Eat, Drink and Be Dairy

Sometimes, my wife asks me to taste something she’s cooking. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. One time, when I hesitated a second, she said, “You can eat it, no problem. It’s not even slightly fleishig.”

That response has more levels than a layer cake — with culinary, religious, cultural, and linguistic significance.

The prohibition of mixing meat and milk is common knowledge. How common? A Black comedian in the ’60s said, “Israel has a problem with its space program. They need to send up astronauts with two sets of dishes.”

Less known is the origin of the prohibition. Let’s begin with the Torah (always a good place to start). It is “based on the verse ‘Thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,’ which appears three times in the Torah (Shemos 23:19 and 34:26; Devarim 14:21). … Rabbinic rulings extend this prohibition to include the meat of other kosher animals (such as deer) and fowl, as well as to mixtures of meat and milk that do not involve cooking” (Kosher Food Production, Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines fleishig (really, it does; you could look it up): “Of a dish, product, etc.: containing meat and therefore not allowed to be eaten with or immediately after a milk product; of or relating to such foodstuffs. Also of a person: that has recently eaten meat.”

The meatless counterpart is pareve, which the OED defines, “Of, relating to, or designating an item of food made without animal or dairy products, or other derivatives of these, and hence, according to Jewish dietary law, permitted to be eaten with either meat or dairy dishes.”

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, used to say “The best way to come home is upgedavent (having already davened); and pareve.” That adds up to a prayer-and-plate clean slate.

The OED gave the etymology of pareve as the “Middle High German pār (the sense extension is due to the food having a twofold use).” Rabbi Dovid Cohen, in Yiddish — A Holy Language, says that it comes from the parva chamber, an area in the Temple located between two extremities. He cites an alternate source from Rabbi Aharon Yeshaya Blau: an Old French word used by Rashi meaning “free” or “unrestrained”; by extension, usable with meat or milk.

The OED defines milchig, “Of a dish, product, etc.: containing milk and therefore not allowed to be consumed with or immediately after a meat product; of or relating to such items. Also of a person: that has recently consumed a milk product.”

(I wonder who OED’s Rabbi is. The implied restriction after having “recently consumed a milk product” sounds extreme.)

Coming back to my wife’s taste test, you’d think that something either is or isn’t fleishig. How can something be “even slightly fleishig”? Is there a butcher’s scale that measures meatiness?

You don’t have to be a Talmudic scholar to know that nothing in Jewish Law is simple. Rabbi Blech, in Kosher Food Production includes such designations as “Dairy Equipment” — a product containing no dairy ingredients, but which is produced on dairy equipment. And not mixing dairy with food produced on meat equipment.

Any food from a fleishig restaurant might fall in the category of chezkas b’sari — presumed meat. It shouldn’t be eaten together with milk, but you don’t have to wait to put milk in your coffee. Similarly, you don’t want to make salami sandwiches on bagels you buy in a bagel shop. They are dairy by association, even if they never saw any cream cheese.

There’s a figurative sense of pareve meaning neutral or wishy-washy. Humpty Dumpty was figuratively pareve when he was sitting on the fence (OK, he sat on a wall, but you know what I mean). He was literally pareve when he fell and got scrambled.

There’s nothing wishy-washy about Jewish Law. It is a way of life that forms and defines us as a nation. The very words we use are nourished by the rich soil of Torah. Even nonreligious Jews grow, live and breathe in a Jewish environment. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, “Being a Jew is like walking in the wind or swimming: you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere.”

Leo Rosten added dairy to his Yinglish lexicography, wherein some adjectives morphed into nouns. This sense of dairy refers to a cuisine that became a culture.

Ben Katchor paid tribute to the tradition and society of dairy dining — people meeting without meat. He featured Yeshayah (Salek) and Chayah Pesel (Pola) Gefen, whose Gefen’s Dairy Restaurant was a Manhattan landmark that served Rabbis, executives and entertainers.

Mr. Gefen’s parents owned a bakery in Pabianice, near Lodz, Poland. Mrs. Gefen “easily adapted to cooking for a crowd, having been used to cooking for at least eight people in Berlin — concentration camp survivors who had lost their families.”

Sidney Fields profiled the Gefens for The Daily News in 1972. During the interview, Fields pointed to the numbers on Mr. Gefen’s arm. “Buchenwald and Auschwitz,” he replied. Fields observed that the Gefens “were among those chosen for calamity. But they survived, so their unfailing cheer is really endless gratitude.”

In their dairy restaurant, and in their hearts, the Gefens had no beef.


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