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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

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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.”

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.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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