora of exciting new cookbooks by Suzie Fishbein, Jamie Geller, Joan Nathan and yes, that old stalwart Spice and Spirit by the Lubavitch Women’s Organization, even the ten-thumbed can enjoy nouveau cuisine. Throw out your tired gefilte fish, cholent and potato kugel: let’s have some perfectly Kosher ceviche, cassoulet and kibbeh instead.

  9. Pre-JFK, American men generally wore hats outdoors. It was part of the same uniform as a business suit.

  10. Maybe at least getting to wear a fedora makes up for the “loss.”

    Anyone can wear a fedora. In American society, most will look a bit silly. You are lucky that you have chosen a place to live where you can wear a fedora without getting snickered at behind your back.

  11. Here’s a good quote about ways to look at the “pleasures of this world” issue in the traditional sources, from this article:

    We find two opinions regarding one who prevents himself from enjoying the pleasures of this world: There are those who believe that such a person is a sinner, and there are others who call him a saint. In the words of the Talmud (Taanit 11): “Shmuel says, ‘Whoever denies himself pleasures is called a sinner’ … Rabbi Elazar says, ‘Such a person is called a saint.’ ”

    These approaches are given expression in other sources as well. The Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin ch. 4) informs us: “R’ Chezkiya says in the name of Rav, ‘In the future [world] a person will have to give account for everything his eye saw yet he did not eat.” On the other hand, it is written (Ketubot 14): “As Ribi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) was dying, he held up his ten fingers toward heaven and said, “Master of the Universe, You are well aware that with my ten fingers I labored in Torah and did not derive pleasure even with my little finger.”

  12. Hi Greg,

    Regarding your colorful dichotomy of lovers of haute cuisine vs boring yeshivish types; objectively, my household probably falls closer to the latter.

    However, this more pedestrian fare (and its inevitable outcome based on your calculation; plain vanilla Divrei Torah) appear to be appreciated by our regular Shabbos guests who on the most part are older singles who feel somewhat disconnected.

    Perhaps their repeated acceptance of our frequent invitations to join us for Shabbos is evidence of their appreciation.

    I would like to think that this Hachnasas Orchim (the wife deserves 99% of the credit) offers a modest contribution to avoid prolonging the galus, irrespective of the menu.

    Point being is that there’s definitely a place for expanding the range of one’s palate, L’shem Mitzvah. But what’s the proportion and priority?

  13. Based on recipes in the many cookbooks we have, I’d say there’s great variety in kosher food, even among dishes that are/were traditional in various Ashkenazic communities in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. Or am I not jaded enough?

  14. You get a lot of shchar for forgoing all of those yummy treyf treats–no one ever said that treyf wasn’t tasty. Just think of that. I’m sort of grossed out by treyf food. BTW, if you want some interesting kosher food check out http://kosherhomecooking.com

  15. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot, page 67B, 22nd line on page:

    It is wrong for a Jew to become accustomed to eating luxurious foods.

    Minor Tractates of the Talmud, Avot DeRabbi Natan, Chapter 28, Section 5:

    Rabbi Judah the Prince taught:

    Every person who accepts upon himself the pleasures of this world, in the afterlife they withhold pleasures from him. Every person who does not accept upon himself the pleasures of this world is granted the pleasures of the afterlife.

  16. Thank you Ron for your story (and Judy for your comment)! It definitely resonates with me, who spent many years tasting the delicacies from one restaurant to another. It’s a very difficult thing to give up when it was always done with close friends and gave us a chance to meet and explore the food, ideas and enjoy each others company.

    Now this experience tends to be relegated to Shabbos when I venture to others places and have the opportunity of trying something new. My curiosity still remains though, about these ‘new and exciting’ recipes that I could never copy at home (nor find the kosher certified versions of the ingredients that go in them).

    So as ‘sad’ as this may be, I think the point of becoming frum is that there’s more to life than satisfying your taste buds or creature comforts. Yes, it is a blessing to taste Hashem’s flavours, that He has so generously given us (we could have had all our sustanence in 1 tablet if He so desired). But, unless it helps us to perfect ourselves or the world, what’s the point? Life isn’t about what we get out for our pleasure, but what we put in. So, in the scheme of things, it seems a lot wiser to cook a tasty but not 5star meal for your loved ones, a widow, a stranger, than it is to divulge on an amazing 5 course meal in a ritzy restaurant.

    The question begs: “when was the last time you cooked a yummy 3 course meal, with nice wine and candle light for your loved ones?” It seems that’s what we’re commanded to do every Shabbos. Maybe we can bring some excitement back into making Shabbos everything it’s meant to be?

  17. Oh and in terms of the Prime Grill, yes, love the place; it’s obviously not a regular treat. Closer to my office nowadays is Abigail’s and a little further is Le Marais. The existence of these places and of expense accounts is not for nothing, but of course it is still a different experience than the one I imagined.

    They’re pretty close though.

  18. Yeah, the irony is I really am a meat and potatoes guy. It is the “experience” and the “elegance” — well, actually, the elegance — that I always fantasized about enjoying as a grownup successful professional.

    Maybe at least getting to wear a fedora makes up for the “loss.”

  19. I would agree that the lack of fine dining is not prolonging the Galus.

    However, the Gemora and halacha does discuss having good food for Shabbos and Yom Tov and that’s situational depending on your financial situation and the community where you live.

    Judaism does not believe in asceticism, and we believe in elevating the physical while at the same time being cautious about materialism.

  20. So interesting…I never found myself so totally on a different wavelength. I feel so much like I’ve missed something…either everyone is being sarcastic and I missed the joke, or (more probably) I truly don’t belong here and I’ll just catch the next bus, see you.

  21. Greg,
    Your comment overall is imho brilliant, a real breakthrough for this blog.

    There is nothing “l’kavod” shabbos about beans, potatoes, and a few hunks of the cheapest cuts of meat.

    I agree, we need a little more creativity and refinement to get us out of galus, and food is one way we can enhance our sensitivity to these midos. “…the Pashut Pshat of how to end the Golus, which is increasing our Torah and Chesed.” But only if the Torah is creative and the Chesed is refined.

    “There are many gedolim who came out with volumes of chiddushim not based on boring thinking…which fine resturant in Prague did they dine in?” Compared to what they ate during the week, their Shabbos was positively Prime Grill.

  22. “…they find the standard Gemora learning and its difficult navigation in the pursuit of Pshat does not touch them.”

    I don’t think the “they” in your statement are the ones being addressed. I took the above comment to be referring to the learners who have no problem learning pashut pshat, yet even so, these learners should be more sophisticated with their thinking, or they are lacking some kind of appreciation somewhere, just like those who settle for the same gefilte fish and potato kugel.

    It’s true that one should look closely into Ha-shem’s creations to further his appreciation. See the Alps, learn about how the body works, and listen to all of the Rav Miller tapes on food (if that’s possible).

    Having nice food for Shabbos and perhaps an extra dish on Yom Tov is great. But delving into the fine cuisine? They’ll ask in Heaven, why didn’t you exert yourself to cook some of these fancy things? And this is prolonging the gulus?

    Perhaps the people who live in Eretz Yisroel in simple two room apartments without much furniture should exert themselves to decorate more. Don’t be so boring. But isn’t there something to be said for living simply? If pashut pshot and gefilte fish work and the same old piece of chicken work for me, what’s the problem, and how am I prolonging the gulus?

    There are many gedolim who came out with volumes of chiddushim not based on boring thinking…which fine resturant in Prague did they dine in?

  23. Ross, it’s pretty clear that Greg is not given us the Pashut Pshat of how to end the Golus, which is increasing our Torah and Chesed.

    Please spell out your objections keeping in mind that there are many Jews who partake of Chassidus and Kaballah because they find the standard Gemora learning and its difficult navigation in the pursuit of Pshat does not touch them.

  24. “Boring food is generally indicative of boring thinking. Hence the “pashut pshat” of today’s yeshivot learning”

    “…sticking to ‘traditional’ recipes imposed on us by the centuries of galut we actually prolong this galut, and not behaving as a nation of kings and priests, with tables set to fit.”

    Am I the only one who has issues with these statements? If I am, then I won’t elaborate.

  25. No one ever told me ’til now that more sophisticated eating would yank us out of galut. Perhaps, we have more basic changes to make.

  26. Ron, you may be surprised, but one of the closest relationships we can have with HaShem is through consumption of His bountiful edible products. Some require preparation, but never the less, if you are the cook, then you are cooking His food.

    Cooking in fact had a place close to HaShem’s Being in the Bet HaMikdash, so the better this is accomplished, the more skhar HaShem gets for being appreciated in His creativity.

    Funnily enough, despite the reputation, Jewish culinary tradition, at least Ashkenazi, is extremely limited and boring by comparison to what the non-Jewish chefs can do. One problem I think is that ‘traditional’ Jewish cooking came form the poverty-stricken Jews of Poland and Russia, or Hassidim, and the assimilated Jews just never contributed to the cuisine because it wasn’t kosher.

    On the other hand Sephardi dishes are extremely varied and flavoursome, but not well known in the Diaspora where the Ashkenazim are a majority, and it seems most lack culinary research skills.

    However, these days very little stands in the way of developing a fine taste for good kosher food that is not limited by disposable income.
    Most people, even on low income in the USA, can afford a far better range of foods than the 19th century Jewish family in Krakow or Pskov, Vilna or Vizhnitz.

    Most French or other European recipes can be made using kosher ingredients, and really developing a fine taste for cooking is a way of attaining a higher kedusha because the finest consumption we can perform is consumption of knowledge from the Torah, and the physical taste needs to be related to the ‘taste’ of the spiritual.

    Boring food is generally indicative of boring thinking. Hence the “pashut pshat” of today’s yeshivot learning, as opposed to innovative approaches and creative discovery of new in the Torah.

    Anyone who has ever eaten with a “yeshivish” family will most likely know by heart the foods served even on Shabbat when the food is supposed to be particularly nice.

    Same slice of round commercial tasteless gefiltefish with a carrot on top and a dollop of mayo, same carrot salad, same chicken and matza ball soup, same fried or boiled chicken, and same potato kugel do not reflect appreciation of HaShem’s gifts to us in the way of foods.

    If it is true that we are what we eat, than by sticking to ‘traditional’ recipes imposed on us by the centuries of galut we actually prolong this galut, and not behaving as a nation of kings and priests, with tables set to fit.

    There is no notion of asceticism in Judaism. Get over your “meat and potatoes” mindset and try learning how to cook. You may never sit in a non-kosher restaurant munching of trafe French food, but you could bring the French restaurant home, and perform kiddush HaShem at your table.

  27. sshhh…this is all under the radar but i couldn’t resist looking at an article for mtv’s 30th anniversary and the 1981 memories flooded back and how utterly ridiculous i felt afterwards what a waste of time the pleasure i got lasted one minute and i now beat my chest cause all i have is tunes running in my head…i better run, i better hide…oh no, not again, what have i done?

  28. The older I become, the less important fancy food is to me.

    20 years ago, I mourned the scarcity of kosher food in Manhattan.

    Now I realize that there are much bigger problems facing Jews.

    Now I realize that restaurant food is VERY VERY expensive and less kosher than eating at home. And restaurant employees often do not wash their hands after leaving the bathroom, and if food falls on the floor of the kitchen, they just pick it up and throw it on the grill.

    The taste of the food lasts for a few minutes.

    Weeks later, even days later, I do not remember the tastes of the foods I ate.

    The pleasures associated with eating fancy foods pass as quickly as the shadow of a bird flying above my head. They are not important.

  29. This may tie into the earlier Beyond BT discussion of what to tell our kids about our former lives. There could be an appropriate time to tell them how that glitter wasn’t gold.

  30. I suppose I had it easier than Ron. I became frum AFTER I was wined and dined by the law firms around NYC back in the ’80s when they had loads of money. Whisked around the city in black Lincoln Continentals, taken to Fraunces Tavern, wine and cheese at the Harvard Club, fresh lobster tails at South Street Seaport.

    Actually, it was the fact that I already experienced the “high life” that made it easier for me to be open to an alternative life — I had asked myself “is this all there is?” I tasted in one summer all that many people strive a lifetime for, and realized, as Judith so eloquently put it, that those experiences are just as empty as were the frat parties in college (which look tantalizingly fun from the outside looking in).

    After all, a steak is just a steak. And charming and erudite folk aren’t necessarily the ones sitting in those restaurants.

    But I get the fantasy. Try Prime Grill.

  31. Is this an argument for living in the boonies where tastes are generally simpler? Or has simplicity itself been eroded by modern mobility and communications? Whatever forms of excess or elegance you don’t see on the actual blocks you travel, you may well see in your digital “travels”.

  32. Oce a person has lived a life of escapism, the pull is always there. I have had many experiences of stopping in the middle of learning seder and glancing at the door (like in the Chumash when the malachim glanced at Sodom, and Rashi comments that the word there for glancing is always used for evil ;) I felt like I was missing life by staying inside and learning…just like I used to feel when I was in school. But I knew that when I would leave seder and try to experience what I was missing, I would discover what I REALLY missed out on by interrupting my learning.
    Habits are hard to break. The power of imagination and fantasy are incredible.

  33. To Ron #1: I can relate to what you’ve said because I have also experienced this longing sometimes. Nowadays there are certain restaurants which have been hyped up as dining “experiences” rather than just a meal. I think of how tourists actually plan their vacations around a visit to the world-famous restaurant El Bulli in Spain run by noted chef Ferran Adria. Chicago chef Grant Achatz sells tickets rather than reservations to his restaurant Alines, the idea being that it is like a food performance at a culinary theater.

    However, all this fanciness comes with a sacrifice, as you have noted. There is one magazine which is aimed to a very wealthy and powerful crowd. Among the advertisements for pricey jewelry and flashy sports cars are ads for rehab centers for young adults. The kids from those wealthy and powerful families would give anything to have a father like yours: someone who sat down at the dinner table at home every night with his children.

    It is interesting to note that one of the biggest investment bankers today did a successful merger deal (combining funds worth over 12 trillion dollars) at a nearby coffee shop over breakfast. (Everyone had two questions afterward: What did they eat? How much did they tip?) The big banker could have afforded the fanciest dinner at the foremost gustatory palace, but he chose an ordinary breakfast at a coffee shop to get his deal done. Been there, done that: Mr. XYZ probably has had more than his share of fancy dinners and is no more in awe of them than he is in awe of having a second home.

    It is interesting to note that several years ago there was a big dinner held to celebrate Jerusalem 3000. Several different celebrity chefs were brought in under the watchful eyes of the mashgichim to prepare a strictly Glatt Kosher LeMehadrin dinner for some well-heeled Jewish donors. Here was the sole occasion that Orthodox Jews had to experience the cooking skills of these renowned culinary artists.

    The satire columnist at a weekly magazine was invited to a special wine-and-dine event open to only a few well-to-do professionals, all men. Despite the fancy food and the fine wines, the columnist reported back that it sounded just like a bunch of frat guys making crude jokes and “dissing” each other. Evidently the gourmet cuisine and wine list were not to their taste, as the evening ended with the men ordering beer and nachos in someone’s hotel room. So much for fantasizing about elegant swells exchanging charming, witty banter.

    It is exactly for this that wealthy Jews back in Europe before World War I left their heritage: for the privilege of attending the soirees and the grand parties of the upper crust. They thrilled to the idea of mingling with the nobility and the ruling class, clinking champagne glasses in the salons of the great palaces. Maybe it all goes back to the feast of Ahasuerus in the time of Megillas Esther: we Jews always think we’re missing out on all this big excitement that the non-Jews are having, when really it’s nothing more than another empty evening.

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