Ever hear of the subset known as gastronomical Jews? They're not religious, or at least not when it comes to mainstream Judaism. They don't connect to Jewish communal organizations. Israel's problems -- well maybe they're problems for the cousins, but not them. Why bother with all that craziness?
But boy, do they love to eat "Jewish." To which I say, what's not to like?
There's juicy hot pastrami on rye spiced with mustard (above), chicken matzoh ball soup and matzoh brei. There's also proper New York-style (always boiled first then baked) bagels, lox and cream cheese, and various kinds of pickled herring -- to name just a few of my favorites.
For end-stage gastronomical Jews, the taste of their favorite childhood foods is their last meaningful tie to their Jewish roots. For some, that fragile tie finally snaps when some cardiologist says it's time to cut back on the carbs, salt and artery-clogging fats packed into the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish diet.
In short, food is certainly a cultural and religious marker, which is why holiday food stories are a staple of feature section religion journalism.
But -- in a world where frozen, commercially pre-packaged (and comparatively tasteless, I might add) bagels can be had virtually anywhere there's a freezer -- food alone is no guarantee that a culture, any culture, will live on in its fullness.
Which brings me to Europe's ongoing attempts to manage its migrant crisis (click here for an exhaustive update) and a recent New York Times story about a Danish town's attempt to cope with it by eating pork.
Anxious about the influx of Muslim migrants into Europe, town leaders decided that pork must be a staple of its publicly funded child-care meals because that's what real (read, culturally Christian) Danes eat. Of course, religious Muslims shun pork products.
The town is by no means alone in Denmark in turning against the migrant influx. The socially liberal nation's national parliament just Tuesday approved legislation allowing the government to confiscate much of the wealth the migrants' arrive with in exchange for receiving Danish benefits.
You want to eat pork? Go ahead.
But do not presume that a loin roast (or, perhaps even more absurd, a call for clergy to grow beards) is enough to keep Denmark's historically Christian culture from slowly but inexorably shape shifting into -- well who knows what actually will happen next?
Some media voices -- many from the political center-right, Christian and Jewish communities -- have long warned that European cultural norms will surely be taxed, perhaps to the breaking point, by so many Muslim migrants (or refugees, if you prefer) entering Europe, and seemingly all at once.
Liberal and left-wing media voices, including liberal religious writers as well as secularists, have tended to emphasize, the crisis' humanitarian side, the need to feed, shelter and otherwise assist the migrants.
I count myself on the liberal side on most issues. By that, I mean I try to remain open-minded rather than immediately default into judgement mode. On this issue, however, it's hard not to invoke the sardonic quip, "no good deed goes unpunished."
You may favor the wholehearted welcoming of as many Muslim migrants as may wish to enter and remain in Europe, but it's tough to argue at this point that this social experiment will not forever change the continent in some significant ways.
Germany's Angela Merkel, who early on championed the humanitarian acceptance of the migrants as much as any European leader, is currently wrestling with the fallout from this. Here are two pieces, one straight news and the second analysis-commentary that explain her situation.
Europe's dwindling Jews, including, presumably, it's gastronomically defined ones, also must wrestle with the crisis. Merkel, as this story attests, now says she underestimated the amount of anti-Semitism that would manifest in Germany (and elsewhere in Europe, notably France) along with the influx of Muslims coming from cultures where hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism are the norm.
However, 21st Century, post-Christian Europe is being buffeted by more than just massive Muslim demographic change.
An essay in the American Jewish center-right publication Mosaic by Daniel Johnson of The British monthly Standpoint (he writes widely on politics, culture, and religion) is a good place to start boning up on these wider issues. His piece is accompanied by a series of responses by equally expert observers. They do not necessary agree with Johnson or each other.
Here's the nut of his piece.
Europeans are now faced with questions they have hitherto preferred to dodge. Are Europeans ready to fight for Europe? What is the place of Islam in a post-Christian Europe? Or, to look at it from the jihadist point of view, what is the place of Europe in a fast-expanding and globalized Islam? Is 21st-century Europe still the heart of Western civilization, or is it changing out of all recognition?
I object to his use of the word "jihadist." I prefer the less inflammatory and all-encompassing "Muslim," because certainly not all Muslims are jihadists, no matter how culturally removed they might be from what we think of as liberal European standards. His question is important to all Muslims.
Again, here's the link to his essay, and those of his respondents. Judge for yourself.
Journalists: Keep a close eye on this one, if you're not already. Keep exploring its many angles, religious and secular.
Not just Europe, but the future of the world order as we know it just may hang in the balance. Seriously. That makes this a huge, huge story.