Apr 102017
 

Passover begins at sundown today this year (2017). This post is the last concerning the three major moveable Jewish holy days, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot, which I have already covered. According to Torah prescriptions, Jews were required to celebrate these three festivals in Jerusalem, Passover being the most central to tradition. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, is reported to have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover at least once (when he fell afoul of the law and was executed). Hence Passover and Easter are inextricably linked, but since early Medieval times the Christian church has gone to great lengths to make sure that their observations do not coincide. Given that Passover can fall on any day of the week, but Easter must fall on a Sunday, it’s not all that difficult to keep them apart. The fact that they are so close together at all this year is relatively rare.

I simply cannot imagine that the entire Jewish population in antiquity downed tools and traveled to Jerusalem three times a year. It makes no sense in practical terms. Who’s going to mind the sheep or the shop whilst everyone is making a beeline for Jerusalem? I can see it happening a few times in a lifetime, but not every single year. Passover is, however, very deeply embedded in Jewish history and tradition and continues to be an important aspect of Jewish identity to this day. Observant and non-observant Jews of all stripes have a Passover seder, at the very least, every year with varying degrees of commitment to established religious practice. Not to do so would be the equivalent of a family of Christian background not celebrating Christmas. It does happen of course. Preparing a seder is a lot of work. But almost all of the Jews that I know, even the most vehemently non-religious, mark Passover in some way or another.

If I get too deeply mired in discussing the history and evolution of Passover we’ll be here all year. So I’ll try to keep it simple (dangerously teetering on the edge of the simplistic). My views on the matter are not very popular among Jews anyway — nor most Christians either. It was one of those great turning points in my life when I learned as a first year theology student at Oxford that Biblical historians and archeologists simply did not believe that the slavery in Egypt of the Israelites, the exodus under Moses, the wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the ultimate conquest of Canaan, had any basis in historical fact. Say what ????  That’s pretty fundamental to Jewish (and Christian) belief. People who’ve barely cracked the Bible know about parting the Red Sea and the like. BUT . . . extra-Biblical sources for any of this narrative are non-existent, and archeology flatly contradicts all of the details. The current explanation for the appearance of the Israelites in the Levant that has the most favor among archeologists and historians (the ones who have no religious or ethnic axes to grind, that is), is that the putative 12 tribes of Israel were at the outset a loosely confederated group of related Semitic peoples who had migrated into the land from various places and unified for a time against other indigenous cultures. The centrality of Judah and Jerusalem were a consequence of the defeat and expulsion of the northern tribes by Assyria which left only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south intact and soldiering on. Through a combination of relative isolation and shrewd political maneuvering they were able to tough it out a little longer until they were crushed and deported by the forces of Babylon.

The two periods that, for me (and a great many other Biblical historians), are crucial in understanding how Passover emerged and evolved as central to Jewish tradition and identity are the reforms of Josiah (649-609 BCE) and the Babylonian Exile which are inextricably linked.  Until Josiah was king of Judah the nation had managed to stave off attack by neighboring empires such as Egypt and Assyria by being relatively subservient and compliant – paying tribute, accepting multiple religious traditions and the like – as ways of keeping a low profile. Under Josiah that all changed. He came to the throne at the age of 8 and ruled for 31 years. During this time the neighboring empires were struggling with one another for supremacy and went through periods of waxing and waning fortunes. This situation left Judah in a relatively strong position to assert itself. It had no chance against the likes of Egypt or Babylon when they were at full strength, but when they were weak(er) powerful people in Judah could entertain visions of grandeur. Hence Judah under Josiah, swayed by politician-scholars, created a bold new identity and was (seemingly) ready to take on the world.

During Josiah’s middle years Judah underwent a nativist revolution led by a group now called the Deuteronomists (after one of the texts they wrote). Nativism involves stripping a culture of what it perceives as “foreign” elements (religion, literature, language, clothing, foodways, etc) and highlighting the “original” (or “native”) core as it is perceived. According to the Hebrew Bible, in his 18th regnal year (when he was 26), Josiah ordered tax money to be used to renovate the Temple and during the renovation a “Book of the Law” (sefer ha-torah) was “discovered.” Modern scholars now generally believe that the “discovery” was a plant by the Deuteronomists and the book they “discovered” was one they had written: either Deuteronomy itself or a portion of it. Josiah took the book seriously, was horrified discovering all the laws in it that were not being followed (and the penalties for such crimes against God), and immediately set about stripping away all practices that were foreign and opposed the law, and establishing all the laws that were enshrined in the document. Among other things, the law prescribed that Passover should be held in Jerusalem every year on a certain date, with explanations concerning why it was to be observed, and how. When the Temple renovations were complete and all the foreign cults removed (and their priests executed), Josiah held a massive celebratory Passover.

Thus the story of the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the attempts by Moses to free the people from bondage, the various plagues that God sent to convince the Pharoah to release the people, and, finally, God’s commandment to an angel to kill every firstborn male in Egypt who lived in a house whose doorposts were not smeared with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, became an indelible part of the history and identity of the Jewish people – commemorated every year with the ritual slaughter and consumption of sacrificial lambs. My (not terribly well supported) conjecture is that Josiah’s great Passover was the first, and that it has been celebrated every year since following the rules laid down in Deuteronomy and other books of the Torah. The symbolism of bondage and release received a boost a generation later when the Babylonian army defeated Judah, destroyed the Temple, and deported the bulk of the population to Babylon in the period now known as the Exile or the Captivity. During this seminal period I believe that classic Jewish belief solidified. Following the return to Jerusalem, the Jews suffered multiple conquests by empires including the Greek and Roman which, again, strengthened the symbolism until in 70 CE the Romans essentially wiped out the population of Judah, destroyed the Second Temple (built after the return from the Exile) and scattered the Jews across Europe and the world with no homeland. This new Diaspora once more reinforced the Passover message of bondage, alienation, and oppression – offering an eventual release, which was partially granted by the creation of the state of Israel after 2 millennia of separation from the land.

The Passover meal, the seder, is, of course central to the celebration. Where it was once made up of (ritually slaughtered) lamb which recalled the blood of lambs saving the people in bondage, bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery, and unleavened bread, recalling the haste with which the people left Israel with no time to let the bread rise, now all but the unleavened bread are tokens. The classic seder dish, often using a special platter reserved for that one night, consists typically of a roasted lamb shank or chicken wing, a roasted boiled egg, 2 kinds of bitter herbs, a leafy herb to be dipped in salt water, and a brown sweet paste of ground fruit and nuts. Each has symbolic meaning which is explained during the meal. There are also three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from each other by cloths or napkins. The middle matzoh will be broken and half of it put aside for the ritual of the afikoman (a game played with children to maintain their interest and help in the process of understanding the symbolism). The top and other half of the middle matzoh will be used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), and the bottom one will be used for the korech (Hillel sandwich).

It always seems to me a shame at these meals that these elements are merely symbolic. They are all great food items. What’s not to love about lamb, roast eggs, salty greens, horseradish, and unleavened bread washed down with cups of wine? These days the principal seder dishes vary according to the underlying ethnicity of the family. I’ve only ever attended eastern Ashkenazi seders where matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and brisket reign supreme. There are recipes galore for these classics all over the place. Matzoh brei is a lesser known Passover treat used as a sweet interlude, and involving the central unleavened bread.

Matzoh Brei

Ingredients

2 sheets matzoh
2 large eggs
salt and pepper
vegetable oil
jam or syrup

Instructions

Break the matzoh into small places and place in a bowl.  Cover with very hot water and let steep for about 30 seconds, then drain thoroughly. Meanwhile beat the eggs in a separate bowl with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat enough vegetable oil in a skillet for very shallow frying (2 or 3 tablespoons) over medium-high heat.

Combine the eggs and matzoh and mix thoroughly. Divide into 4, shaping each into a thin, flat pancake.

Fry the pancakes one at a time until golden on both sides, about one minute per side (turning only once).

Serve slightly broken up with whatever jam or syrup you prefer.

Mar 022017
 

Today is the birthday (1902) of Morris “Moe” Berg, Major League baseball player and coach who later served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Although he played 15 seasons in the major leagues, almost entirely for four American League teams, Berg was never more than an average player, usually used as a backup catcher, and was better known for being “the brainiest guy in baseball” than for anything he accomplished in the game. Casey Stengel once described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”

Moe Berg was the third and last child of Bernard Berg, a pharmacist, and Rose Tashker, both Jewish, who lived in the Harlem section of New York City, a few blocks from the Polo Grounds. In 1910 the Berg family moved to the Roseville section of Newark because Bernard wanted to live in a less Jewish neighborhood. Moe began playing baseball at the age of seven for the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church baseball team under the less Jewish pseudonym Runt Wolfe. In 1918, at the age of 16, he graduated from Barringer High School. During his senior season, the Newark Star-Eagle selected a nine-man “dream team” for 1918 from the city’s best prep and public high school baseball players, and Berg was named the team’s third baseman. Barringer was the first in a series of institutions Berg joined in his life where his religion made him unusual. Most of the other students were East Side Italian Catholics or Protestants from Forest Hill.

After graduating from Barringer, Berg enrolled in New York University. He spent two semesters there and played baseball and basketball. In 1919 he transferred to Princeton University and never again mentioned that he had attended NYU for a year. He received a B.A., magna cum laude in modern languages. He had studied seven languages: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit, studying with the philologist Harold H. Bender.

During his freshman year, Berg played first base on an undefeated team. Beginning in his sophomore year, he was the starting shortstop. He was not a great hitter and was a slow base runner, but he had a strong, accurate throwing arm and sound baseball instincts. In his senior season, he was captain of the team and had a .337 batting average, batting .611 against Princeton’s arch-rivals, Harvard and Yale. Berg and Crossan Cooper, Princeton’s second baseman, signaled plays in Latin when there was a man on second base.

On June 26, 1923, Yale defeated Princeton 5–1 at Yankee Stadium to win the Big Three title. Berg had an outstanding day, getting two hits in four at bats (2–4) with a single and a double, and making several great plays at shortstop. Both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Robins (i.e., Dodgers) wanted “Jewish blood” on their teams, to appeal to the large Jewish community in New York, and expressed interest in Berg after the game. The Giants were especially interested, but they already had two future Hall of Famers at shortstop, Dave “Beauty” Bancroft and Travis Jackson. On June 27, 1923, Berg signed his first big league contract for $5,000 ($70,000 today) with the Robins and played in his first major league game against the Philadelphia Phillies at the Baker Bowl the same day. Berg came in at the start of the seventh inning, replacing Ivy Olson at shortstop, when the Robins were winning 13–4. Berg handled five chances without an error and caught a line drive to start a game-ending double play. He got a hit in two at bats, singling up the middle against Clarence Mitchell, and scoring a run. But . . . for the season, Berg batted .187 and made 21 errors in 47 games.  Thus ended his National League career.

After the season ended, Berg took his first trip abroad, sailing from New York to Paris. He settled in the Latin Quarter in an apartment that overlooked the Sorbonne, where he enrolled in 32 different classes. In Paris he developed a habit he kept for the rest of his life: reading several newspapers daily. Until he finished reading a paper, he considered it “alive” and refused to let anyone else touch it. When he was finished with it, he would consider the paper “dead” and anybody could read it.

During spring training at the Robins’ facility in Clearwater, Florida, manager Wilbert Robinson could see that Berg’s hitting had not improved, and optioned him to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Berg did not take the demotion well and threatened to quit baseball, but by mid-April he reported to the Millers. Berg did very well once he became the Millers’ regular third baseman, hitting close to .330, but in July his average plummeted and he was back on the bench. On August 19, 1924 Berg was loaned to the Toledo Mud Hens, a poor team ravaged by injuries. Berg was immediately inserted into the lineup at shortstop when Rabbit Helgeth refused to pay a $10 ($140 today) fine for poor play and was suspended. Major league scout Mike González sent a telegram to the Dodgers evaluating Berg with the curt, but now famous, line, “Good field, no hit.” Berg finished the season with a .264 average.

By April 1925, he was starting to show promise as a hitter with the Reading Keystones of the International League. Because of his .311 batting average and 124 runs batted in, the Chicago White Sox exercised their option they had with Reading, paying $6,000 ($82,000 today) for him, and moved Berg up to the big leagues the following year.

The 1926 season began with Berg telling the White Sox that he would skip spring training and the first two months of the season to complete his first year of law school at Columbia University, and so did not join the White Sox until May 28. Bill Hunnefield was signed by the White Sox to take Berg’s place at shortstop, and was having a very good year, batting over .300. Berg played in only 41 games, batting .221.

Berg returned to Columbia after the season to continue working on his law degree. Despite White Sox owner Charles Comiskey offering him more money to come to spring training, Berg declined, and informed the White Sox that he would be reporting late for the 1927 season. Noel Dowling, a professor to whom Berg explained his situation, told Berg to take extra classes in the fall, and said that he would arrange with the dean a leave of absence from law school the following year, 1928.

Because he reported late, Berg spent the first three months of the season on the bench. In August, a series of injuries to catchers Ray Schalk, Harry McCurdy and Buck Crouse left the White Sox in need of somebody to play the position. Schalk, the White Sox player/manager, selected Berg, who did a good job filling in. Schalk arranged for former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Frank Bruggy to meet the team at their next game, against the New York Yankees. Bruggy was so fat that pitcher Ted Lyons refused to pitch to him. When Schalk asked him whom he wanted as his catcher, Lyons selected Berg.

In Berg’s debut as a starting catcher, he had to worry not only about catching Lyons’ knuckleball, but also about facing the Yankees’ Murderers’ Row lineup, which included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Earle Combs. Lyons beat the Yankees 6–3, holding Ruth hitless. Berg made the defensive play of the game when he caught a poor throw from the outfield, spun and tagged out Joe Dugan at the plate. He caught eight more times during the final month and a half of the season.

At law school, Berg failed Evidence and did not graduate with the class of 1929, but he did pass the New York State bar exam. He repeated the Evidence course the following year, and on February 26, 1930 received his LL.B. On April 6, during an exhibition game against the Little Rock Travelers, his spikes caught in the soil as he tried to change directions and he tore a knee ligament.

He was back in the starting lineup on May 23, 1930, but his knee would not allow him to play every day. He played in only 20 games the whole season and finished with a .115 batting average. During the winter, he took a job with the respected Wall Street law firm Satterlee and Canfield (now Satterlee, Stephens, Burke & Burke). The Cleveland Indians picked him up on April 2, 1931 when Chicago put him on waivers, but he played in only 10 games with 13 at-bats and only 1 hit for the entire season. That year Dave Harris, Senators’ outfielder, when told that Berg spoke seven languages, replied:

“Yeah, I know, and he can’t hit in any of them.”

The Indians gave him his unconditional release in January 1932, but with catchers hard to come by, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, invited him to spring training in Biloxi, Mississippi. He made the team, playing in 75 games while not committing an error. When starting catcher Roy Spencer went down with an injury, Berg stepped in, throwing out 35 base runners while batting .236.

Retired ballplayer Herb Hunter arranged for three players, Berg, Lefty O’Doul and Ted Lyons, to go to Japan to teach baseball seminars at Japanese universities during the winter of 1932. On October 22, 1932, the group of three players began their circuit of Meiji, Waseda, Rikkyo, Todai (Tokyo Imperial), Hosei, and Keio universities, the members of the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League. When the other Americans returned to the United States after their coaching assignments were over, Berg stayed behind to explore Japan. He went on to tour Manchuria, Shanghai, Peking, Indochina, Siam, India, Egypt and Berlin.

Despite his desire to go back to Japan, Berg reported to the Senators’ training camp on February 26, 1933 in Biloxi. He played in just 40 games during the season, and batted only .185. The Senators won the pennant, but lost to the Giants in the World Series. Cliff Bolton, the Senators’ starting catcher in 1933, demanded more money in 1934. When the Senators refused to pay him more, he sat out and Berg got the starting job. On April 22, Berg made an error, his first fielding mistake since 1932—an American League record of 117 consecutive errorless games. On July 25, the Senators gave Berg his unconditional release. He soon returned to the big leagues, however, after Cleveland Indians catcher Glenn Myatt broke his ankle on August 1. Indians manager Walter Johnson, who had managed Berg in 1932, offered Berg the reserve catching job. Berg played sporadically until Frankie Pytlak, Cleveland’s starting catcher, injured himself, and Berg became the starting catcher.

Herb Hunter arranged for a group of All-Stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Gomez, to tour Japan playing exhibitions against a Japanese all-star team. Despite the fact that Berg was a mediocre, third-string catcher, he was invited at the last minute to make the trip. Among the items Berg took with him to Japan were a 16-mm Bell & Howell movie camera and a letter from MovietoneNews, a New York City newsreel production company with which Berg had contracted to film the sights of his trip. When the team arrived in Japan, he gave a welcome speech in Japanese and also addressed the legislature.

After his return to the U.S. Berg was picked up by the Boston Red Sox. In his five seasons with the Red Sox, Berg averaged fewer than 30 games a season. On February 21, 1939, Berg made his first of three appearances on the radio quiz show, Information, Please. Berg put on a dazzling performance. Of his appearance, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told him, “Berg, in just thirty minutes you did more for baseball than I’ve done the entire time I’ve been commissioner.” After his playing career ended, Berg was a Red Sox coach in 1940 and 1941.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, the United States entered into World War II. To do his part for the war effort, Berg accepted a position with Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs on January 5, 1942. Nine days later, his father, Bernard, died. During the summer of 1942, Berg screened the footage he shot of Tokyo Bay for intelligence officers of the United States military. The film may have helped Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle plan his famous Doolittle Raid.

From August 1942 to February 1943, Berg was on assignment in the Caribbean and South America. His job was to monitor the health and physical fitness of the U.S. troops stationed there. Berg, along with several other OIAA agents, left in June 1943 because they thought South America posed little threat to the United States. On August 2, 1943, Berg accepted a position with the Office of Strategic Services Special Operations Branch (SO) for a salary of $3,800 ($52,600 today) a year. He was a paramilitary operations officer in the part of the OSS that is now called the CIA Special Activities Division. In September, he was assigned to the OSS Secret Intelligence branch (SI) and given a spot on the OSS SI Balkans desk. In this role, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to evaluate the various resistance groups operating against the Nazis to determine which was the strongest. He talked to both Draža Mihailović and Tito and reviewed their forces, deciding that Tito had the stronger and better supported group. His evaluations were used to help determine the amount of support and aid to give each group. In late 1943, Berg was assigned to Project Larson, an OSS operation set up by OSS Chief of Special Projects John Shaheen. The stated purpose of the project was to kidnap Italian rocket and missile specialists out of Italy and bring them to the U.S. However, there was another project hidden within Larson, called Project AZUSA, with the goal of interviewing Italian physicists to see what they knew about Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. It was similar in scope and mission to the Alsos project.

From May to mid-December 1944, Berg hopped around Europe interviewing physicists and trying to convince several to leave Europe and work in the U.S. At the beginning of December, news about Heisenberg giving a lecture in Zürich reached the OSS. Berg was assigned to attend the lecture and determine “if anything Heisenberg said convinced him the Germans were close to a bomb.” If Berg came to the conclusion that the Germans were close, he had orders to shoot Heisenberg; Berg determined that the Germans were not close. During his time in Switzerland, Berg became close friends with physicist Paul Scherrer. Berg returned to the United States on April 25, 1945, and resigned from the Strategic Services Unit, the successor to the OSS, in August. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom on October 10, but he rejected the award on December 2. His sister accepted it on his behalf after his death.

In 1946, former Chicago White Sox teammate Ted Lyons was the new manager of the White Sox, and offered Berg a coaching position. Berg declined. Boston Red Sox owner Thomas Yawkey, who was much closer to Berg when he played for Red Sox, matched Lyons’ offer, but Berg still turned them down. Berg did not apply for a teaching position, or join a law firm.

In 1951, Berg begged the CIA to send him to Israel. “A Jew must do this,” he wrote in his notebook. The CIA rejected Berg’s request. The same year Berg was hired by the CIA to use his old contacts from World War II to gather information about the Soviet atomic science but returned with nothing. He continued to serve his assignment for the CIA until 1954, when his contract expired and the CIA chose not to renew it.

For the next 20 years, Berg had no real job, living off friends and relatives. Berg received many requests to write his memoirs, but turned them down; he almost wrote them in 1960, but he quit after the co-writer assigned to him confused him with Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.

Moe Berg died on May 29, 1972, at age 70, from injuries sustained in a fall at home. A nurse at the Belleville, New Jersey, hospital where he died recalled his final words as “How did the Mets do today?” (They won.) His remains were cremated and spread over Mount Scopus in Israel.

In April 2016, it was announced that actor Paul Rudd will portray Berg in an upcoming biographical drama film called The Catcher Was a Spy, based on the book of the same name. The film will be directed by Ben Lewin and is likely to be released in 2017.

You should definitely have a kosher hot dog to celebrate today. Nowadays a number of major league baseball stadiums have kosher food stands and, of course, their standards include kosher ballpark franks. Kosher franks are certainly high quality in general because the laws of kashruth forbid many of the nastier fillers and ingredients. They have to be all meat, although what part of the animal it comes from is far from clear.

I’ll take mine on a kosher bun with certified kosher sauerkraut and mustard please. (At ballparks the “please” is optional.)

 

 

Mar 012016
 

pig1

Today is National Pig Day one of many pseudo-holidays held in the United States to celebrate the pig. The holiday celebration was started in 1972 by sisters Ellen Stanley, a teacher in Lubbock, Texas, and Mary Lynne Rave of Beaufort, North Carolina. According to Rave the purpose of National Pig Day is “to accord the pig its rightful, though generally unrecognized, place as one of man’s most intellectual and domesticated animals.” The holiday is most often celebrated in the Midwest where pig farming is extensive. Seems like a suitable holiday on which to indulge my ramblings.

National Pig Day includes events at zoos, schools, nursing homes, and sporting events around the United States. It is also recognized at “pig parties” where pink pig punch and pork delicacies are served, and pink ribbon pigtails are tied around trees in the pig’s honor. According to Chase’s Calendar of Events, National Pig Day is on the same day as pseudo-holidays Share a Smile day and Peanut Butter Lover’s day, so take your pick if you don’t like pigs. The question of whether the holiday is a time to honor pigs by “giving them a break” or to appreciate their offerings is an open question.

pig4

Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated from wild boar as early as 13,000–12,700 BCE in the Near East in the Tigris Basin being managed in the wild in a way similar to the way they are managed by some modern New Guineans. Remains of pigs have been dated to earlier than 11,400 BCE in Cyprus. Those animals must have been introduced from the mainland, which suggests domestication in the adjacent mainland by then. There was a separate domestication in China which took place about 8000 years ago. DNA evidence from sub-fossil remains of teeth and jawbones of Neolithic pigs shows that the first domestic pigs in Europe had been brought from the Near East. This stimulated the domestication of local European wild boar resulting in a third domestication event with the Near Eastern genes dying out in European pig stock.

The adaptable nature and omnivorous diet of the wild boar allowed early humans to domesticate it readily. Pigs were mostly used for food, but early civilizations also used the pigs’ hides for shields, bones for tools and weapons, and bristles for brushes. In many parts of Asia, pigs have been domesticated for a long time for pig toilets. Though ecologically logical as well as economical, pig toilets are waning in popularity as use of septic tanks and sewage systems is increasing in rural areas.

pig2

A pig toilet (sometimes called a “pig sty latrine”) is a simple type of dry toilet consisting of an outhouse mounted over a pig sty, with a chute or hole connecting the two. The pigs consume the feces of the users of the toilet. Pig toilets were once common in rural China, where a single Chinese ideogram (Chinese: 圂; pinyin: hùn) signifies both “pigsty” and “privy”. These arrangements have been strongly discouraged by the Chinese authorities in recent years; although as late as 2005, they could still be found in remote northern provinces.

Pigs were brought to southeastern North America from Europe by de Soto and other early Spanish explorers. Escaped pigs became feral and caused a great deal of disruption to Native Americans, who had no domesticated livestock. Domestic pigs have become feral in many other parts of the world (e.g. New Zealand and northern Queensland) and have caused substantial environmental damage.

Pork is a well-known example of a non-kosher food. This prohibition is based on Leviticus 11:2–4, 7–8 (as well as Deuteronomy chapter 14):

These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the land. Everything that possesses a split hoof, which is fully cloven, and that brings up its cud—this you may eat. But this is what you shall not eat from what brings up its cud or possesses split hooves—the camel, because it brings up its cud but does not possess split hooves…and the pig, because it has split hooves that are completely cloven, but it does not bring up its cud—it is impure to you and from its flesh you may not eat.

Why pork was prohibited in ancient Israel is a source of ongoing debate. When undercooked pork was discovered in the 19th century to be a cause of the parasite trichinosis, many scholars jumped on this fact as the principal reason for the pork taboo in ancient times. But this is a lame argument. Animal borne diseases such as salmonella (chicken) or anthrax (beef) are much more virulent and harder to get rid of. Trichinosis can easily be avoided by cooking the pork properly.

Structural anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, have argued that the taboo comes from ancient Israelite cultural categories propounded in Genesis. Israelite cosmology adamantly believed in the existence of three zones – land, sea, and sky – that were created by God during creation and should be kept separate. Not only that, each zone has animals that truly “belong” and those that do not. Fish (with fins and scales), for example, belong in the sea because they swim and can breath underwater. Lobsters do not belong because they walk on the bottom. Amphibians that can live in water and on land are an abomination. In this cosmology, sheep and goats belong and pigs do not, because the former eat grass (land food), but pigs eat everything.

pig5

Marvin Harris in Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches takes up a more ecological argument. Why, he asks, do some cultures despise pigs, while others, such as people in highland New Guinea, love them? For the ancient Israelites, he argues, sheep and goats were environmentally beneficial, but pigs were destructive. The core lands of ancient Judah (around Jerusalem) are hilly and difficult to farm. Sheep and goats can be grazed in mountainous regions that are not suitable for arable, eating herbage, and, therefore, turning otherwise unusable land into meat, milk, and bone. Pigs can’t do this. They have to be kept in urban environments.

I have spent a lot of energy asking the question why city-dwelling Jewish priests in Jerusalem despised cities and loved mountain herders, and, in brief, I think the answer lies in Israel and Judah’s constant subjugation to multicultural cities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. I think I can combine Douglas’ and Harris’ ideas, therefore. In part I think they are both right. Jerusalem priests wanted to be left alone and were afraid of assimilation into these vast multicultural empires in which their ethnic identity would be lost. This led to a theology that valued the separation of different things – which included animals, types of cloth, peoples etc. The word “separate” in Hebrew (qadosh) and “holy” are the same. Multicultural cities were evil; the wilderness of shepherds was good. Great leaders such as Abraham, Jacob, and David kept herds. They dwelt in lands that made them tough and fierce fighters. Cities bred arrogance and sloth. Pigs were the food of city dwellers and symbolized their habits: dirty, greedy, and slothful.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Be that as it may, pork is incredibly versatile. I couldn’t even begin to list the food products containing pork – sausages, hams, bacon, etc., never mind chitterlings, pork rind, trotters, boar’s head . . . and on and on. Lard is a great medium to fry in and makes superb pastry. I won’t go on. This site is a fairly broad listing of pork dishes around the world – enough to make you salivate.

http://www.wikiwand.com/en/List_of_pork_dishes

Ok, OK, pork fat is not tremendously good for your arteries. I get it. But, as with all foods that can be harmful, moderation is the key. Four years ago I moved from Argentina which has the lowest per capita consumption of pork of countries where pork is not taboo, to China which has the highest consumption. Even so, Argentina was the first country where I found pork kidneys for sale in markets, and they were delectable. In China I could have drowned in pork. If you ask for “meat” (肉: ròu) in a restaurant you’ll invariably get pork.

I won’t prejudice you with a recipe. You pick – lentils with ham hocks or pig’s trotters, prosciutto, a BLT, black pudding, chicharrones, pork pie

. . . have at it. Here’s a small gallery:

pigb piga  pigcpigdpigepigf