My Ukrainian Trefa Banquet

KHARKIV, Ukraine — I’ve never understood the appeal of re-enacting the Trefa Banquet, an infamous moment in American Jewish history in which the serving of non-kosher food sparked the definitive fracture of Jewish religious unity. The re-enactment wasn’t just done as a historical curiosity, but as a deliberate Jewish act, even to the extent of blessing the treyf food.

Now, keeping kosher isn’t something I really do, besides not eating pork and mixing milk and meat (which also has a lot to do with lactose intolerance and avoiding milk altogether). But to deliberately and purposefully regard eating non-kosher food as Jewish? One of the things Judaism says literally not to do, all of a sudden is “Jewish”?!? That isn’t negligence, that’s just a wrong and horrible misuse of Jewish tradition. Right?

It’s funny what a little kielbasa can do to a guy.

I lie. It was a lot.

“Oh, mixed meat products are kosher,” my grand-uncle (from here on out to just be known as my uncle) insisted as I eyed the black Russian bread and various types of kielbasa laid out in front of me. Sick, tired, furiously hungry from surviving Passover in Ukraine and traveling from Kiev to Kharkiv, and grateful that I waited until after Passover to move from my hostel, I did a mental cross reference of my halakha reserves.

Pretty sure meat products that have pork mixed in are still unkosher. My inner rabbi told me so. Also, thank God I don’t have to explain a weeklong avoidance of bread.

But I was a guest in the home of a family member I had just met about half an hour ago. And in the back of my head came a strange voice that reminded me of the fact that, back in the Soviet Union, Jews ate pork and kielbasas. Best of all, we enjoyed it! The common taste of home and culture, family, and friends.

And nowadays, my dad and his parents would fight over whether or not the kosher kielbasa they bought was, indeed, kosher. At the same time, my dad mentioned that he could recognize the taste of pork anywhere; a sly, silly, and self-aware grin giving away the pleasure of that taste. My grandmother would also tell me stories of the days when they were able to buy kielbasas at the store in Minsk, a delicacy that not everyone could always afford.

Nu, so this non-kosher food was also my history. And all of a sudden, as I gave in to the post-Passover hunger and began eating the kielbasa, I remembered the re-enacted Trefa Banquet. Specifically, the article I had read about it mentioned something the event’s organizer said. She felt connected to eating pork because her mother survived the Holocaust hiding as a member of a Polish family, and that is what they ate.

So, of course, non-kosher food is Jewish, in its own way. Tied to Jewish experience and survival, family moments and nostalgia…okay. I get it now. As I ate pork, I felt somehow connected, just a little more, to my family history. Also, I wasn’t about to argue with my uncle about the nuances of Jewish dietary laws.

It’s still a little silly to me, this dichotomy, to turn something explicitly not Jewish into something Jewish. Even to celebrate it. But I guess that’s just a sign of age. With over 2,000 years of Jewish history, doesn’t the lived experience of the Jewish people become just as relevant as the Jewish law that tries to define that experience? This easily turns into a question of what it really means to live as a Jew and the relevance of halakha today, which is a larger conversation for another time.

So am I a pork eater now? No. I grew up with this restriction and it’s one I plan to keep. But now I’ll have my own sly, silly, and self-aware grin, remembering my uncle’s house and kielbasa in Ukraine.

My very own Trefa Banquet. I just really hope that no one tells my rabbi.