Dershowitz visits Oslo (sort of)

Ask Orthodox Jews in Norway where one can find a fresh shoulder of kosher beef and they will give the same answer -- nowhere. There is more to this obscure fact than a clash between Jewish tradition and the concerns of animal-rights activists in today's Europe, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told a Jewish forum in Oslo. This is a symbolic fact about tensions that surround Jews in Norway.

"You live in the only country in the world today that does not permit kosher shechita," he said, at the city's Chabad House. "Shechita" is a rite in which a skilled Jew uses an extremely sharp blade to swiftly sever an animal's trachea, esophagus and the arteries and veins of the neck, allowing blood to drain out.

"They wonder why there are only 800 Jews or 900 Jews living in Norway. This is a country that permits the butchering of seals, the butchering of whales, but not this ritual slaughter -- which has been proved by every scientific means to be one of the most humane means of slaughter."

The audience grasped the big idea behind his words, since this March 25 event -- which was recorded -- was held in an outreach center for observant Jews. How can Jews honor the details of their ancient faith without keeping kosher?

However, Dershowitz noted that when he asked other Jewish community leaders about any anti-Semitic trends in Norway, all they would say is that "things are wonderful," before falling silent.

"How can things be wonderful," he added, "if you can't have your own meat? How do you deal with the meat here, do you have to bring it in from England?"

Someone in the audience quietly replied: "We don't talk about certain things."

Among First Amendment and criminal law attorneys, few are as famous and infamous as Dershowitz. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 and, three years later, was promoted to full professor at age 28. Even a brief summary of his courtroom career would include a gallery of clients such as porn star Harry "Deep Throat" Reems, British socialite Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. In the 1970s his attempts to defend Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky made global headlines.

Dershowitz didn't travel to Norway just to talk about dietary laws.

The goal was to lecture about legal affairs and, especially, the role of international law in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through the years. However, the Zionist group that organized the tour -- the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem -- found that Norwegian academic leaders were not anxious to have Dershowitz lecture on their campuses, at no expense to the hosts.

The dean of the Bergen University law faculty, according to Dershowitz, said the school would "be honored to have Prof. Dershowitz give a lecture on the O.J. Simpson case, as long as he promises not to say a word about Israel." The Harvard professor has written six books about the Middle East, advocating a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian standoff.

Israel was the key, in part because of 2009 debates at Norwegian universities about a proposed boycott at Jewish Israeli scholars and others who support Israel. However, rather than focusing on recent conflicts about occupied territories, Dershowitz noted that the text defining the boycott began by saying: "Since 1948 the state of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights."

In addition to challenging the founding of the state of Israel, the first academic leader to sign the boycott petition also offered a harsh critique of the "egocentric ... tribe-mentality" among Jews in Israel, Norway and "all over the world."

While Norwegian leaders keep talking about dialogue on these issues, said Dershowitz, it will be hard for Jewish leaders to take part in bridge-building efforts if their voices are not allowed to be heard. The only previous time in his career in which he was turned away from major universities was in "apartheid South Africa, when I was Nelson Mandela's lawyer."

The bottom line: Boycotts do not promote dialogue.

Based on recent events, Dershowitz said it appears Norwegian intellectuals want "dialogue with Hamas, but not with Dershowitz. Dialogue with Hamas, but not with Israel. … Dialogue with people that we agree with, but not with people we disagree with. This is not dialogue. This is a one-way monologue."

Food and the basic faith groups

It's Yom Kippur. Will your Jewish grandmother serve shrimp-and-bacon hordeurves when the family breaks the fast?

It's Ramadan. Will your devout Muslim parents smile if you serve dinner several hours before sundown?

It's Good Friday. Will the Catholic college cafeteria serve hamburgers?

It's Thanksgiving. Can you predict the foods that will be on your mother's table? Will the German grandmothers bake Christmas cookies at the Lutheran church? Is the tuna casserole served at potluck dinners at rural Minnesota churches truly a sacrament?

When it comes to the rhythms and symbols of faith, it's easy to see the role that food plays, especially in the intense and emotional final months of the religious calendar.

"Food is all about the stories that define our lives," said Daniel Sack of the University of Chicago Divinity School, author of the book "Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture."

"I'm not just talking about religious rituals that involve food. ? For many church people, what happens in the social hall week after week is more important than what happens in the sanctuary. They come for Communion, but also for community."

Sack said food traditions -- with a big "T," as well as with a small "t" -- demonstrate why it's almost impossible to draw a line showing where religion ends and culture begins. Food is one of the basic building blocks of life and, thus, is one of the "passions" that religious believers have always struggled to keep under control.

Change what people eat and you change their lives. However, there are times when the religious significance of food is obvious and there are times when it is not. While studying this subject, Sack said he began sorting the different kinds of food traditions into four groups.

* Sometimes, the food becomes a holy object in and of itself. One example is when a Buddhist takes a food offering to a temple. In other cases, ordinary food becomes sacred as part of an intricate ritual that is defined by prayers and scripture -- such as the bread and wine in a Catholic Mass.

"What is crucial is that this sacramental understanding of food seeps into other parts of life," said Sack. "And we're not just talking about Christianity. If you start talking about bread and wine, it's hard to take that symbolism out of there."

* Most religious traditions, to varying degrees, claim some right to control the role that food plays in daily life. This is most obvious in faiths such as Judaism, with its "kosher" traditions, and in Islamic laws to establish what is and what is not "halal." In other faiths, believers fast from eating certain foods at different times of the week or year.

* In many cases, these sacred laws and traditions then begin to shape the festivals and the cuisine of a particular culture or ethnic group. At this point the line between Greek cooking and Greek Orthodox cooking starts to blur. What role does faith play in the menus of Ethiopian, Italian, Lebanese, Indian or Swedish restaurants?

* Food also reflects what people believe about family and community life. It would be strange to see conservative Evangelical leaders serve the same food at a men's dinner that they serve a luncheon for the women's group. Foods reflect social roles, too.

Sack said that every community, every family, cannot help but develop informal rituals linked to meals, because meals are such symbolic times of fellowship. And when the times change, so do the meals.

Consider the food served at youth-group meetings. Once, parents organized these meetings and prepared the food, helping to maintain a sense of watch-care and protection from the outside world. Today, most churches hire professional youth pastors who plan multi-media programs and -- naturally -- send out for pizza.

"When we assimilate at the level of the table, we have truly assimilated to the world around us," said Sack. "When you take this view of life, those parents are not just sending out for pizza -- they are sending a symbolic signal of acceptance of the surrounding youth culture. ?

"You see the same thing happening when people start lining up those fast-food boxes at church potluck dinners. Some megachurches even have food courts, these days. Who has the time to prepare those special dishes that people used to take to church?"

Cheeseburgers in Jerusalem

It was the night before Melanie Preston's immigration flight to Israel and the 28-year-old daughter of a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father knew exactly what she wanted to eat.

"I want a cheeseburger, right now," she said, scanning a trendy South Florida menu. "You can get cheeseburgers in Israel, but you can't get a really good one. You know?"

This wasn't just a wisecrack about the kosher tradition of separating meat and dairy products. This was the kind of symbolic issue that Preston faced when she signed up for one of the free tours that have taken 70,000 young Jews to Israel during the past five years.

The global Birthright Israel program is open to young people between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been on an organized tour of Israel. It doesn't matter if they have one Jewish parent or two. It doesn't matter if they have no idea why some Jews eat cheeseburgers and some do not.

"There are cheeseburgers in Israel. You can get them at McDonald's and some places serve them just like regular hamburgers," said Marlene Post, chair of Birthright Israel in North America. "You make your choices. If she's planning on being religious, then she will never see another cheeseburger in her life. If she's going to be secular she will have all the options she would have anywhere else."

This tension between Judaism the faith and Judaism the culture has been part of Israel from the start. Thus, one of the key philanthropists behind is Wall Street legend Michael Steinhardt -- an avowed atheist. Nevertheless, he joined the Israeli government and a coalition of donors, foundations and civic groups to fund this experiment.

The young people can select tours that emphasize education, art, recreation, religion or nothing in particular during their 10-day visits. They float in the Dead Sea and hike the Golan Heights, hang out with young Israeli soldiers and meet Holocaust survivors, visit security checkpoints and tour in buses tracked by on-board global positioning systems.

It isn't hard to spot the agenda, said Roman Smolkin, a 24-year-old computer professional in Aventura. Insiders stress the need for young people to "bond" with the state of Israel. Others talk about helping them establish a sense of "Jewish identity," whether religious or secular. Clearly, the constant late-night socializing is meant to facilitate friendships, some hooking up and even Jewish marriages.

"I think they're just trying to get people like us to be us, to be ourselves. They want us to act like young Jews," he said, during a dinner with Preston and several other tour veterans in South Florida. "But the people funding this must be thinking in terms of a very long-term investment for Israel and for Judaism. They must be thinking that they give us this trip now and, 30 years down the road we'll be different people."

For Harrison Heller, the impact was immediate. When he returned to Boca Raton he promptly signed up with Students for Israel and began speaking out politically. He still considers himself non-religious, although he now wears a prominent Star of David necklace.

"The whole religious thing is impossible to avoid," he said. "One of the very first application forms that we had to complete came right out and asked that question. It said, 'Are you Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just a Jew?' You can't get more direct than that."

Preston wrestled with the faith issue as she prepared for "aliyah" -- the Hebrew word that means "to ascend," or move to Israel. She said she was raised "sort-of Reform" and "did the Christmas thing every year, but with no church services." Before Birthright Israel, she thought a "kibbutz" was a kind of boat.

Long after the tour, she had a tearful epiphany when she heard a Scottish folk singer attack Israel during a music festival in Montreal.

"What I've discovered," she said, "is that it's almost impossible to get involved in the life and politics of Israel without getting underneath that into the religious questions. ... That's what Israel is all about. It's great. It's scary. I love it. It's frustrating. I'm moving there.

"What can I say? I know that I can't escape the Israel question now, because it's my question."