Article raises questions about sensitivity

BY DAVID RUBIN

Last week I opened the Saturday St. Louis Post Dispatch, and was surprised to find the following headline on the inside page: “POPULAR SOFT DRINK RETURNS TO THE MENU AT THE JCC.”

Of course, my first reaction was to regret the fact that our town’s once venerated paper, founded by none other than Joseph Pulitzer himself, had now reached the point where the Jewish Community Center’s drink inventory is second page news.

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But as I read on, I came upon an issue of much larger importance. The essence of the article was that a trouble- making “Super Orthodox” Jew had seen the Gatorade at the J and made a stink about it. With apparent use of inside information the rest of us lack, the wise columnist explained that Gatorade really is kosher, but it lacks a special kosher insignia indicating approval by a rabbinical inspection agency. The columnist went on to advise us that “most soft drinks have such a certificate, which, according to those in the know about the “Kosher Nostra,” say can cost a pretty penny.” In other words, the “Super Orthodox” Jew was attempting to coerce the J into kowtowing to this Jewish Mafia strongarm attempt, even though of course, the true facts were that it was entirely unnecessary.

According to the column, our J’s Board members — modern day Maccabees — were heroically determined to stand up to these no good “Kosher Nostra” Tony Sopranos and their extremist “ultra-Orthodox” allies, by selling Gatorade anyway. Hooray for them.

Sadly, I know that many people would read something like this and say to themselves that they don’t see the problem. Clearly someone at the J, probably Jewish, was the source of the information, and they relayed it casually and “knowingly.” The reporter herself — who is Jewish — said she never thought of the characterizations as offensive. She thought they were funny. And apparently, the editors of Businessweek thought so too, because they picked it up and put it on their website. Now that it is on the Internet, no doubt people in Ramallah and Damascus can have a good laugh too.

Well, I want to tell all those people who think the article is funny, that I don’t find it so. I find it offensive. I don’t think that I am “Super Orthodox” or “Ultra Orthodox.” Frankly, I don’t even know what those characterizations mean. Most people who know me would agree that I am an unlikely candidate for a long black coat and white stockings. But I do watch what I eat and serve to my guests. And I am not alone. A lot of Jews of all stripes do — Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative. I personally believe that Kashrut was commanded at Mount Sinai. Even many of those who don’t, nevertheless believe the tradition deserves respect if for no other reason than the fact that Jews have done it for thousands of years. It’s part of who we are as a People.

I don’t know anything about a “Kosher Nostra.” What I do know is that the good people who work for our local Vaad Hoeir, and for the OU and the CRC and the Star K and others, make it possible for me to follow my religious beliefs. Because of the complexities of industrial food production, if it wasn’t for them, I would not be able to do so. And it’s not just me and other Jews, lots of health conscious food consumers and even religious Muslims, rely on these important inspection services. We all know that if there is no insignia on the item, we can’t eat it. As to the J, the building is supposed to be kosher. There is a caf é there that is supposed to be kosher and there is an important kosher caterer in the building. A person doesn’t need to be “Super Orthodox” to be concerned about an unkosher item being sold in a building that is supposed to be kosher. It should be of concern to any person –Jew or Non-Jew — who wants to be sensitive to the needs of a fellow person who happens to keep kosher.

The smart people who came before us here in St. Louis and in most other U.S. cities determined that Jewish community institutions should stand for Jewish unity. That means that all members of the Jewish community should be made to feel welcome in any place that is intended to serve all of us. And as Americans, we know what that means. It means that it isn’t enough that one Jewish child can stand outside the classroom while the “majority” Christian children say a prayer in school. It means that the Jewish child and the Muslim child and the Hindu child must all be allowed to feel they are no different from the other children.

So if we all understand this concept, why is it so easy for many people who are “super attuned” and “sensitive” to the needs of religious Muslims, “People of Color”, “differently-abled” and everyone else, to be so tone deaf when it comes to offending fellow Jews? I can’t answer that. All I can do is suggest that it’s something I hope we can all be more careful about. For those who used to think this kind of thing is funny, you now know it is not. Sure, you can try to rationalize it — you probably met a rude Orthodox Jew some time, or a rabbi didn’t let you serve asparagus at your son’s bar mitzvah. But you know deep down, that what the other guy does doesn’t justify your own insensitive behavior. You know that if you met a rude lady in a wheelchair who inconvenienced you, you wouldn’t suddenly become indifferent or hostile to the disabled in general. After growing up here, I believe that most of us St. Louisans try to be sensitive and considerate people. Its one of our values as a community — we’re the city that claps when the other team makes a good play. So I’m putting it out there — let’s all of us try to be more careful of each other’s feelings. We all know it’s the right thing to do.

By the way, the good news is that the alleged board decision never took place. The article was wrong from the start.

So, let’s take this second chance and make certain that the J board works with its fellow community institution, the Vaad Hoeir. Working together, I have no doubt that an accommodation can be reached that really is respectful of all St. Louis Jews — and after all, isn’t that what Jewish unity is truly all about?

David Rubin is a local attorney.