I am a music snob. People know this about me, and I deserve the title. I have said hurtful things in the past, and if you were on the receiving end of any of my snobbery, I apologize (unless I was right).
My snobbery extends to Jewish music, as well. My master’s thesis, after all, is entirely about the history and meanings of contemporary klezmer, a musical genre descended from the instrumental music of Eastern European Jews.
So, in preparation for my wedding last weekend, one question loomed larger than any other: what to do about “Hava Nagila?”
I won’t recap the entirety of the song’s history, ubiquity and supposed fall from favor, but it is fair to say that I fall into the camp of concerned listeners who hear it as a schlocky piece of music that has come to stand in for a much richer repertoire of celebratory Jewish tunes. But people expect it. After a few fraught exchanges with our wedding DJ and extended consultation with fellow music snobs, I came to the following conclusion: the DJ could begin with the version of “Hava Nagila” he’d originally proposed—the beginning of a pretty canned medley of Hebrew songs—so long as he faded into my preferred tracks. The opening “Hava Nagila” got people dancing in a circle and cued our friends to lift me and my bride up in our chairs, but by the time I was safe on the ground again, I was able to dance to Jewish music I actually enjoy.
So here are the tunes I picked:
This is a live video of Maxwell Street Klezmer Band> performing “Chusn Kalleh Mazl Tov.” I picked a studio recording of the track from their 2002 album Old Roots New World.
And a personal favorite, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars doing “Lieberman Funky Freylekhs,” from the 2002 album, Brotherhood of Brass. Just hit the play button below.
Clarksdale, Mississippi. To fans of the blues, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the great Sam Cook, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and of course, site of the legendary crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
To me, however, Clarksdale represents family, and an important part of my childhood.
Growing up in Jackson, I remember our family’s annual “pilgrimage” to Clarksdale, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Every year before the fall holidays, my siblings, mother and I (Dad was at work) would drive up to the Delta, passing lush farmland and cotton fields, to go to Beth Israel cemetery and “visit” with my mom’s parents, both buried there.
We left early in the morning, got to the cemetery by 11, had lunch – vague recollections of the plate lunch special included fried chicken and black eyed peas – and then visited with my mom’s friend, who we knew as “Aunt” Adele Cohen (who was not an actual relation). And then we turned around and drove home.
My mom treasured this annual road trip. She lived in Clarksdale as a young girl and graduated high school there. My grandparents had a small grocery store in Clarksdale, and lived there until the early 1960s before moving to Jackson.
I left Mississippi when I was 24, and headed to the West Coast. After two decades away, and now with a family of my own, I moved back to Jackson five years ago. By the time I returned to reside in my home state, my mom had passed away.
I don’t really know when my family’s last Clarksdale “visit” took place. But this summer, en route to Memphis, I vowed to go visit. All I had was the street name for the cemetery; no address. I drove up and down Friar’s Point Road – no cemetery. I decided to find downtown Clarksdale – perhaps someone could direct me.
It was a hot day in July – I mean, HOT. Easily 99 degrees, with humidity to match. I made it to Main Street, which has seen better days. Lots of empty stores, a victim of small towns getting smaller and a poor economy in the Delta. But I spotted the Clarksdale Press Register newspaper office, went in, asked if they could point me in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Though her companion gave me a confused look, one of the young women said: “Oh sure, it’s just around the corner.”
I quickly got back in the car and made my way to the cemetery.
And there they were. Michael (for whom I’m named) and Shelda Binder, my maternal grandparents. It was a moment that brought a flash of days long gone, as well as a connection to my mom and generations past. I also saw the graves of relatives for whom I have no memories – they were just names to me.
As I placed the stones on their tombstones, I spoke to them; whether it was aloud or simply words in my head, I’m not certain. But I told them: “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve been here. I love you.”
I returned to my car and headed back to the highway, feeling a sense of calm and comfort. It won’t be my last visit to Clarksdale.
So there’s this website called Pork Memoirs.
Dedicated to sharing “personal stories about a complicated meat,” the site explores personal identity relative to the consumption or avoidance of pork.
The site has drawn contributions from Jews who don’t eat pork, Jews who do eat pork, Muslims who don’t eat pork, bacon enthusiasts, vegetarians, those who slaughter pig, those who have pet pigs. It made me start thinking.
What’s with all the pork punditry of late? Especially within the Jewish world, where it’s a traditionally-off-limits nosh? It’s made me think, once again, about this most beloved and forbidden of flesh-foods.
Even if you eat shrimp—even if you love a cheeseburger—there’s just something about pork that seems less kosher than everything else out there. Maybe it’s just because everyone knows it’s not kosher. Maybe it’s because there are other cultures where pig is forbidden, while the shellfish or dairy/meat or other rules aren’t in place. Regardless: it is the pinnacle of treyf.
Forget Mary. There’s something about pork.
Which brings us to my own pork memoir. My own answer to the “Got Bacon?” question.
Which would be “No … ish.”
See, I’ve never eaten pork. Not really. But after a decade of living in the South, I can assure you that it’s hard to over-emphasize how much this region loves its pig products, and how often pork is infused into non-pig-dishes … like, y’know, green beans.
That can make keeping kosher in the Bible Belt a challenge. Doable, certainly, but depending on where in the South you live, it’ll require some thought, planning, and either the willingness to go veg and/or the establishment of a buddy system with folks who travel to places like Atlanta, New Orleans, or Memphis where you can get kosher meat.
I don’t “keep kosher,” but I do aim for ”ethical eating,” and have been some shade of vegetarian since I was 11. So I’ve never really eaten pork … but I know I’ve inadvertently (or even willfully ignorantly) ingested the stuff.
When I first moved to the South, I was a stricter vegetarian, and was taken aback the first time I saw little animal bits floating in my greens at a local buffet. It made me pay more attention, for sure – and being intentional about what we eat and why seems significant.
It became a quandry: should I stop eating all foods that might have hidden hog, likely limiting where I can eat? Always ask the question “is this vegetarian”? Or, especially when invited into someone’s home, do I just not look too closely and eat my delicious greens?
For me, the pig journey became less about the traditional laws of kashrut and more about other Jewish traditions, ones I was raised to value and live out every day. Traditions like hospitality. Being a good host, and also being a good guest. Folks have made me meals in their home, or insisted on taking me to their beloved restaurant to experience their local culinary favorites. Favorites which may or may not have
pork some sort of meat lending flavor to the veggies. So, to question? Or to say thanks, and eat? Ultimately, I adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Those who know me well avoid serving up the meat they know I don’t eat. But in general, I simply accept hospitality. If I don’t see meat, I eat the meal, and am grateful to whoever prepped the meal for sharing it with me.
That’s my own choice, and certainly not one that works for everyone. But for me, a truly important part of this process was the engagement. The fact that I, like everyone else sharing their pork memoirs, thought about this very deeply – and knowing that all of this, somehow, has something to do with my identity. It wasn’t an easy or thoughtless decision. It was one I had to take seriously, because what we eat does matter, not only for our physical health but also for our mental and spiritual health.
At least, that’s true for me. And wherever you ultimately land on what you will or won’t eat, I think the contemplation-factor resonates for a lot of Jewish folks. We feel a connection to all food, and especially our individual acceptance or rejection of pork. Playing with your food may be rude, but wrestling with it, well – that seems pretty Jewish.
Beth Kander will be just fine in the coming A-Pork-Alypse. Will you? What are your thoughts about this tempting but taboo treyf treat?