Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ham and Cholent, A Parable

Once upon a time in a small town that boasted four stoplights and a two-story brick meeting hall/church, two neighbors lived. Christina had lived in the town most of her life, but Judy had moved in only a few years ago. The town had tried to make Judy feel welcome and had Christian drop off pre-printed pamphlets inviting Judy to town hall meetings and suppers. Christina would stick these in between the screen door and the front door while Judy was at work, but Christina never seemed to catch Judy at home. It was always the wrong time. By the time Christina would see Judy’s car was in the driveway, Christina would be skillet-deep in making dinner, or fingers covered in glue on a scrapbook project, or she was sweaty from an evening jog.

Every second Tuesday of the month would roll around, and Christina would go to the town hall meetings and suppers, and she would hope to see Judy. One such evening, over the customary ham dinner and all the trimmings made to 100-year-old recipes handed down from the town’s founding couple, Christina’s friend urged her to make the extra effort to go invite Judy face-to-face. Christina thought this was a good idea.

The next month rolled around and again, each time Christina thought about knocking on Judy’s door, something would come up. The second Tuesday rolled around too fast and Christina resolved knock on Judy’s door that evening. She watched for Judy’s car to pull into the driveway and she waited for Judy to go in the house before she walked next door. Her hesitant finger jabbed the white button and the doorbell sounded throughout the bungalow. Judy came to the door, still dressed in her khaki business suit, but in her stocking feet.

“I know this is really short notice but there’s a meeting and dinner at the town hall tonight…I’d love it if you came.”

“Oh. I just got off work.”

“I put a flier at the door last week.”

“That was you? I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t know if it was something everyone got or if you wanted me to come along or what. I’m sorry. I just got off of work and it was a rough day.” Judy hesitated for a moment. Her feet ached from being on them all day and her head was starting to ache too.

“Yeah, that was me!” Christina smiled warmly. “So you’re coming, right?”

Judy really didn’t want to go and had wished that instead of assuming she’d go along, that Christina had instead asked, “How are you today?” and followed up with “I can understand tough days at work. If you’re not feeling up to it tonight, you are welcome to come to the next one.” But Christina was extending an overture of friendship and Judy did want to take her up on her offer. Together they walked, despite Judy’s protesting feet and stiff business clothes, a block over to the meeting hall.

Everyone shook Judy’s hand and greeted her, some complementing her on the flower garden she tended in her front yard. The all made small talk, introducing themselves, hobbies, jobs, asking each other about relatives, who’s in the hospital, how are the kids, did that couple ever take that vacation to Arizona yet? Much of the conversation was such that Judy couldn’t join in, but she expected that and was patient. The business meeting lasted all of fifteen minutes as they intermittently discussed the timers on their stoplights. Afterwards, they gathered around a table laden with their traditional ham dinner and all the trimmings.

Judy sighed inwardly. She couldn’t touch the dinner. There was so much conversation going on around her that she hadn’t been able to warn them ahead of time that she was Jewish and kept kosher laws—and that ham was specifically off the menu. They begged her to take a bite, but they never paused in conversation. All Judy could get in was “I’m sorry, I’m just not hungry,” Though her stomach growled loudly. The time could not pass fast enough. Eventually everyone said good night. Christina walked with Judy home and asked her why she didn’t eat. Judy had only time enough to explain that she was Jewish and that she didn’t eat pork. Christina assured Judy that they’d try to do something different next time and she urged Judy to come to another meeting.

The next month passed again. A few days before the meeting, Christina talked to the ladies who cooked and told them that Judy couldn’t eat pork; she asked the ladies to cook up something different. The ladies protested, “But this is how we’ve always done it. Everybody eats this. It’s good food! She’s turning up her nose at our town founders’ recipes. How rude! Besides, why is she so special that we have to make something different just for her?” But Christina calmed them down, and told them that she would cook. She had just the right thing. Judy couldn’t eat pork, so Christina had clipped this marvelous beef stroganoff recipe she found in a magazine.

Christina had told Judy just to meet her over at the hall, for she would be helping with the cooking. The meeting again took about fifteen minutes and covered the town’s fundraising raffle. They gathered around the table, and Judy planned on declining dinner again, but hoped that her presence would help support the goodwill they wanted to share. They passed the dishes—the ham, the buttery potatoes, and Christina’s stroganoff. Christina noticed that Judy didn’t take a bite of the stroganoff, either. The cooking ladies stared at Judy, special little snowflake Judy, through their slitted eyes.

On the way back home, after an awkward silence, Christina said, “You didn’t eat anything.”

“Yes. I abide by kosher laws. I’m not as strict as some people about it, but there are some things that I can eat, and some things that I can’t eat together at the same meal.”

“I thought you just didn’t eat pork.”

“No, there’s more to it than that.”

“You didn’t eat the stroganoff.”

“It has milk and meat together in it. I can’t eat dairy and meat together at the same meal.”

Christina said: “It sounds complicated. You should have explained more about your food issues.”

Judy said, “You were providing hospitality. You could have spent five minutes and looked up ‘Jewish’ and ‘food’ online, or you could have posted a question on Facebook.”
Each one of them fell silent for a moment as they realized that they both could have made a better effort.

Christina said, “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight.”

Judy said, “Me either. I know you put a lot of effort into that meal; thank you. How about I show up next time and I bring a dish I can eat and share, like potluck.”

Christina brightened, “Yes, that’s a great idea!”

So the next meeting rolled around and Judy arrived with her snap-tight crockpot in hand filled with hot, fragrant cholent, and balanced on top of the lid was a fresh loaf of bread. So it wasn’t Shabbat, but Judy couldn’t resist the siren song of challah dipped in the spiced stew. She was excited to share with her neighbors at the meeting. But tragedy struck. At the dinner, when Christina went to serve herself some cholent, she used the same serving utensil that she had used on ham. Now, even Judy couldn’t eat her own meal, and no one else bothered. Christina loved it though, and asked for the recipe. Judy uncomfortably realized that mixing and matching dinners was not going to work.

On the way home, Judy asked Christina what the problem was with the other neighbors, for they had avoided her and her cooking.

“Oh. Them.” Christina said. “They, uh. Well. They were annoyed that you didn’t eat anything that they cooked. They thought that you were being snobby.”


“Hey, relax. It’s just their problem. Don’t take it personally. The ham dinner has been traditional for a long time here—the recipes were even handed down from the town’s founders. Just give them time.”

Judy didn’t want to give them time. They hadn’t bothered to understand her concerns and they didn’t respect her religion. But there was another problem too, she was “new” and they were just doing things the same as they had done from the beginning. Being “new” she realized that they expected her to conform to their ways, and not to bring her own ways, regardless of her own religious convictions—and why shouldn’t they? This was their meeting; she was the stranger. She didn’t want to be so much trouble, so she didn’t go to the next meeting. The problem was that when next meeting rolled around, they thought she was snubbing them completely. They thought they had been open, welcoming, and inclusive by extending their invitation to Judy; it was Judy they saw as slapping away a kindhearted hand.

Then followed four more awkward weeks of conversations that would end abruptly around her, accompanied with curious stares and occasional glares. Judy figured she should nip this nonsense, and her best way to do so was to help educate Christina, since sometimes they would listen to her. Judy invited Christina to an evening dinner at the synagogue.

Christina, delighted, took her up on the invitation, “Great! Besides, how different can it be from regular church?”

Judy sighed. “Regular church? What do you mean?” Although Judy kind of knew what Christina meant and didn’t hold much hope for the rest of the conversation.

“Christianity came from Judaism, so how different can they be? I’m sure there’s lots in common.”

Judy rubbed her temples. “Uh, there are plenty of differences too. And sometimes what looks like the same on the surface really isn’t when you consider the deeper meaning, practices, and symbolism involved.”
Christina just nodded her head; but she determined otherwise.

It’s easier to accept things that seem the same rather than accept the differences. It’s easier to forge a “common ground” by molding differences into one common template instead of forging that common ground on a commonly held respect for difference.

At the synagogue dinner, Christina made an effort to create a common ground from things she thought they had in common. She pointed out that the star of David comprises of two triangles, and the triangle was a symbol of the Trinity, so it was amazing that Christianity was a part of Judaism. Judy furrowed her brow and tried to explain that the Magen David, the Shield of David, didn’t have anything to do with the Christian Trinity. Judy insisted that it did, or that it at least could, and wasn’t it great that they could come together on common ground? Judy furrowed her brow again. Christina thought to herself, “I’m really trying here. Why won’t she meet me in the middle?”

Christina helped herself to the roasted chicken at the dinner and silently mulled on the idea that it would be so much better if it were smothered in thick creamy gravy. She thought about asking for the chicken recipe, too, for she wanted to try it at home and douse it in her gravy. It occurred, though for her to ask Judy: “Why do you avoid mixing milk and meat?”
“We have rules against it.”

“But why? It seems a bit backward. I mean, if it was because of milk and meat food storage problems, we don’t have those problems nowadays.” What Christina wanted to say was that “It seems superstitious and unenlightened,” but she knew that wasn’t the best way to frame the matter. After all, she wanted to help her new friend move into the twenty-first century.

Judy however, in the word “backward” could hear the unspoken words “superstitious and unenlightened.” There was no twenty-second sound bite she could possibly put together to describe the nuances and symbolism of these holy, deep-seated practices. She could only simply say, “It is our way and I ask you that even if you do not understand it, please try to respect it. I can answer some questions, but I don’t know if you’re up for a weekend Kosher 101 workshop—and even if you did, you still would not know everything there is to know about our religious food practices. If you really want to know, it would require years of patient and willing study to understand the matter.”

Christina shrugged, and thought that maybe the cooking ladies were right: Judy was being elitist by not sharing information instantly and breaking it down into little absorbable pieces. Maybe Judy just didn’t realize how superstitious and backwards it was, so she hadn’t answered the question because she didn’t want to think about it then look bad. Or, Judy wasn’t even trying to help her understand. She had thought Judy was her friend…

Judy thought to herself, “I’m doing all I can to help her understand, but there’s some work there that she’s going to have to do herself before she will understand. I’m only one person. I haven’t time to give free lectures on the entirety of Judaism, or even on something as intense and complex as kosher laws to an entire town who already refuses to listen to an explanation. Or worse, to neighbors who force my explanations into a common symbolism that doesn’t exist instead of respecting them on their own. They’re not listening clearly anyway. I thought Christina was my friend…”

And the tale continues…

This is a story, only a story, and as such, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” It is, however, meant to illustrate some of the difficulties polytheists have when entering into some interfaith situations with Pagans, but I put the tale in the context of Christians and Jews because this is a familiar context to many, and it gives Pagans and polytheists the opportunity to consider these similar issues in another context before applying them to interfaith matters between Pagans and polytheists. It is a way to step back and look at the situation in a different manner; an opportunity to step away from trenches and into to conversation. The tale is a metaphor that has to do with respect and interfaith effort in action. Food taboos, Judaism, or Christianity are mere vehicles, symbols, which carry metaphor and provide the activities in which we can examine respect and interfaith efforts. However, the kosher laws, Christianity, and Judaism are not the crux of the metaphor. (Remember, metaphor means something is like something else. "The snow glistened like sugar" does not mean that the snow is sugar. If you don't believe me, please feel free to test this theory. Well, technically, since this phrase uses "like" or "as", it is actually a simile more so than a metaphor, but they belong in the same family of techniques of comparison.) The tale provides a hypothetical scenario in which we can place ourselves and examine our thoughts regarding our actions, emotions, and patterns around respect and interfaith effort in an environment which has nothing to do with Pagans and polytheists--and in this way, I hope to allow space for a Pagan or a polytheist consider these matters. Instead of a Christian, a Jew, and kosher laws, I could have used a squirrel and a frog, and tree taboos.

In the tale, Christina thinks she’s going out of her way to be helpful and solicitous to Judy, but her efforts are not as good as she thinks because she doesn’t realize just how different Judy’s ways are. Judy has a difficult time explaining to Christina these differences because she knows how vast the divide that separates them, and she also has a hunch that Christina doesn’t realize it. Judy struggles to navigate her religious practices in different situations, and she’s met with the cooking ladies’ misinterpretation and hostility. All Judy’s trying to do is to honor her God(s) and her religion in a situation that is every bit as awkward to Judy as it is to Christina and the people at the meeting. Consider for a moment that this is what happens when a polytheist goes to a Pagan gathering that tells her that she is welcome: only this time, it isn’t just food differences but experiences, traditions, lore, rites, and even more.

Christina dipped a utensil that had been used to serve pork in the cholent. Should Judy have told her not to do that? Probably, but there are so many do’s and don’t’s that she takes for granted and navigates, that it didn’t occur to her to say something. Should Christina have bothered to look up a little bit more about kosher laws? Probably, but she took it for granted that she already knew what she needed to know, and that Judy would inform her if she was remiss. In this instance, there was a lack of information flowing, and neither Judy nor Christina realized just how deep was Christina’s lack of knowledge or efforts to fill that lack of knowledge. Christina may not have even known what questions to ask Judy about the matter…but it’s Christina’s responsibility to try to ask questions, even as Judy tries to tackle the matters as they present themselves. At the end of the day, Judy’s not a mind reader and cannot answer unasked questions.

When Christina is confronted with kosher laws at the synagogue, she thinks that these ways are “backwards”--she doesn’t respect them, and therefore views the matter as insignificant despite it being of major importance. Notice again how Christina tried to make the Star of David into something that reflected her own ideology. This is similar (not the same, but similar) to what a polytheist faces when bringing non-polytheists to their religious gatherings: sometimes our ways are viewed as backwards, or are reenvisioned in the eye of the non-polytheist to reflect a symbolism not present in the polytheist’s situation, and then used as a “common ground.” That reenvisioning can take a variety of different forms--symbolic approach, or it’s hammered instead into a failed attempt at armchair psychology, or armchair psychology used in place of religion.

I’ve heard eye-witness accounts of non-polytheist visitors unknowingly disrespecting a polytheist rite out of these sorts of misunderstandings. (Example: A visitor doesn’t bow towards the deities’ images at a rite and furthermore takes it upon herself to explain at the rite how misguided and backwards were the people who genuflected. Yes, this really happened. This is the same—and even worse--as dipping a pork-covered utensil into a Jewish kosher dish. There may have been no malicious intent, but harm is done anyway.)

Christina, a fictional character, is not a bad person. Her greatest folly lies in her lack of knowledge…and in her failure to realize how big that lack of knowledge is. Her second misstep is in trying to make things the same in order to accept them: things do not have to be the same for them to be respected. One doesn’t have to understand something for it to be, and for it to be important. Lastly, she pushes the responsibility for her lack of knowledge onto another person. Recall that this is metaphor and fiction here: not all Pagans are Christinas.

Judy, a fictional character, is also not a monster. Her greatest problem is in thinking that there is a standard basis of knowledge that people already have. Her challenges lay in the townspeople misunderstanding and misinterpreting her actions, and in being only one person without the time or the resources to educate a village about her religion. She can do what she can do, but at the end of the day, it will never be enough and her efforts will still be confronted with misinterpretation and a veil of preconceived notions. Recall again that this is metaphor and fiction here: not all polytheists are Judys.

My point is this, dear reader, if you are still with me in this long post: interfaith efforts are difficult when the gulf between us is overlooked, misunderstood, or even reenvisioned as similarity. Interfaith efforts between Pagans and polytheists are also problematic when both sides fail to realize that they are not part of the same movement, ideology, or religion, and when either side assumes a common basis of knowledge. If either side forgets or ignores these matters, and speaks as if Pagans and polytheists belonged in the same familial category, then Pagans and polytheists view interactions between the groups through a lens of perceived similarity. Feelings of betrayal can arise when those similarities prove absent. Misinterpretations and miscommunications abound after that, and no real interfaith communication can arise in that environment.

Image Notes:
Still Life with Ham by Ferenc Ujhazy, 1870. Painting in Public Domain.


  1. This is an awesome post. It highlights so many of the miscommunications. If you add in a handful of people at Judy's synagogue who grumble loudly about what an ignorant cuss Christina is, it's almost perfect. Sigh. I look at Christina and say, why the hell didn't you look something up if you knew you were going to another's holy space? I look at Judy and ask, you knew from experience how uneducated the woman was about this stuff from personal experience and you didn't bother to offer a primer or book list or tour or meeting with the rabbi?

    As an interfaith minister, Wiccan high priestess, polytheist, and follower of Yeshua, I work my tuchus off to help others understand. Where were the religious leaders in the scenario? Those are the people who should have been fielding the misguided but not rude questions and misunderstandings. I also don't get why we (r/l or in your scenario) can't have things like food tables. That's what I do. I ask kosher people to bring kosher food (I can cook it but my kitchen is not kosher), vegans to bring a few vegan dishes, I tackle a meat and a vegetarian dish, and I try to ensure there are gluten free options as well. Some of the best interfaith moments I have been in have included food and the sharing of why that dish is important and symbolic.


    1. Hi Allyson, thank you for the kind response.

      I did not add anything in about a few grumblers at Judy’s synagogue, but, in the fictional account, if anyone at the synagogue would have grumbled, they would have been justified since it is their ways in their house of worship that are being misunderstood, critiqued, and shifted into another person’s paradigm at the loss of the ways’ meaning. In a polytheist situation, in the defense of the "Christina"s, sometimes this information is not easily looked-up.

      As for the leaders in this scenario: we are the (overworked) leaders, and we have to be the leaders we want to see. This isn’t easy, though, since many polytheists are busy rebuilding religious traditions which have been broken since antiquity, and for some of this the effort is made even more difficult when we are the only ones holding these traditions (myself included). It is easier to be part of an established religion and to work with interfaith matters from that footing; it is much more difficult when you’re working your tokhes off just to reestablish a religion that has been nearly lost. PSVL brings up some excellent points about polytheism and our interfaith challenges in hir post:

      It comes down to a choice in which we yield more time to practicing, honoring, and reestablishing our religions than in the time we take to do interfaith work. We recognize interfaith work as of keen importance, but if we do not spend a greater share on reestablishing our ways, there would be no interfaith work to do because our religions would cease to exist. We love our gods with our lives and refuse to fail them on this matter. This is where these leaders are.

      As for the food issue in the post above: the food isn’t the issue. It is a metaphor for situations that a person can bumble into in interfaith matters in regards to ways. This happens a great deal in matters of polytheism since our religions are lesser-known and lesser-understood. For a different example, one of a more concrete nature, I had heard from an eyewitness about a woman who didn’t bow to show respect to the deities at a polytheist function and then used this moment as a teaching opportunity for how people should not bow to the deities. In another example I’ve experienced: many people have tried to convince me that believing many deities are really just one deity and we’re all the same in this regard. These are more than the equivalent of sticking a pork-covered utensil into a kosher pot of cholent.

      It's an imperfect situation and at the end of the day, we all try to do the best we can...