‘The Big Lebowski’ and Oreos Celebrate Birthdays
How 1998 forever changed Judaism across the world
There are a number of tributes to the Coen brothers cult classic The Big Lebowski, which was released on this date fifteen years ago. The film has a more-than-faithful following, which continues to manifest itself in a constantly regenerating volley of movie quotes, merch, Lebowski conventions, and–as a one-time barkeep–drink selections (White Russians, by the way, are incredibly bad for you). The Atlantic may have put it best:
Over the last 15 years, the Coen brothers’ oddball noir-Western-surrealist comedy about one man’s complicated quest to get his rug replaced after a mistaken hitman pees on it hasn’t just become a cult classic—it’s become something closer to an actual cult. Not only has it launched at least one known, priest-ordaining faith; it’s also become a field of study for religion and mythology scholars, too. In other words, some seek meaning in the movie, while others find meaning, and meaningful fellowship, because of it.
A different kind of fanaticism exists about the Oreo cookie, which was first released for sale by the National Biscuit Company to a grocer in Hoboken on this date in 1912 (just weeks before the Titantic sank). Last year, a run of professional and amateur tributes to the cookie came to surface amid a ton of renewed interest in the cookie centennial.
Among the things we learned: the name of the cookie is a mystery, the cookie-to-cream ratio is 71%-29%, the Oreo was originally released in both chocolate and lemon meringue flavors, and, most importantly, the cookie wasn’t kosher until 1998–the very same year that The Big Lebowski hit theaters.
What do the two have to do with each other? Well, both brought Jewish issues with modernity to the forefront of American culture. Those of us old enough to remember can probably recall that Oreo cookies were once verboten because the cream-filling was made with pig lard. Observant Jews were left to eat their ersatz (and oddly mealy) Kosher substitute, Hydrox cookies, or simply just abstain. For the country’s most iconic cookie to abandon its formula to cater to a rising Kosher marketshare (or kowtow to an anti-lard wave) seems like a big deal in hindsight.
For the Coen brothers, whose films have often touched (elliptically or quite forcefully) on Judaism, The Big Lebowski captured a moment when Jewish practice became part of a joke that also was oddly and pervasively informative to a broader audience. See below (unless you’re at work):
Happy birthday to them both!