Rachel B. Gross: Judaism Unbound Episode 171 - Digesting Judaism

Rachel B. Gross, the John & Marcia Goldman Professor of American Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, thinks that food is “the world’s most important subject.” She joins Dan and Lex to tell them (and you!) why that is, and why that fact matters when we seek to understand the Jewish past, present, and future. [1]

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(0:01 - 18:22): To begin the episode, Gross provides two important frames. First, she explains why, in her work, she thinks about Judaism as “what Jews do.” Second, she argues that religion can be understood as a web of three different kinds of relationships: those between humans and the divine, between humans and those who are dead, and between humans who are living. [2] Turning to the topic of food, a core topic for the remainder of the episode, she looks at the evolutions of matzah (and matzah ball soup) over time as an example of how food can provide an important lens into Jewish history. [3] She also considers the topics of material culture and nostalgia, each of which she builds on later in the episode. [4]

(18:23 - 37:42): Intertwining the conversations around food and nostalgia, Gross examines the pivotal role that Jewish restaurants can and often do play as a kind of “Jewish space,” even as they are not always recognized as Jewish in the way that synagogues or JCCs are. She then provides an argument that may surprise: how and why eating Chinese food on Christmas can constitute a kind of Jewish religious observance. [5] She names the concept of “food essentialism,” arguing that there are reasons to be wary of efforts to distill the “essence” of particular foods, such that they are associated with one specific national or ethnic group and not others. On that same front, she looks at why food that isn’t kosher can still be quintessentially Jewish, citing the deep and complex relationships that many Jews have with pork as one example of that reality. To deepen that thread, she explores her experience with the “Trefa Banquet 2.0,” [6] a 2018 event for Jews in the Bay Area that consciously featured foods that are not kosher.

(37:43 - 49:56): Gross turns to the topic of religion and culture, asserting that there may not be as much of a distinction between the two as some perceive. She, Dan, and Lex together look at the role of pop culture, and Gross questions in particular the idea that we would mark a distinction between “serious” forms of culture and those that we might perceive to be less meaningful. [7] Living up to the title of this podcast as fully as any guest ever has, she states “Down With Boundaries!” directly, and she puts forth her belief that we shouldn’t be so quick to treat Jewish pop culture as somehow less deep, or less meaningful, than other elements of Jewish tradition. To close the episode, she argues that for those looking to “unbound” Judaism, the best strategies have historically been to make radical changes, but simultaneously find ways to make it appear as if no change is happening at all.


[1] Learn more about Rachel B. Gross, and check out some of her work that is available online, by clicking here. Follow her on twitter at @RachelBethGross.

[2] Gross cites Robert Orsi, scholar of American History and Catholic Studies, for this three-fold schema of religious relationships. For a full picture of how he conceptualizes these relationships, see his book Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and The Scholars Who Study Them.

[3] Take a look at Gross’s "A Million Matzo Balls” resource kit (co-authored with Jessica Kirzane) here. For the Jonathan Sarna article she cites, about how matzah became square, click here.

[4] In her introduction to material culture, Gross cites Vanessa Ochs’s book Inventing Jewish Ritual. Ochs was the second-ever guest on Judaism Unbound, and you can listen to her appearance here - Episode 5: Leviticus - Vanessa Ochs.

[5] Dan mentions an interaction between Justice Elena Kagan and Senator Lindsey Graham here. For another take on that fascinating moment, see Episode 14: Putting the “American” in “American Judaism.”

[6] For a deep look at Trefa Banquet 2.0, see this Judaism Unbound bonus episode, featuring event organizer Alix Wall. Check out a written piece by Gross, entitled “Jewish food does not begin and end with kosher,” here, and purchase the book Gastronomic Judaism as Culinary Midrash, written by Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, here.

[7] For another critique of the distinction between “religion” on the one hand and “culture” on the other, see Episode 144: Beyond Chrismukkah - Samira Mehta.