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May 22, 2014 11:41 am

Wine and Bread: Finding the Balance

avatar by Michael Widlanski

Joseph as ruler of Egypt by O.A. Stemler.

Men, women, and scripture love a good drink even more than a good piece of bread.

We know this from the Bible and from common sense, which, from a quick glance at our leaders, is not as common as we might hope, nor as available as a good drink..

“Man shall not live by bread alone,” says God (Deuteronomy 8:6), and his book of songs insists “Wine makes glad the heart of man.” (Psalms, 104:15)

We also know that a good drink-maker can be more strategically vital than a baker. He or she not only makes you a fine brew but listens to your sad story at the bar and makes sure you get home safely.

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Even a bad bartender gets a second chance. Secret agent James Bond never used his fictional license to kill in order to liquidate a bar man who left a pit in his cocktail’s ‘s olive or who stirred the  vodka martini despite the instruction “shaken not stirred.”

Perhaps Bond (or his creator Ian Fleming) learned from the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time who disciplined his drink-maker and his bread-maker, but hung the baker out to dry (literally) while giving the bartender a second shot.

That second shot saved Egypt from seven years without bread. When Pharaoh was losing sleep over some disturbing dreams, the bartender remembered sharing a jail-cell tale (and maybe a drink or two) with Joseph, a man who understood dreams. This led to Joseph meeting Pharaoh and the plan to store food for the upcoming  famine.

Still, knowing how to bake bread or make a good cake can be a life-saving skill, whether in lean times or fat years, in war or in peace.

My father of blessed memory, Abraham Widlanski, was by trade both a baker and a kind of drink-maker in the family’s inn near Vilna in Lithuania.

My dad said his family was proud of its mead – a kind of beer offered to the guests in the inn, but he told me that his skills at baking got his life spared at least on one occasion during the 12-year European hunting season on Jews known as the Holocaust.

My father was a partisan going in and out of the forests and the ghettos, but he was captured and spared by a Nazi officer who had a pang for good bread.

As we were growing up we learned that a good drink is good to have, but it is especially good when served with good bread and food. Like many Jews from Eastern Europe, this meant never drinking by oneself and never taking a drink by itself.

“Jews should not drink to get happy, but rather they should enjoy a drink when they are happy,” as a wise rabbi once told me

Today we know that a drink at meal time is healthy – especially red wine.

In our house, Wine was usually reserved for Sabbath or  holiday occasions, but a stiff whiskey or vodka was to be enjoyed best with a piece of dark bread, preferably decorated by a nice slice of herring or some other smoked fish.

“Charny Khleb” as my father used to say in Russian: black bread.

Knowing how to select one’s bread for the right occasion is as important as choosing one’s wine, scotch, or bourbon.

You can tell good Jews from impostors by the kind of bread they have with their fish, salami, or roast beef. If it’s tuna or corned beef, it has to be rye or pumpernickel.

If you see white bread, you are dealing with an Episcopalian or Unitarian.

As crucial as the choice of bread to eat is knowing what, when, how, and with whom to drink. And when to stop. In my days at Columbia University, some students liked to drink at all hours. They did it for the “buzz” – a kind of senseless state.

Many of today’s teenagers and young adults seem to have re-discovered the charms of cheap alcoholic drinks that can sometimes carry a high cost on the road and down the road. Similarly, eating too much has led to rampant obesity among youth.

“Prohibition” is not the answer. As the Arabs say kul al-mamnoo’a maghroub: all that is prohibited  is desired. Banning alcoholic drinks (or sugar drinks, for that matter) or raising the drinking age or banning is not the answer. It’s been tried, and it has failed. It is striking a pose, not solving a problem.

There is probably no single answer to too much drinking of booze or binge eating. Striking a balance is something that has to begin at an early age. When children see parents who can strike a balance in food and drink, they learn from it. Exercise is also important, particularly one kind of push-up.

As my mother of blessed memory, Esther Widlanski, once said “You have to learn to push away from the  table” – and from the bar, too.

Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University, was strategic affairs advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and is the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14.

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