When the bald eagle was chosen as America’s national bird, Benjamin Franklin expressed his disappointment because of what he termed the bird’s “bad moral character.” He favored the turkey.
On Sunday afternoon, spinning inside a rotisserie oven at a Main Line restaurant were about a half dozen of Franklin’s preferred birds. But this time they were being given a Jewish spin. The rotisserie was inside Citron and Rose, a new kosher restaurant, and Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, a well-known modern Orthodox rabbi from New York, was dishing turkey tidbits.
For example: Do you know which country once led the world in turkey consumption? That’s right: Israelis are wild for turkey. Soloveichik made reference to the National Turkey Federation’s study which found that Israel ate more of the bird per capita than any other country in 1999, the last time the statistic was tracked in the country.
But Jews and turkey have not always gone hand in leg, Soloveichik told the 20 or so diners who had come for a feast and learning program billed as “The Curious Halakhic History of the Thanksgiving Turkey,” sponsored by the Kohelet Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting local Jewish education.
Soloveichik mixed factoids with theology while diners drank wine and waited for pumpkin knishes, among other hip Thanksgiving dishes.
“There are a lot of laws and rules when it comes to food, and part of that is to get us to think about, what does food mean to us,” Soloveichik, who is leading a series of food discussions at the restaurant, said before his talk.
In the Torah, 24 species of birds are forbidden; turkey is not one of them, said Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
For biblical sages, though, determining what these birds were wasn’t so easy. They decided that a bird must not be a predator. Soloveichik noted the other characteristics — one of them being a muscular pouch near the throat — but avoided too much detail to preserve guests’ appetites.
Still, when turkey first arrived in Europe from the New World in the 16th century, Ashkenazi Jews were uncertain if it was kosher even though it met the standards because there was no tradition of Jews eating it.
Several theories exist for how Jews came to eat it, the rabbi explained. One postulates that Sephardi Jews first started feasting on the fowl because they did not require such a tradition. Ashkenazi Jews, aware of their co-religionists’ habit, saw a tradition cooking and then started to eat it, too.
Soloveichik linked the turkey to the dove — which he’d have liked to see become Israel’s national bird, rather than the hoopoe — to Jews and America.
When Jews came across the Atlantic, they arrived in a country, that, like the turkey, they had no tradition with.
“The land of the turkey fulfilled the hopes of the dove,” said the rabbi, himself an example of the acceptance of Jews in the democratic nation. Soloveichik attended a Chanukah Party at the White House under President George W. Bush and gave the opening prayer at the Republican convention this year in Florida.
After his talk, Soloveichik sat at a table with guests and waited for the food. He grinned and said, “I love birds.”