Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
“I totally understand why so many Jews want to eat pork. Pork is a symbol of defiance. Secular Israelis eat it to make a statement and resist the religious hegemony of the Israeli government.”
When you ask a modern Jew about her relationship to pork the answer is often complicated. With SMITH Magazine’s “Six Words on the Jewish Life” show approaching (September 21, at 92YTribeca in NYC) we thought we’d check in with Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a Jew who’s made pork his passion and profession as founding editor of the storytelling site Pork Memoirs. As with many life callings, Yoskowitz recalls the moment when he made his mind up about pork once and for all.
“What would you do if Cindy Crawford wanted to kiss you?” a fellow camper asked him at Jewish summer camp. “But she had just gone to town on a huge bacon sandwich, and she still had bacon in her mouth?” Would Yoskowitz man up and kiss Crawford or keep kosher like a good Jew?
“Truth is, at that age if Cindy Crawford had wanted to kiss me, I would have done anything, but my answer was no. I wouldn’t kiss her if she had bacon in her mouth,” says Yoskowitz.
Yoskowitz’s yearning to lock lips with Crawford may have waned since his Jewish camp days, but his fascination with bacon has not. While you won’t find Yoskowitz chowing down at a pig roast, don’t be surprised if he personally raised and slaughtered the main course himself.
Yoskowitz has made a career out of his fascination with pork. In addition to founding Pork Memoirs, he has written extensively about pork in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. He earned his stripes by working on a pig farm in Israel, where he spent his days covered in pig excrement, tossing out dead pigs, and collecting boar semen. “It’s called ‘milking’ the boars, and it was a promotion from being an all-around cleaner of pig shit,” says Yoskowitz.
“I have a fascination with pork,” he continues, “but it’s not so much a fascination with the meat itself as it is with the idea of pork and what pork represents. To me the pig is so tied to my Jewish identity, whether it’s cultural or religious, and that identity is always in flux and changing.”
Read on for SMITH Magazine’s interview with Jeffrey Yoskowitz on Jewish culture, pork, and his succulent Pork Memoirs.
Pork and memoirs. For most, one doesn’t naturally proceed from the other. Where did you get the idea for pork as a centerpiece of storytelling?
The concept of viewing Jewish life through pork came to me during a class on Jewish memoir at Brown. Memoir is a great medium for understanding larger forces at work—the pains of immigration, poverty, even the Holocaust. Personal narrative allowed me to wrap my head around these grand ideas, and one thing I noticed about all these Jewish memoirs was that there was a first time eating pork story in all of them. My goal with Pork Memoirs is to have it be almost a cultural history, using the pig as a metaphorical anchor.
What’s an example of a powerful memoir about pork?
I received this one story from a woman whose mother, as a child, was hidden with a family during the Holocaust. During that time, her mother basically ate whatever food the family ate in this period of heavy rationing. Her mother remembers eating raw bacon vividly, and after that experience her mother continued to have a strong relationship with pork. Pork connected her mother to this family she was once a part of.
Does pork play prominently in your family’s history?
Definitely. I remember stories my grandmother told about doing slave labor in Siberia. She shows up in Siberia after a long train journey. She hasn’t eaten in days, and there’s a big pork roast that the locals are having when she gets off the train. My grandmother and her family are offered pigs’ blood to drink. My grandmother was adamant about saying no. “We are Jews,” she said. “We will not do that. We will not have that pigs’ blood.”
And yet, you worked on a pig farm in Israel.
The whole experience was awful, but I got commune in a deeper and more intimate way with the pork industry. Every day there was a story. It was amazing, because I was at the pig farm with the explicit goal of learning about the industry.
A pig farm in Israel? How does that work?
Even though the pig farm was Jewish-owned, it was operated under a loophole that allows pigs to be raised for science.
And there’s a market for pork in Israel?
Yeah. It’s a part of Israel’s gastronomic underbelly. I totally understand why so many Jews want to eat pork. Pork is a symbol of defiance. Secular Israelis eat it to make a statement and resist the religious hegemony of the Israeli government.
What would your grandmother have thought?
I would be washing pig crap off my body at the end of the day and asking myself exactly that.
When my grandfather moved to the U.S. after the Holocaust, the only job he could get was as a ham boner in the pork industry, so I’m not the first one in my family to work with pigs. Before he passed away, my grandfather gave me the steel mesh glove and knife he used to bone ham. The glove only covers three fingers, because two of your fingers are considered extraneous for boning ham. If those were lost, it didn’t matter.
I was very much aware that my grandfather worked in a pork factory so that I wouldn’t have to do that sort of work. I was supposed to have transcended that kind of work. But there I was, covered in pig shit.
How could your grandfather work in a pork factory and come home to your grandmother who refused to drink pigs’ blood even as she was starving?
He used to work with pigs every day, but he was adamant that pork would not enter the house. He would get this ham for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the ham would be given away to their non-Jewish neighbors.
Your story is just crying out for a Six-Word Memoir!
“Inseminated sows, slaughtered pigs. Complicated kibbutz.”
Where do you find your pork memoirists?
The topic of pork comes up all the time. I’ll be encouraging and follow-up with people, and I might work with them on developing a pork memoir. Some people find me, but Pork Memoirs has also been written up on a number of websites. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has written about it, Oprah.com has quoted pork memoirs and linked to it, and MyJewishLearning.com did a whole profile on Pork Memoirs.
But you surely must get a lot of weird looks when you ask for a pork memoir. How do people react when you ask them for one?
Most people I talk to will initially say to me I don’t have a pork memoir. They might say I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t eat pork, or, I’m Jewish or Muslim, I don’t eat pork. My response is: Exactly. You do have a pork memoir. Did you never accidentally eat it? Did you never think about eating it? Do you have fears about eating it? I work with people to isolate those ideas and concepts.
Does your work on the pork industry ever piss off other Jewish people?
Definitely. When I wrote an article for The New Republic about the role pork played in the Israeli election in 2009, I got comments calling me a self-hating Jew. People were saying, “How dare you talk about pigs in Israel?” Like by talking about it, I was defaming the country. Ironically the Chabad rabbi in the town I grew up in loved what I was doing. He was so excited to talk to me about it. He would send me clippings from the Talmud referencing pork. They would call it “the other thing.” It was so vile they wouldn’t even mention it. To this day, no one in Israel calls it pork. There’s all these euphemisms.
What Pork Memoir are you working on now?
Recently I was contacted by a British man with a story about living on a pig farm in Israel that was eventually blown up by terrorists. He was living on the border of Gaza on a pig farm in the 1950s. Since he spoke English, he was in charge of taking around English-speaking inspectors and pretending there weren’t pigs on the premises. One night he was hosting one of these inspectors. After the inspector was satisfied there were no pigs on the premises, he stayed the night with the plan to return home the next morning. Well, that night the terrorists bombed the kibbutz. They thought they were blowing up the dining hall, but it was actually the building where the pigs were hidden. A lot of pigs died. Other pigs escaped and eventually scattered all across Southern Israel. The next morning, when the inspector woke up, he opened the door to a field of pigs running around everywhere.
So if Cindy Crawford wanted to make out with you while she had bacon in her mouth, how would you answer now?
Now my response would be if Cindy Crawford wanted to make out with me, why would she want to do it with bacon in her mouth? Does she want to taunt me? Why would she do that? That’s just cruel. And that’s why my final Six-Word Memoir is: “I won’t kiss Cindy’s bacon mouth.”