Matzoh marketing: Bloomberg offers a clever read on culture, marketing of Judaism lite

When I studied in France as a college sophomore, my host family in Strasbourg were Sephardic Jews, which means I got immersed in Friday Shabbat observances, visited a synagogue where I had to sit in a women-only section and learned the history of the exodus of Moroccan Jews to France. My host family were known as pied-noirs; people who fled North Africa when the anti-Semitism started getting rough.

When I returned to my college in Portland, Ore., I was so fascinated with the culture I’d seen in Strasbourg to the point where I enrolled in a Shabbat course at the local Jewish community center. Learning the Hebrew prayers over the bread and wine plus the candle-lighting ceremony took some time, as did learning the lighter aspects: Israeli folk dancing, baking the famous braided challah bread and learning appropriate Sabbath songs.

Which is why I was amused to see a Bloomberg piece extolling Shabbat observances as the new chic. Titled “Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included,” it begins as follows:

In 2015, while traveling in Israel with 80 young tech professionals, Meghan Holzhauer fell in love with Shabbat dinner, the ancient Friday night tradition in which Jews bless candles, challah, and wine, then share a meal with loved ones. She was so inspired, in fact, that she started spreading the love. In March her travel startup, Canvus, took 40 young professionals to Mexico City, where they celebrated a multicultural Shabbat dinner. She’s now organizing a hip-hop Shabbat for 400 people attending a social justice conference in Atlanta in June. “A lot of Jewish rituals are about honoring friends and family,” she says. “You feel part of something bigger.”
Holzhauer isn’t Jewish. She was raised “Christian-light” by nonpracticing parents, she says, and has no interest in converting. As she explains it, a non-Jew finding inspiration in the Sabbath—or traveling to Israel for that matter -- isn’t so different from the millions of non-Buddhists who practice yoga or go on meditation retreats to India. “It’s the latest way that ancient traditions are meeting modern life,” she says.
If there ever was a moment when Shabbat was poised to become the new yoga practice, it’s now…

The article then jumps to the woman behind it all:

“Jewish culture is in the mainstream, it’s popular, and that’s something any brand would want to jump on,” says Danya Shults, 31, founder of Arq, a lifestyle company that seeks to sell people of all faiths on a trendy, tech-literate, and, above all, accessible version of Jewish traditions. ... It offers holiday-planning guides; Seder plates designed by Isabel Halley, the ceramicist who outfitted the female-only social club the Wing; and interviews with Jewish entrepreneurs, as well as chefs who cook up artisanal halvah and horseradish. 

It’s really too bad Bloomberg didn’t include a comment section along with this piece, as I would have loved to have seen peoples’ reactions. As we read along, one cannot tell whether the piece is serious or tongue-in-cheek.

Arq has linked up with the wedding registry company Zola Inc. to curate Jewish presents that don’t look as if they come from the synagogue gift shop; with the home design site Apartment Therapy, on a series of Judaica-focused home tours; and with the feminist/LGBTQ-friendly wedding-planning site Catalyst Wedding Co., on an interview series with couples who are diverse in every imaginable way. Arq-branded events have included a couples’ salon series in partnership with Honeymoon Israel, a nonprofit that sends “nontraditional” (interfaith, same-sex) couples on trips to Israel, and a women’s lunar retreat, based on the ancient Jewish practice of women celebrating one another around the new moon.

Whereas leaders in most religions wait for seekers to approach them, this approach sends the innovator to the customer. The last sentence of the following paragraph is the most important in the entire article:

Arq hosts dinners with Bubby. Co-founder Stephanie Volftsun says the tech-enabled matchmaking service is “inspired by the time-tested tradition of the Jewish matchmaking yenta” and aimed at expanding the notion of what a Jewish couple should look like. “We’re all about being open to people who are different, which then means that non-Jews are drawn into our food, culture, and traditions,” she says.

So that just maybe, by assimilation and sampling, new Jews might be brought into the fold?

Other companies want in on this market as well.

The Matzo Project has taken as its task getting unleavened bread out of the ethnic food aisle. “We want it to be more than something that very pious Jews eat at Passover,” says co-founder Ashley Albert. The company’s offerings include matzo flats and chips in salted, everything, and cinnamon-sugar flavors, as well as a matzo butter crunch bar. It’s also about to release a vegan matzo ball soup kit. 

It’s too bad the article offers no naysayers, as there are inconsistencies. Why do Jewish media pounce on Donald Trump for “appropriation” when it comes to having a Jewish prayer shawl flung around his shoulders at a Christian service but no one says a word when the unconverted are dabbling in cinnamon-sugar flavored matzoh or subbing hip hop for Oseh Shalom (a traditional Shabbat song)?

Where are the cultural appropriation folks when you need them? Is it OK to borrow other peoples’ religious rituals as long as they’re transformed into some 21st century rebrand that means nothing and everyone knows it?

As it turns out, Brooklyn comedian Gregory Uzelac wrote a biting commentary on this piece in the Times of Israel, reminding readers that matzoh was known as slave food 3,500 years ago and not something to pass off as a sort of potato chip. And there is an agenda behind it all, as one cleric admits.

(Rabbi Ari) Moffic understands why this kind of cultural marketing would make many rabbis uncomfortable. As a rule, Jews don’t proselytize to non-Jews. But Moffic and the others in the cultural-marketing camp have decided that enlarging the tent is the best way to keep young Jews inside it. “The focus on a single community can so easily become exclusive,” says (Aliza) Kline, who estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of (the interfaith dining app) OneTable guests aren’t Jewish. “But through technology, we’re seeding hundreds of new communities.”

 So the whole thing is about transforming distinctive Jewish practices into the latest trend and, if that brings young Jews back into the fold, so much the better.

While reading the piece, what came to mind was the William Ralph Inge quote: “He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Was there no one who found the ‘culture-marketing’ objectionable? Well, maybe the headline writer, who got the message that such marketing has nothing to do with the Jewish religion.

I checked out some of the websites of the organizations mentioned in this piece and while a few were well developed, others had very little content on them.  Makes you wonder if they'll be there in two years.

Still, the piece was a brilliant assembling of what passes as religious observance in blue state land. If Bloomberg keeps up such investigations into the sacred, maybe they’ll consider bringing on a full-time religion reporter? One can only hope. 

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