Imagine it’s July 11, 1883. You’re at a fancy dinner for the very first, newly-ordained class of rabbis of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. You sit down in the ritzy Highland House resort, surrounded by the well-to-do upper echelons of Jewish Cincinnatian society and members of the Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism)—which included certain well-known American Orthodox rabbis—all there to celebrate this momentous event of the first graduating class of American rabbis. You look down at your plate, ready to eat a sumptuous meal provided by Gus Lindeman, caterer to the wealthy German-Jewish Allemania club. You see clams on the half-shell, accompanied by imported Spanish Amontillado sherry.

Wait, what? Clams? At a Jewish event?

If that was your reaction, you would have had company among the guest list of the so-called “Trefa Banquet” that occurred 136 years ago this July 11. According to Rabbi David Philipson, one of Hebrew Union College’s newly-minted rabbis, there was a ripple of “terrific excitement” among the event’s guests. How could a meal celebrating rabbis, with food provided by a Jewish caterer, have among its courses shrimp salad, soft-shell crab and ice cream dessert following an entrée of fillet de beouf? It was a starkly unconventional and, well, unkosher celebration.

Trefa Menu
(Courtesy image)

More than merely unconventional, this startling historical banquet was the trigger event that, as John J. Appel explained in a February 1966 issue of Commentary magazine, “furnished the opening for the movement that culminated in the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the establishment of the Conservative wing in the American synagogue…this, by and large, has become the standard explanation found in the standard histories of American Judaism.” In other words, we have the Trefa Banquet to thank for the denominational diversity of Judaism in the U.S.


Yet beyond the sectarian significance of this meal and the debate over the future of American Judaism that ensued in its aftermath, what strikes me about the Trefa Banquet is just how relevant its themes feel to my own Jewish experience today. In this very interesting current moment of Jewish food, where Israeli food is the new haute cuisine and businesses like The Gefilteria have reintroduced the delicious joy of old-world Ashkenazi dishes, the questions of food and identity broached by the Trefa Banquet over a hundred years ago feel remarkably modern: Does eating Jewish mean eating kosher? How does what I eat represent who I am? What is my personal Jewish food culture based on—ritual, history or culture?

As someone who grew up in a Reform Jewish community, I never knew that such a flagrant violation of kashrut was part of American Reform history—but, then again, there were many people in my community who kept strictly kosher as part of their Reform Jewish identity. For me, the weird and wild happening that was the Trefa Banquet offers the perfect entry point to exactly the food- and identity-related questions we as a modern Jewish community should be asking, offering us a venue to think not only about what eating Jewish might have meant historically, but also how our own culinary tendencies today reflect the complicated, multifaceted story of American Jewishness. Encompassed in the Trefa Banquet’s dishes are a multitude of stories and tastes that, despite the distance of over a century, mirror our own in deep and compelling ways.

This is why I’m so excited to be part of the team reimagining the Trefa Banquet in honor of its 136th birthday on July 11 at the Somerville Armory. With lively conversation, delightful company and a delicious (kosher-style) rendering of the original menu, we’ll be discussing and celebrating what it means to eat Jewish and be Jewish. As you might expect, there will be a lot to talk about—I hope to see you there!

This event is co-sponsored by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, Eser, Honeymoon Israel, OneTable and Trybal Gatherings. Grab your tickets to the Trefa Banquet at the Somerville Armory on July 11 from 7-9 p.m. here.

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