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To Really Dig the Talmud, Try Reading It Drunk

What wine goes well with Rabbi Zeira? An upcoming evening of text, art, and booze has the answer.

Gordon Haber
November 10, 2017

“Wine is alive,” says H. Ronald Jordan, wine merchant. “It breathes. It changes. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. Try this.”

Jordan pours an ounce of cava. I sip, and for a moment I’m not in a midtown restaurant but in a café in some sunny Mediterranean piazza.

“Wow,” I say. Not the most articulate response, but it’s a wine you want to enjoy for a minute before spouting adjectives.

“You see?” Jordan says, gesturing to the bottle. “It’s alive.”

Jordan has a full head of silver hair with an equally full silver mustache. We’ve met to discuss DRUNK, an evening of art and performance inspired by Jewish texts, coming Saturday, November 18th, at the 14th Street Y. Jordan is the official sommelier for the event, which was put together by LABA, a kind of incubator for Jewish art and culture sponsored by the Y. (Full disclosure: I was a LABA fellow in the 2016-17 season, and the spiritual guides for the evening are the Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz and noted novelist Ruby Namdar).

DRUNK combines nine LABA artists with five texts and five wines. Jordan’s letting me taste three wines, in order to “keep a little mystery for the audience.” It also seems prudent to limit the number of tastings, because I had to bring my six-year-old son to the interview.

So why start with cava? Because DRUNK’s first text is a passage from Proverbs 23 warning against the fruit of the vine: “Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow?” The drinkers, that’s who: “They that tarry long at the wine.”

“The rabbis want to talk about woe,” Jordan says. “My antidote to woe is a sparkling wine. So here we’ve got a kosher sparkling white from Spain called Taanug.”

It’s is smooth, fizzy and fruity (there are some adjectives for you). Which works because taanug, as Jordan reminds me, is the Hebrew word for “pleasure.”

“There’s a lot going on at DRUNK,” he continues. “There’s art, there’s texts, there’s music. But my job is the wine, and I always want to start with pleasure.”

The next text is less tendentious. It’s the famous Talmudic tale of Rabbi Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira and their ill-fated Purim party. The rabbis get hammered, as you do on Purim. But later that night, Rabbah is so drunk that he slays Zeira. The next morning, Rabbah begs God for mercy, and Zeira is revived. The following Purim, it’s no surprise when Zeira refuses Rabbah’s invitation: “Not every time does a miracle occur,” says Zeira. Meaning: Who knows if Hashem will bring me back the next time, and anyway Rabbi Zeira is a mean drunk.

“For this text,” says Jordan, “it feels like we need a serious red. I wanted Bekaa Red from Domaine des Tourelles. It sounds French, but it’s from Lebanon. Wine from Lebanon is unexpected for a Jewish event, especially with a lot of Israelis involved. But they’ve got fantastic wine in Lebanon. This one is a heav- duty blend. It’s got Syrah, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan. Think about eating a lamb chop when you taste this wine.”

It is indeed heavy-duty, a lovely, deep ruby-red with the taste of fruit and tannins. I can see how anybody might drink enough of it, if not to kill someone else, then to pass out.

Jordan describes himself both as a “hardcore practicing Jew” and a “wine merchant.” He worked on Wall Street for twenty-five years, trading municipal bonds. Like many New Yorkers, he reassessed his career after 9/11. He got certified as a sommelier, and for fifteen years he’s been in the wine trade.

“With DRUNK, I want to show people something new and surprising. You don’t need a $100 bottle of wine for that. When my friends come over, I tell them, ‘Don’t spend over $20 if you’re buying me a bottle. Buy me something weird. Buy me something unexpected.’”

Jordan is eager to show me the unusual pairing he’s created for the next text, this one the midrashic story of a drunken father. Since my son is right next to me, innocently playing a video game on my phone but likely absorbing every word, I ask Jordan if we can skip this one.

We move on to another heavy passage, this one from the Tanya, about our Godly and animal natures at constant war for dominance over our bodies. Jordan’s clever pairing is a light, fizzy, and only slightly sweet Lambrusco from Villa di Corlo.

“I like to be a little weird,” Jordan says. “And I like to end with a smile.”

DRUNK, an evening of study, performances, and libations, will take place on Saturday, November 18, at the 14th Street Y. For tickets, click here.

Gordon Haber is the author, most recently, of Uggs For Gaza (and other stories).