In the history of religions, only we Jews have explored the metaphysical depths of the idea that a meat cleaver slicing through an onion will impart a meaty flavor to the sharp bulb and thus render it unfit for use in a salad containing, among its ingredients, feta (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 96:1-2).
As to the source of such reflections, surely you’ve heard some version of the Sinaitic dialogue between Moshe Rabbenu and haKadosh Baruch Hu that yielded the halachos of meat and dairy:
KBH: “One more thing, Moshe. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk!”
MR: “I see. We should cook milchigs and fleyshigs in separate pots?”
KBH: “No, Moshe! Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk!”
MR: “Oh, now I get it. After eating meat, we should wait from 72 minutes to six hours (depending upon the tradition of our Fathers) before we eat dairy?”
KBH: “Moshe! Listen up! Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk!”
MR: “Check! We shouldn’t serve fleyshigs on milchig plates and vice versa!”
KBH: “Gottenyu, Moshe! Have it your way!”
I like to think that even our sages would have gotten a chuckle out of this send-up of the apparent asymmetry of the written Torah’s mysterious recipe for goat stew and the oral Torah’s obsession with culinary apartheid. After all, they may have had just this case in mind when they portrayed Moshe Rabbenu as totally baffled by the halachos flying over his head in that storied classroom of Rabbi Akiva (Bavli Menahot 29b).
But, however we account for it, the law is the law, and for us the law prohibits cheeseburgers.
And I mourn.
Like most of my childhood friends, I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home sporting no less than three sets of dishes: glass for milchigs, stoneware for fleyshigs, and the chipped crockery and unmatched sets designated for treif.
The treif set was for special occasions, like when Dad brought home free quarts of shrimp with lobster sauce from the China Sky restaurant on Hempstead Turnpike as his reward for getting their refrigerator up and running on an August Sunday so hot that the compressor blew out by 9 a.m.
But we had our standards. Even on treif plates — “Out of respect for Gramma,” Mom said — we wouldn’t eat milk and meat in the house. For that you had to go out to Vinny Bifulco’s Pizzeria, where the veal parmesan hero was to die for! Thus it came to pass that the rich savor of hot meat simmering in melted cheese became the background aroma of my boyhood.
And so it remained until the spring afternoon in 1982 when, in a rash act of solidarity with our Israeli brothers, I took the occasion of the first war in Lebanon to foreswear treif and temper my yetzer on the iron anvil of the discipline of kashrus.
Through all these years of kashrus conformity, I’ve rarely been tempted by the thought of a rich filet mignon topped with a dollop of herb butter, or even a nice helping of shrimp with lobster sauce over some roast-pork fried rice. But give me even a whiff of warm beef bathed in a tangy cheddar cheese melt and my knees grow weak!
Which is why I used to love driving by the Philadelphia cheese steak joint on the corner of Union and 23rd on my way home from work. The aroma oozing from even its closed doors of winter would send me into a nostalgic swoon. My daughter Aviva rolls down the window and inhales deeply when we pass Ezell’s Fried Chicken a few blocks later; but for me, it’s the Philly cheese steak joint.
Or was — until the horrifying murder of its proprietor, Degene Barecha, this past winter. He was killed for no apparent reason by an aimless good-for-nothing who, as early as 2002, had been known to police “as a danger to his community.”
I never knew Mr. Barecha. By the papers’ accounts, he was a gentle, kind man: an Ethiopian immigrant working hard in pursuit of the American dream, and cheerfully supplying a real neighborhood need for good food at a fair price.
It’s taken months for the death of this man I never knew to sink in. I’ve regretted the many times I passed by his place and never stopped in to disclose the crucial role he played in the life of an observant Jewish commuter who never spent so much as a dime in his place.
“Mr. Barecha, I can’t eat here, but — I gotta tell ya — your kitchen exhaust fan mediates to me the aroma of the Garden of Eden!”
I like to think that such a gesture of appreciation coming from an unexpected source would have won me that dazzling smile I know from his picture in the paper.
But, of course, I never did. During the weeks after his death, as I observed the wilting memorial flowers in his dark doorway, my thoughts would turn over the endless “what ifs” that haunt those who fail to take the road less traveled.
Finally, a showstopper of a nightmare cured me of my self-indulgent fantasies. In my dream I am so overcome by the aroma of Philly cheese steak that I do turn off the road to express my gratitude. And just as I approach Mr. Barecha, a deranged gunman chooses to pay his own cruel call.
In an uncharacteristic moment of physical courage, instead of diving under a table, I leap to intercept the murderous missile, and the bullet meant for Mr. Barecha finds me instead!
And as my life passes before my eyes, I see with prophetic clarity how the headline editor of the Seattle Times’ “Local” page will gloss my self-sacrifice:
Cheese steaks to die for?
Award winning Jewish columnists, UW Jewish Studies prof. shot while transgressing halachic taboo.