Anyone who works in the field of American Jewish studies knows all about the famous “trefa banquet” of 1883. At the Highland House, a private club in Cincinnati, a dinner was held to honor the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. The caterers’ menu, which included clams, crab, shrimp, and milchig desserts after a meat-rich meal, was in every way an affront to the laws of kashrut. The ensuing scandal led to a split in America’s non-Orthodox community, culminating in the founding of Jewish Theological Seminary and what became the association of Conservative rabbis.
So it’s surely with that history in mind that some cheeky, anonymous Jews who call themselves “the Treyf Caucus” are hosting, in conjunction with this year’s Association for Jewish Studies conference next week in Boston, a banquet with a menu similarly offensive to observant sensibilities. The dinner—which has no official connection to the scholarly meeting and is being held off-site at the Citizen’s Public House next Monday—is titled “Observance in the Breach: An egregiously treyf dinner, not sanctioned by the Association for Jewish Studies.” For $45, diners will sup on hors d’oeuvres of “assorted shellfish” and a main course of a “14-hour slow-roasted whole suckling pig, sides of seasonal vegetables & root vegetables.”
Curious about the thinking behind such a shande, I queried somebody I suspected might be an organizer for the event. He asked to remain anonymous, but he is a well-known scholar in the field, somebody not unknown to readers of Tablet, in fact. Having been caught red-handed (the red of pork blood, one might say) he owned up to having a hoof in organizing the event.
“It’s by no means a brilliant, hilarious, and certainly not a subversive gesture,” he oinked. “It’s dinner for about ten friends-of-friends, at a conference. On the level of its seriousness/intensity in terms of engagement with anything, it rates slightly above an errant tweet and certainly far below, say, David Rakoff’s essay about Jews and pork.”
The writer added: “I mostly keep kosher but regularly break kashrut when I’m in a city with really good or interesting food. Often, then, I’m breaking kashrut at AJS (because it takes me to Boston, Chicago, or L.A., all of which are better places to eat than [my small, parochial town]). And often I’m eating one of those meals after a marathon day of parsing Jewish minutiae with colleagues from around the country. And that’s enough to make me smile a tiny bit when I’m about to tuck into to some serious trayf (which is, for me, still pretty exciting). Some of my friends talked about wanting to go out for a big group meal with some other AJS folk who eat trayf, and we came up with [the Treyf Caucus dinner] to have fun with it. But honestly I have no idea why anyone would think this is controversial or offensive—or even why anybody is judging a dinner invitation as if it were a humor piece or something.”
At last count, about a dozen scholars of Judaism—some of whom may of course be Gentiles—had replied “oink” (“I’m coming”). Expect some knowing essays to compete with Rakoff, this one from Modern Farmer, and the rest in the mini-genre of Jews eating on the wild side.
Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.