Sandwiches: The Future of Judaism?
I’m sitting in the Green Sage Coffee House & Cafe in Asheville, NC. Staring at me, on a plate next to some sweet potato French fries, is the future of Judaism.
I’m talking about the tempeh reuben.
Like the sandwich that came before, the tempeh reuben is two pieces of grilled rye bread, delicately holding a symphony of sauerkraut, thousand island dressing and Swiss cheese. The twist: instead of a pile of corned beef, this sandwich is filled with tempeh, an earthy, Indonesian export brought to us by the hippies.
The reuben, like many Jewish icons, is not exactly Jewish. Some sources say it came from Omaha, the least Jewish place in the world, and others claim proudly that it was a New York creation. Either way, the sandwich that would become a staple in “kosher style” delis is not even kosher. Meat and milk, simple as that. Yet, to many people, the reuben is a Jewish icon.
This is the first truly kosher reuben I have ever seen. No meat/milk issues here. Just some sliced, grilled, fermented soy goodness piled high with all the trimmings. And I realize, in a moment before my bracha (prayer) over my meal, that this culinary masterpiece is an edible example of what Judaism will be for my generation.
When the cooks made this sandwich, they weren’t interested in my level of kosher or my Jewish identity. They were interested in taking something that they liked (the reuben) and making it work in their vegetarian diet. But by accident, they took an unkosher symbol of the Jewish tradition, and they made it kosher. By looking forward into the future, they managed to connect me with the most traditional form of Jewish expression.
This, to me, is how Judaism will work in the future. Taking what you love, and spinning it in a way that may not seem Jewish, but actually turns out to be more Jewish than you can imagine. What is Jewish about tempeh? Everything! The Jewish connection to the Earth, to treating animals fairly, to innovation, to blessing our food and to the tradition of kashrut.
My argument is simple: these vegetarian, hippie, Buddha worshiping, coffee shop people got me to connect with a religious tradition that is older and farther removed from the lives of my generation that they can ever imagine. Who cares how they did it? At this moment, looking at this dripping sandwich, I have had a Jewish “a-ha!” moment that rivals anything I have had in most synagogues I have visited.
So thank you to the fine cooks, servers and baristas at Green Sage for making me feel more Jewish by screwing up a sandwich!