Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to email@example.com.
What to do with leftovers? Turns out it’s as much a spiritual as it is a practical question. Our listener David Mann Stark, a member of the podcast’s Facebook group, wrote to us with a simple but stark conundrum: Aluminum foil or plastic baggies?
Growing up, he wrote, his family always wrapped leftover tightly in foil, but going to college in Rochester he started noticing a strange divide: All his Jewish friends used foil like him, but the non-Jews stored their sandwiches in baggies. Was the divide universal, Stark inquired? Did all Jews everywhere flock to the foil?
First, we crowd-sourced this question. It generated 144 comments in our Facebook group, demonstrating its extraordinary significance to the future of amcha, God’s chosen people. A few possible answers emerged.
One school of thought held that geography may be at play. Cookbook writer Molly Yeh alluded to the regional question with her comment, “representing midwest/baggie (and plastic wrap) here.” Is aluminum foil an urban, East Coast thing? Another listener seemed to think so, concurring, “From Michigan and we use baggies. Even now that we live in the South.”
But one West Coast listener disagreed, suggesting that the real foil/plastic divide was spiritual, not longitudinal: “So at Jewish day school in Los Angeles the more religious kids had foil and the more secular ones baggies. It was the clearest defining factor outside of your shul [synagogue] of choice.” But Tablet contributor Menachem Butler, himself a learned and observant Jew, complicated that picture, pointing out that because of the prohibition on tearing things on the Sabbath, Jews should lean plastic: “Plastic bags are easier to use on Shabbat, as it does not require tearing, which the aluminum foil had historically required.”
Across the pond, it seems that foil was long the rule: “Speaking from Israel,” an Israeli wrote, “there was no greater excitement among expats than the time a local supermarket started stocking Ziploc bags. Ziplocs are top of the list of things American immigrants bring in from the home country.” Yet another way that the diaspora and the promised land misunderstand each other.
And so it went, as listeners weighed in: Aluminum foil or the more retro term “chef foil”? What about the wax-paper alternative? Sometimes it got weird: “Very Jewish plastic-loving family. Everything gets wrapped either with the beloved Saran or with these plastic shower cap things I get from the dollar store.”
No consensus could be found. So we turned to the experts. Cookbook author Joan Nathan, who knows from food wrapping, was quite firm on the matter: “Maybe I am gentile. I like plastic wrap except for Foods for the freezer.” And the University of Delaware’s Susan Strasser, America’s preeminent historian of housework (she has also written a definitive book on trash), had never heard of Jews preferring foil: “This is a generalization I’d not heard before … If it is true, I’m sorry to say I can fathom no reason.”
The quest is not over. For as Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” If you can help us with this question—or if you have a question of your own for us to solve—write to firstname.lastname@example.org. To get the Unorthodox podcast, visit iTunes here, or use your favorite app.