Food, Freud & God

By far, my favorite and most used cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food – an Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Since Roden’s book is, essentially, a Jewish diaspora culinary survey, the book serves as a veritable tour of world cuisine, or at least wherever the trade winds took Jewish merchants and frequent expulsions took Jewish refugees.  Eastern Europe is given its respective space of course, but the most dog-eared battered pages in my copy are in North Africa and Asia, especially Morocco, Iran, Iraq and India (the dishes my dinner party guests may have already tired of are Fesenjan/Duck or Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnut Sauce, Kofta Mishmisheya /Lamb Meatballs in Apricot Sauce and Moroccan Mezze). Interspersed throughout the book, between different regions and courses, are short histories  — personal anecdotes and more general histories — of the various local Jewry, such as a quick rundown of the three different Jewish communities of India (the Cochinis, Bene Israel and Baghdadis) and the once vibrant community of the Greek Jewish population of Salonika, that make the book equally interesting as a colorful and engaging ethnographic guide as it is a cookbook.  The Sephardi World half of the book is subtitled “Many Styles of Sephardi Cooking, with Echoes from Ancient Baghdad, Medieval Spain and the Ottoman World.”  It more than lives up to the expectations that title inspires and includes recipes for savory pies from Salonika, soups from Yemen and various salads, rice and meat dishes from Iran, Italy, Morocco and Georgia.  The shopping for the ingredients alone  is worth investing in these dishes (especially if you have Sahadi’s nearby, Sahadi’s itself merits buying this book so you can actually feel like you are finally taking advantage of everything Sahadi’s has to offer).

Once, while flipping through the book with my mother, I came across a story about the author’s great-grandfather who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo in Syria. Already naturally inflated with ancestral pride (I was raised to believe Vilna Jews are inherently very special — hard even for me to tell whether I am being serious or not when I invoke it; it may have started as a way to tease my dad who has no roots in Vilna, where my mother is from, but if I am honest, maybe, sometimes,  in private moments, I think Vilna Jews are a little superior), I asked my mother “Do we have any chief rabbis in our family?” My mother replied: “No, I think we’re about 10th generation atheist.”

Spiritual thirst is a totally alien instinct to me and most of my extended family. It is not something we have ever spent any thought or energy on. It is a non-issue.  We did grow up with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything else though – history, politics, food, sports, art, music. Not that spirituality and engagement with the world are mutually exclusive, but the terrestrial world always seems to provide enough material  for us to get lost in.

Growing up in Israel, especially with roots in a kibbutz, there was a very clear,  loudly articulated and socially acceptable demarcation between the secular and the religious, often with much mutual disdain and incomprehension. And Israel being a Jewish country, “doing” Jewish things did not entail actually believing in their spiritual underpinnings. I carried this over when I moved here, and assumed that those who were modern, educated and sophisticated were surely also atheists who were religious only in their habits and practices of going to Church, observing holidays and following those precepts that helped them and made them good people. I did not – not for a second – think people actually believed. Especially not in the miracles. Living for many years in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, I quickly learned about all the magical “stuff” but always assumed that like Moses drawing water from a rock and an angel moving Abraham’s hand before he could kill Isaac, these were absorbed as myths with larger messages. Not so. Or at least not for a lot of great, sophisticated people I respected and admired. I learned the hard way that the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection are very serious, non-metaphorical, business indeed.  It was not merely about following the teachings of Christ.  And of course, after my limited exposure to religious Jews in Israel whom I dogmatically distrusted, I also met religious Jews who had first rate minds and intellects and are leaders in their professional fields (the amazing and accomplished Twerski family comes to mind – Professor Aaron Twerski,  a legal scholar, is maybe the top products liability expert in the country).  

After a few years of absorbing this realization – that a faithful mind could also be a truly modern sophisticated one – I became transfixed by it. Rather than wrestling with agnosticism, I have developed a deep hunger for understanding this and am always eager to hear it discussed by those whom I respect or at least have thought about their faith with the intellectual rigor they have applied to other parts of their lives. Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens recently had a famous public spar about it in Toronto, though that was more about the evils and virtues of organized religion, which is a lot less interesting. But still, an opportunity to hear someone who has excelled at Britian’s top institutions (and you know, was a popular Prime Minister, until he wasn’t) discuss faith.  But still, it left me unsatisfied, the rationality of faith itself wasn’t dissected quite enough.  My own personal attempts at engagement have mostly failed, as when a boy once asked me on a date, after learning I was an atheist, “But aren’t you worried about Judgment Day?”  — yeah that wasn’t heading anywhere especially edifying.

At last, I have finally come across a truly gratifying conversation about the subject in a play called Freud’s Last Session, at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theatre at the West Side YMCA. In this fun, hypothetical , pseudo-historical jaunt that takes place on one of the most memorably ominous days in modern history – Sept. 3, 1939 –  in Freud’s study in London, where he had taken refuge rather briefly before succumbing to cancer, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines what a meeting between CS Lewis and Freud would have been like*, and their inevitable conversation about their respective “faiths” – Freud’s sardonic declarations explaining why God does not exist, and CS Lewis’ earnest, charming incantations of why he does – you very nearly want to believe him. I could have sat there for a few more hours listening to those two actors and that script.  With the atrocities of Hitler about to be unleashed as the backdrop, the clear existence of evil and total absence of an interventionist God set the tone, and CS Lewis admits to wrestling with that very notion.

 And yet when Lewis talks to Freud about that craving that all humans seem to be born with for seeking some type of God or power higher than themselves, even I, who have never had that craving, had to admit that Lewis was actually using logic  pretty successfully to make his non-logical point, since it appears that most humans do (of course I believe it’s because the as-yet-unexplainable-by-science leads some to this, but still, it is pretty prevalent!).

Psychoanalysis was of course also at play, with the two literally and figuratively taking turns on the couch. Both had fathers whose religious fervor affected them very obviously and directly, with Freud musing that Lewis sought God as the father he never had (or at least one he could love) and with Freud clearly wanting to eschew the faith of a religious father who cowed and submitted to the anti-Semitism around him rather than stand up for himself – in the play Freud muses that he didn’t know whom he hated more, the man who had told his father to get off the sidewalk because he was a dirty Jew, or his father for doing so.

Another reason to see this play is the venue. One of the reasons I am pretty sure I won’t ever leave New York permanently is because there is always more of it. The theatre is in the West Side YMCA, one of the most beautiful buildings I think I’ve come across in this city in many many years, and it had somehow eluded me until last week. Need I say more?

*From the Playbill – “In his book The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. writes, ‘Did Freud and Lewis ever meet? The possibility is tantalizing. After Freud immigrated to England…(a) young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?’ – His speculation sparked this play.”

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One Response to “Food, Freud & God”

  1. Geoffhurst Says:

    Great! You also used the word, “eschew” which I have never been able to use in anything I ever wrote! Isn’t there any way to find out if they met? I know that’s off point but I still find the idea that they actually did intriguing.

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