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April 22, 2016 11:12 am

Unflattering Truths About the New York Times’ ‘Unkosher’ Jewish-Food Obsession

avatar by Ira Stoll

Email a copy of "Unflattering Truths About the New York Times’ ‘Unkosher’ Jewish-Food Obsession" to a friend
Matzah-ball soup. Photo: Wikipedia.

Matzah-ball soup. Photo: Wikipedia.

The New York Times is obsessed with Jewish food — in a way that is unflatteringly revealing about the newspaper’s overall attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

The past three weeks of its food section have featured front-page references to chocolate babka (described as “a nice Jewish cake from the old country”); sesame-flavored desserts (with references to a chef from an Israeli family — along with the claim, “For American Jews, halvah has long been familiar but often feared”); and chicken soup (helpfully identified as “Jewish penicillin.”)

And that’s just how it presented regular Jewish fare, which doesn’t even come close to its special pre-Passover food coverage. That went, in typical Times train-wreck style, somewhat awry. An article headlined, “For Juicy Beef for Your Seder Table, Look Beyond Brisket” generated this classic Times correction, suitable for framing in any kosher kitchen: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that beef tenderloin is kosher and appropriate for Passover. It is not kosher, but other cuts of beef that are kosher may be used in the recipe in its place.”

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No such correction appeared in relation to another short food-section item, about “10-plagues pops and marzipan matzos” that the Times describes as “Passover assortments” — though the manufacturer’s website reports, “Currently our products are not certified kosher.”

For the fullest expression of the Times’ attitude to Jewish food, though, one has to look beyond the food pages to the Sunday Review section, the one that used to be known as Week in Review. This past Sunday, the front of the section was largely devoted to an article by chef and author Dan Barber, which appeared under the headline, “This Passover, Faith Meets Flavor.”

I’m a fan of Mr. Barber’s. I wrote a positive review of his book. I think he writes beautifully. I’ve enjoyed several visits to the Stone Barns farm that he and the Rockefeller family have built in New York’s Westchester County.

Mr. Barber’s meditation on the taste of organic shmura matzo is long, thoroughly reported and well-written. It nonetheless manages, also, entirely to miss the point of the holiday. Its author leaves God out of it. He leaves the Jewish people out of it. He leaves freedom from slavery out of it. He boils it all down, instead, to a matter of taste: “Make it more delicious.”

That isn’t Judaism; it’s hedonism. Not that Judaism is opposed to deliciousness; it isn’t. But in Judaism, deliciousness is not the entire end goal.

Readers of the Times might know this if the Times covered Jewish ideas and theology with the same resources that it devotes to Jewish food. But it doesn’t. So, for example, Micah Goodman’s book, Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed, went unreviewed by the Times. Jon Levenson’s book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, also went unreviewed.

Or imagine how different the Times would be if it covered contemporary antisemitism with the same volume and determination that it devotes to its coverage of Jewish food. If that were the case, the newspaper might have deigned to cover the incident at Harvard Law School, where the dean recently responded after a student hostilely asked a visiting Israeli politician, “How is it that you are so smelly?”

The Times is comfortable with the culinary aspects of Judaism (so long as one doesn’t get too hung up on the details of the kashrut). It is much less comfortable with Judaism as the basis for nationhood or as a religion. True, there are articles, editors and reporters that are exceptions. But as a general rule, that’s how that newspaper is. Happy Passover.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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  • Jonathan Mishkin

    The only obsession I see here is the Algemeiner’s obsession with the alleged antisemitism of the NY Times. Which routinely brings out the wing nuts who compare the times to Der Sturmer. Sorry, but I don’t think that Der Sturmer ever covered Pesach foods, Maccabi Tel Aviv or the trend among many modern Orthodox American Jews to take expensive vacations around this time of year.

    I hope this doesn’t surprise the Algemeiner’s readers but most of the Times’ readers are likely non Orthodox and probably don’t keep kosher. But since somewhat more than 70% of American Jews attend or organize a Seder (Pew Study reports) they probably want to know about what kind of food to make. That’s good for the Jews.

    Also, the purpose of the article about Dan Barber, which i also found charming, was not to discuss the meaning of Pesach, however important that is, but to provide an interesting sidebar on the manufacture of organic shumra matza. That’s all. Just because it didn’t address broader issues doesn’t make the author or the NY Times anti-Semitic. I bet Der Sturmer never wrote such an article. For that matter, neither did the Algemeiner.

    So let’s not try to find hidden anti-Semitic meaning in everything the Times writes. It needs to attract both Jewish and Gentile readers. It doesn’t just serve a frum crowd.

    Enough with the Algemeiner’s obsession with the NY Times!

  • Gail

    NYT has long undermined Jewish culture in big ways & little. During the December holiday season look for the inevitable “I’m Jewish, but I can’t live without my Christmas tree” story. It’s as inevitable as the cold weather & short days marking that time of year.

  • fred

    The New York Sturmer at it again and again it wil not be long that they will find issues of the German Hitler “Der Sturmer and introduce New Yorker to more anti Jewish articles & illustrations. So this is American democracy ala
    the media ????

  • Robert Davis

    The only reason why that horrible rag nyt(does not deserve capital letters) blames jews, judfaism and Israel for everyrthing it can think of is first to delegitimize Israel hoping it coulde lead to its destruction and thereafter another holocaust of jews and then because its editor and journalists are a bunch of VILE cowards and degenerate people with all the perversions that go with it including gluttony. These people are not even part of mankind they are animals.

  • Peter Joffe

    The New York Times probably has Islamic owners so it is a good medium for them to spread their hatred and misinformation. I would like someone to complete some things that The New Your Times has to say about the holocaust. They probably deny it or praise it!

  • I appreciate your angst. As a conservative Christian American who is reasonably familiar with the NYT, I can tell you that maybe you should be glad that they ignore God and Judaism, because if they did decide to chime in on anything spiritual, you can bet that they would get it wrong. The writers at the NYT live in a bubble of their own making and they don’t even know it. People who live in darkness cannot explain the light. Better you should wait for Messiah than to anticipate or wait for those darklings to occupy their cares with God.

  • stevenl

    NYT: the most antisemitic medium of all! What do U expect?

  • Lia

    I’m grateful that somebody actually checks up on the NYT’s abysmal stupidity, for a great many of us neither buy nor read the rag.

  • Marshall Schwartz

    It’s not just Jewish food that the Times has a problem with. They also fail to write obituaries — even short ones — about rabbis who fully deserve such attention. Like Jacob Milgrom, long-time university faculty member who worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the author not only of JPS’s volume on the book of Numbers but also his three-volume, 2300+ page masterwork on Leviticus, published by Anchor. Or Saul Teplitz, who was head of the New York Board of Rabbis for many years. Or Alan Schranz, rabbi of the Sutton Place Synagogue. [I mention these three because I knew them personally, and I found out about their deaths only through paid obituary notices in the Times.]

  • Nancy B

    Great article!

  • ed halperin

    In the midweek food section before today’s Friday-seder there was an extensive article on Iranian food, when it was the most logical day for a jewish food article. In the week before there usually would be an article about someone who is an excellent Jewish cook and the individuals love and care in preparing the food.

  • Milton S. Jacoby

    Excellent!!!

    The more the NYT stays away from Jewish life, the better..

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