I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to eat a foot-long Subway sandwich for lunch just now. But there I was at the shiny new kosher Subway restaurant in Skokie, along with what seemed like the rest of the kosher-keeping community of Chicagoland. I’m told the line before we arrived was around a 2-hour wait; I only waited about 30 minutes. Still, who ever heard of waiting 30 minutes for a Subway sub?

Jews, it would seem. I think of the way people drool about the idea of kosher KFC or McDonald’s when they describe their trips to the Holy Land. When we went to Israel in April, my kids only wanted to eat at kosher Burger King. We went three times in two weeks. I remember when kosher Krispy Kreme opened in New York, or the when the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Skokie lost its kosher status a few years ago. (The secretary at the Chicago Rabbinical Council said I was about the 1000th caller to inquire about it when I phoned that afternoon.)

What is it about kosher chain restaurants that inspires such excitement? It represents a phenomenal inversion: that which is available to everyone is suddenly available to traditional Jews. Not all the food, mind you–there are no dairy items on the menu at kosher Subway, just as there are no cheeseburgers at kosher Burger King. It’s really not the food; it’s the packaging, the ambiance, the feeling that we’re able to have our cake (or our sub) and eat it too. The sentiment seems to be something like, “Look at me, I can keep kosher, wear a kippah, even chap a mincha minyan (pray the afternoon prayer service with 10 men) in a restaurant with the same logo and menu and napkins as all of you out there.” The taste doesn’t really matter; it’s the havaya, the experience, the sense of belonging to the larger culture.

As a kid I remember the many birthday parties I went to where I couldn’t eat the Oreo cookies. This became a major maker of my identity: I was that kosher-keeping kid who couldn’t eat Oreos. And then, when I was in college, they became kosher. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. On the one hand I wanted to eat the Oreos, to reciprocate the embrace of the culture at large. But I also wanted to resist it. What would happen if everything suddenly became kosher, if we no longer had these markers of our identity?

These questions are deeply present, though muted perhaps, at Thanksgiving time. Thanksgiving (unlike Halloween, which I wrote about a few weeks ago) has achieved the status of a true civic religious holiday in America. Everyone has access to it, everyone can make dinner for family and celebrate reasons to be thankful. Jews have had differences of opinion over the years about whether or not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s fair to say that most everyone from the Modern Orthodox to the left observes the holiday. Thanksgiving, like kosher Subway, offers us the opportunity to participate in the culture at large while conforming to our own laws and observances.

The question raised around many Jewish tables at Thanksgiving is, Do we sing Shir Hamaalot (Psalm 126) before the grace after meals? We recite this optimistic psalm on holidays in place of the more lamenting Psalm 137, which is normally recited. Thanksgiving may be a holiday, but is it a Jewish holiday? That is the question behind the question. Most Orthodox Jews would not go so far. Their ritual lives are willing to incorporate that which can be incorporated without changing the legalities of observance.

We all want to be included, to have the same freedom and options that everyone else has. At the same time, as the upcoming holiday of Hannukah will remind us, sometimes identity needs to be defined in opposition to a dominant culture.

Oreos, anyone?

Advertisements