A Yiddish-language Soviet propaganda poster promotes pork production in the 1930s.
A Yiddish-language Soviet propaganda poster promotes pork production in the 1930s.

How food choices shape Jewish identity: Let’s start with pork

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Karl Marx, the socialist revolutionary, ate pork on matzah.

Whether it was conscious or not, this choice was an expression of his past and present. His parents had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, and Marx would bring home matzah from his Jewish uncle and aunt’s home.

This was “less a heresy rather than an expression of his identity, that of his Jewish past and his Lutheran present,” professor Jordan D. Rosenblum said during a recent talk at UC Berkeley at the invitation of the Jewish studies program.

While surveys have shown as much as 57% of U.S. Jews eat pork, scholars who study the intersection of the two are not as common. This is what motivated the Organic Epicure to attend the lecture last month called “The Jew as Other and the Other White Meat: Pigs and Jewish Identity.” Spanning Biblical times through the present, the talk was delivered by Rosenblum, a professor of classical Judaism and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Jordan Rosenblum is a professor of Jewish studies and art history at the University of Wisconsin. (Photo/Courtesy Rosenblum)
Jordan Rosenblum is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. (Photo/Courtesy Rosenblum)

He specializes in Jews and food and how food choices shape identity. His works include the 2020 book “Rabbinic Drinking: What Beverages Teach Us About Rabbinic Literature.” He’s also co-editor of the 2020 book “Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food” and contributed the chapter “A Brief History of Jews and Garlic.”

Rosenblum is my kind of scholar.

He’s currently working on a book tentatively called “Jews and the Pig: A History,” on which the Berkeley lecture was based.

To some, eating pork is considered one of the greatest violations of Jewish law. But Rosenblum said this wasn’t necessarily evident in mentions of pork in the Bible. Other animals, such as the camel and hare, also are cited as animals that Jews are forbidden to eat, on equal footing with the prohibition against eating pig. In other words, pig was no more or less treyf than these other animals during the Biblical era. But over time, eating pork became one of the most heretical acts for observant Jews.

It was in rabbinical literature that the rabbis began using the pig to signify Rome and “the other,” or as a symbol demarking Jews from non-Jews, he said.

In the medieval period in Germany, he said, the pig was used to create antisemitic tropes. The image of the “Judensau,” or “Jews’ sow,” is but one example, in which men who are obviously Jewish are shown either sucking on a pig’s teats or drinking its urine. This image remained popular in Germany for over 600 years. Many German cathedrals still have it sculpted into their facades, Rosenblum said.

In Europe, Germany was far from alone in expressing antisemitism through the symbolism of pigs. Rosenblum cited other countries, including Spain, Italy and Great Britain, as part of a more in-depth exploration of how the pig has been intertwined with antisemitism. Examples included forcing pork on conversos during the Inquisition to test whether they remained Jews, or even smearing a Jew’s beard with pork grease.

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In modern-day America, the pig has come to shape Jewish identity in ways that have nothing to do with antisemitism, thankfully, but are still profound nonetheless.

In one example, Rosenblum spoke about Jews serving in the military who have chosen to eat nonkosher rations, emblematic of their assimilation into American society.

“Whether soldiers ate pig or refrained has been documented since the Civil War,” Rosenblum said. “During World War I, the Jewish Welfare Board argued that dietary laws could be set aside in such times.”

In another example, Rosenblum talked about the proliferation in recent years of “OTD” memoirs, or “off the derech” (“off the path”), referring to books and movies about formerly Orthodox Jews — often Hasidic — leaving the fold. Their journeys to the secular world often start with eating familiar foods in a nonkosher restaurant, or doing something forbidden like watching television or driving on Shabbat. But choosing to eat pork, if they do, is considered a more drastic step in the process of shedding their former identities.

Finally, Rosenblum discussed the Orthodox Union’s decision not to give a hechsher, or kosher seal, to the plant-based meat substitute Impossible Pork, even though all of its ingredients are kosher.

“If it’s completely plant-derived, it’s kosher,” the kosher certification agency acknowledged back in 2021. But the OU added that “sensitivities to the consumer” meant it couldn’t give the product a hechsher.

Plenty of other fake pork products, such as vegetarian “bacon” bits, have been certified kosher for years. And the OU has given its seal of approval to Impossible Beef and even the company’s sausages. It was the reference to “pork” specifically where the OU drew the line.

As a takeaway, Rosenblum said that no matter what the Bible or other sources have said about Jewish dietary laws and pork, the fact is that throughout history “there were some Jews who did eat it and some who didn’t.”

After the lecture, I followed up with Rosenblum and asked an obvious question: Which group of Jews does he belong to?

His response didn’t exactly surprise me: “On principle I don’t answer that question publicly. I feel that whatever answer I give, people will then read my scholarship through that lens.”

From my own experience, I can’t argue with that.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."