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In the wake of former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s death last week, tears flowed freely. So, too, did references to a remarkable number of Jewish words, concepts and rituals.

Ed Koch
Ed Koch. Flickr/Glenn Dettwiler
Some of them came from the deceased himself. In a video interview with the New York Times, which was not published until after Mr. Koch’s death, he allowed as how he, Yidl Itzhak, was “just this little Jewish kid from the Bronx!” His headstone, meanwhile, bore the last words of the journalist Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Others made a point of characterizing Ed Koch as the “proudest of Jews,” and as a man distinguished, through and through, by his chutzpah.

Then there was the inside joke made by Michael Bloomberg. At Koch’s funeral at the majestic Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, the current mayor began his remarks by saying how gratified he was that Koch had arranged to have his funeral at “my neighborhood shul.” How the 20th century grandees of Temple Emanu-El would have cringed to hear their monument to Reform Judaism likened to a modest, unassuming and decidedly East European synagogue.

It’s a measure of how far things have changed in contemporary America that Bloomberg not only made the remark in the first place, but also saw no need to translate the word “shul” into English: the reference stood on its own. A second, equally revealing, measure of change was the ease and familiarity with which Mayor Koch’s longtime Chief of Staff, Diane Coffey, publicly announced that “a shiva for the family” was going to be held at Gracie Mansion. No explanation necessary.

Elsewhere, the New York Times, for its part, indicated that “mourners, led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will sit shiva for Mr. Koch at Gracie Mansion.” Did the Times get that wrong? Or had the current mayor just inaugurated a brand new ritual in which political figures publicly mourned the passing of one of their Jewish colleagues?

Either way, there’s no doubt that, in life and in death, Edward I. Koch took Jewishness to a whole new level, rendering it as public as a proclamation from City Hall.

What a difference a year makes. Last autumn, New York City was all agog at the prospect of “Sukkah City” taking root in Union Square Park. Eleven different designs of an outdoor hut, the fruits of an international design competition, were scattered around the perimeter of the park, drawing thousands of visitors and generating considerable press, all of it favorable.

Sukkah City
Sukkah City, 2010. Flickr/SpecialKRB
But this fall, in striking contrast, an attempt to install a sukkah in nearby TriBeCa’s Duane Park by a local Chabad rabbi and his wife kicked up quite a rumpus of disapproval.

In lieu of a chorus of hosannas, of sprightly talk about open source tradition and artistic innovation, the dominant register was of negativity and resistance. Citing the First Amendment, opponents of the sukkah claimed that the structure ran the risk of violating the separation of church and state. “I don’t want to encourage having all sorts of religious things in our public parks,” stated a neighborhood resident.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that “Sukkah City” might betoken a sea change in the public’s embrace of the ancient ritual structure. After all, for much of their history, urban American Jews found it much too difficult to erect a sukkah of their own, preferring to rely on that of their local synagogue.

When American Jews first lived in tenements, there was hardly any room for a sukkah, save for an uncongenial fire escape. Later still, when upwardly mobile American Jews moved to well-equipped apartment houses, erecting a sukkah clashed too strenuously with their newly acquired bourgeois norms of discretion and politesse. And these days, amid heightened concern about the establishment of religion, a public sukkah continues to be somewhat of a shaky proposition.

Still, as things turned out, there is room for common ground. Happily, the residents of TriBeCa secured an alternative venue for the Chabad sukkah. Instead of nesting in a public space, it found a temporary home on an empty lot, the private property of a local real estate company with a strong sense of neighborliness.

Many moons ago, when I was in college, I rarely pulled an all-nighter. I had too hard a time staying up until the wee hours of the morn. But now, when my internal clock sees to it that I’m wide awake in the middle of the night, I have come to understand what I missed way back when. Pulling an all-nighter is fun, especially when you have someone to keep you company.

Shavuot postage stamp
Shavuot postage stamp, designed by Asher Kalderon. Flickr/Karen Horton.
Just the other evening, I had lots of company, when, in celebration of Shavuot, the ancient Jewish festival that commemorates, among other things, the giving of the Torah, hundreds upon hundreds of American Jews, myself among them, descended en masse on the JCC in Manhattan for a tikkun leil Shavuot, which commenced at 10 p.m. and ended at sunrise. An age-old custom that has been revived of late, the tikkun infuses the rhythms of the all-nighter with religious and cultural meaning.

Flooding the lobby, the halls and the stairwells of the JCC, some of us came for the cheesecake, others in search of companionship and still others for the learning, which ran the gamut from traditional text study to film screenings and classes in meditation and dance.

What was most striking, though, wasn’t the wide and determinedly untraditional array of classes or the spiritedness of those who, in the middle of the night, were avidly engaged in a discussion of one fine point or another. What was most eye-opening, even exhilarating, was the heterogeneity of those in attendance.

The variegatedness of modern Jewish life is often cause for dismay, much less the butt of humor. Most of the time, American Jewry shuttles between joking and fretting about its seemingly characterological inability to agree on anything.

But last Tuesday night, when so many different kinds of Jews came together under one roof and in celebration rather than protest, our variegatedness was, quite literally, a sight to behold and applaud.

What's kosher -- and what's not -- has been the subject of intense discussion ever since the dietary laws were first promulgated in Leviticus, way back when.

The fault line along which the Jews have defined themselves vis-a-vis the outside world, kashruth in the modern era has also divided the Jews among themselves. With the advent of modernity, growing numbers of Jews began to jettison the dietary laws, insisting that conscience rather than cuisine, ethics rather than ritual behavior, should inspire them.

Others, however, rejected this position out of hand and resolutely kept on keeping kosher, while still others (the majority, perhaps?) sought a middle ground, choosing, as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has so evocatively put it, to be "selectively treyf."

Under the confusing circumstances, one might think that kashruth would eventually have gone the way of so many other biblically-mandated practices: into the dustbin of history. But, in this instance, as in so many others that have to do with religion's surprisingly resilient encounter with modernity, not only has keeping kosher not withered away but, as Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff's new book vividly points out, it has emerged in the 21st century with renewed vigor, especially among a younger generation of Jews for whom kashruth affords an authentically Jewish response to the ethics and practices of responsible eating.

What, then, are we to make of the recent news that a cookbook roundly celebrating the delights of pork, an animal historically anathematized by the Jews, has recently been published, and in Israel of all places?

Eli Landau's The White Book is hardly the first cookbook whose Jewish author advocated the use of unkosher items. Aunt Babette's Cook Book, which was first released in the United States in 1889 by Bloch Publishing and Printing Company, has it beat by more than a century. But Landau's compendium is surely the first to thrust pork loin front and center and with no sign of apologetics to sweeten the dish.

Could this represent a watershed in the history of the Jewish people, or is it merely a tempest in a teapot?

For some, a pork cookbook sold in Israel makes as much sense as the above sign. Credit: joeventures, creative commons licensed on Flickr.

There's something about the sea that captivates. Perhaps it's the play of light on the water's surface or the inexorability of its motions: back and forth, back and forth, it goes. Whatever the reasons, the sea beckons. Its hold on us is even more irresistible when joined to rituals such as tashlich, the symbolic casting of our sins into the water, an activity that is as much a part of the Rosh Hashana repertoire of extra-synagogal things to do as eating a new fruit or dousing it with honey.

Little wonder, then, that over the years tashlich has held its own.

Wherever Jews lived -- in England, France, the United States, Turkey or India -- they could be found on the first day of the Jewish New Year, standing by a body of water, be it ocean, river, lake, stream, pond or creek. Some clutched clumps of bread in their hands, which they then throw into the current: away, away with our wrongdoings!

Others, like the Bene-Israel, made use of a small pamphlet, The Remission of Vows and the Prayer Offered on the Sea Shore.

Published in Bombay in 1864 by the Bene-Israel Improvement Society, probably as a fundraising device, this humble, 20-page compendium -- another one of the Kiev Collection's treasures -- contains all manner of prayers. Most of them would be familiar to those of us who know our way around the mahzor, the liturgical text used on Rosh Hashana -- familiar, that is, if we could read Marathi.

With the exception of the title page and the frontispiece -- which, in a show of typographic derring-do, featured seven different kinds of English-language fonts, and the occasional appearance of Hebrew, whose hand-set aleph tilts mischievously to the right -- the entire text is written in this ancient Indian language.

Of a different order, but equally compelling, is Tashlich at Turtle Rock, a recently published children's book by Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman.

Intended for youngsters between the ages of five and nine, it links the modern conventions of the adventure yarn to those of the ancient ritual, heartening its readers along the way.

From the shores of the Arabian Sea to a creek at Turtle Rock, from the mid-19th century on through the 21st century, Jewish life ebbs and flows.

Image credit: Kiev Collection.

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