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Interview'Why would a people not consume something so protein-rich?'

What’s with Judaism’s pork taboo? Documentary film ‘Magnificent Beast’ bores into it

Mother-son duo Tess and Josh Gerritsen travel the world to find out why pigs are so controversial in the movie screening virtually at the Miami Jewish Film Festival through Jan. 26

  • 'Magnificent Beast' co-director and producer Terry Gerritsen in Amsterdam, November 4, 2019. (Courtesy)
    'Magnificent Beast' co-director and producer Terry Gerritsen in Amsterdam, November 4, 2019. (Courtesy)
  • Josh Gerritsen, co-director and producer of 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy)
    Josh Gerritsen, co-director and producer of 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy)
  • Zooarchaeologist Katheryn Twiss of Stony Brook University explains the genetic changes that came with the domestication of the pig in 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    Zooarchaeologist Katheryn Twiss of Stony Brook University explains the genetic changes that came with the domestication of the pig in 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
  • 'Magnificent Beast' looks at all angles of the relationship between pigs and people, including a visit with The Squeal Team Six hunting group in Wolfe City, Texas, established to help rid local farms of nuisance feral swine. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    'Magnificent Beast' looks at all angles of the relationship between pigs and people, including a visit with The Squeal Team Six hunting group in Wolfe City, Texas, established to help rid local farms of nuisance feral swine. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
  • 'Magnificent Beast' visits with pet pig owners as part of the film's exploration of the domestic pig and the relationship between pigs and humans. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    'Magnificent Beast' visits with pet pig owners as part of the film's exploration of the domestic pig and the relationship between pigs and humans. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
  • Many pet pig owners like Tom Fanning of Florida treat their pigs as they do their dogs or cats, as seen in 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    Many pet pig owners like Tom Fanning of Florida treat their pigs as they do their dogs or cats, as seen in 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
  • Chef Melissa Kelly, owner of Primo restaurant and farm in Rockland, Maine, established an annual Pig Day during which her staff and guests pay respect to the animal and fully embrace its culinary potential, as seen in 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    Chef Melissa Kelly, owner of Primo restaurant and farm in Rockland, Maine, established an annual Pig Day during which her staff and guests pay respect to the animal and fully embrace its culinary potential, as seen in 'Magnificent Beast.' (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
  • 'Magnificent Beast' looks at the history of the pig through centuries of civilization, and the ways in which it has been revered as well as reviled. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    'Magnificent Beast' looks at the history of the pig through centuries of civilization, and the ways in which it has been revered as well as reviled. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
  • The documentary 'Magnificent Beast' examines how ferocious wild boar such as this one were domesticated through the centuries and across continents, yet still remain a threat to livestock and humans. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)
    The documentary 'Magnificent Beast' examines how ferocious wild boar such as this one were domesticated through the centuries and across continents, yet still remain a threat to livestock and humans. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)

Celebrating the inaugural graduating class of rabbis from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1883, a famous dinner in Cincinnati had a sinfully decadent menu. Known to history as the Trefa Banquet, its courses represented a culinary challenge to the kosher laws, featuring treif — or non-kosher — food such as biblically prohibited crustacean and shellfish dishes.

Yet even though the banquet took place in a city nicknamed for its pig industry, there was one notable omission: pork. The pig taboo is arguably the most widely known and observed of all the Jewish culinary proscriptions, and a new documentary film explores its origins. “Magnificent Beast” by the mother-and-son duo of Tess and Josh Gerritsen is screening at the Miami Jewish Film Festival through January 26, and will air on PBS starting February 6.

“I think people have loved it,” Tess Gerritsen said in a Zoom interview between the filmmakers and The Times of Israel. “The number one thing I hear is, ‘I had no idea pigs were that complex, I learned more about this animal than I ever knew.’ People who raise pigs on the family farm say the film tells them things they never knew.”

Tess Gerritsen is also a bestselling mystery novelist whose “Rizzoli & Isles” titles have enthralled readers worldwide. With “Magnificent Beast,” she and her son tackled a different kind of mystery — a culinary one. She said that coming from a Chinese background, she had not been familiar with Judaism’s pork taboo, and after majoring in anthropology in college, she grew more curious about it.

As she explained, “The whole thing about food taboos puzzled me. Why would anybody choose not to consume something calorie-rich and protein-rich?”

Overall, she said, “I love mysteries. I love to answer a question, whether it’s a murder mystery or not. I want to know the answer. It’s one of the reasons we made the film.”

‘Magnificent Beast’ co-director and producer Terry Gerritsen in Amsterdam, November 4, 2019. (Courtesy)

Like a good mystery, the investigators found a key source near the end of the story. As they were wrapping up their project, the Maine-based filmmakers received a suggestion to interview one more expert — David Freidenreich, a professor of Jewish studies. Not only is he a scholar of religious dietary restrictions, but he also teaches at nearby Colby College.

“He was quite a find,” Josh Gerritsen said. “We felt so lucky to have found him. He’s the glue that really brings the whole film narrative together.”

“The Colby professor really crystallized it,” Tess Gerritsen said. Referencing Freidenreich’s comment near the end of the film, she added, “We are what we eat. Our identity, for so many people, is tied in with our diet… It makes you see the world in a different way.”

Josh Gerritsen, co-director and producer of ‘Magnificent Beast.’ (Courtesy)

To make the film, the Gerritsens traveled across the United States and even to the UK and Egypt. They met owners and their pet pigs — including one that bit Tess Gerritsen. They joined the chefs and foodies attending a pork-themed event in Boston sponsored by an organization called Cochon 555, while in Maine they visited the farm-to-table Primo Restaurant, which raises its own pigs and holds a Pig Day to celebrate their many pork-based foods — head cheese, pate, sausage and bacon — with a grateful toast to the animals that provide it. And in Texas, they interviewed members of a company called Squeal Team Six that hunts invasive wild hogs, with the filmmakers even capturing a nighttime kill on camera.

‘Magnificent Beast’ looks at all angles of the relationship between pigs and people, including a visit with The Squeal Team Six hunting group in Wolfe City, Texas, established to help rid local farms of nuisance feral swine. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)

As for the perspective of the pigs themselves, “I have to admit, I was nervous,” Tess Gerritsen said. “They’re big animals. It was a little bit scary. If they really want to kill you, they will, although they’re not as bad as a velociraptor. I was respectful… Each individual animal had a personality. At the end, there’s a 700-pound pig that escaped from the slaughter who looks like a little hippo. He’s enormous. But he’s as gentle a giant as you can come across.”

The film features Hollywood clips that show pigs across the personality spectrum — from cute and cuddly (Babe) to man-eating wild boars (Hannibal). There’s also a “Family Guy” segment about “a pig who refuses to eat Jews.”

‘Magnificent Beast’ visits with pet pig owners as part of the film’s exploration of the domestic pig and the relationship between pigs and humans. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)

As Freidenreich explains in the film, the pork taboo in Judaism is rooted in two separate biblical passages outlining animals that are clean and unclean to eat. Pigs fall under the category of quadruped land animals, and to be considered clean, such species must have split hooves and chew their cud. Pigs have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud — rendering them unclean.

While the prohibition is clear, its origins seem less so.

“There are very different opinions on where the pig taboo comes from,” Josh Gerritsen said. “All of the archaeologists [interviewed in the film] are friends and colleagues. They said, ‘I respect so-and-so, but they’re wrong. This is the reason.’”

Zooarchaeologist Katheryn Twiss of Stony Brook University explains the genetic changes that came with the domestication of the pig in ‘Magnificent Beast.’ (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)

In the film, some experts suggest that the ancient Israelites picked up the taboo when they were slaves in Egypt. Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at American University, notes that pigs were associated with Set, the god of chaos, and that while many animals were mummified as pets or food for the afterlife, pig mummies have never been found. Yet there are complexities, she adds: Although the pharaoh ate cow, poor and middle-class Egyptians ate pork. Freidenreich cites another complication — archaeologists still haven’t found evidence of the mass exodus chronicled in the Bible and depicted in another Hollywood clip: “The Ten Commandments.”

Ikram, Freidenreich and other scholars suggest alternative possibilities. She suggests that there was a distaste for pigs’ proclivity to eat carrion or their young, while he wonders whether the Israelites feared the ecological damage pigs could do to a pair of species that were kosher — sheep and goats.

Regardless of the reason, Ikram notes the longstanding nature of the taboo not only in Judaism, but also in Islam under halal. (Even in Israel, the taboo is not uniformly followed, as New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman discovered when he encountered “white steak” at an Ashkelon restaurant — an anecdote he shared in his memoir “From Beirut to Jerusalem.”) Over the centuries, as the ever-so-adaptable pig spread across the globe and became domesticated and incorporated into the cuisine of many different cultures, Freidenreich says that Jews had additional incentives to maintain the pork taboo.

The pig “really becomes a symbolic marker of ‘are you Jewish’ or ‘are you not Jewish,’ even ‘are you anti-Jewish,’” Freidenreich says in the film. “Jews become very skeptical about associating themselves with pigs. Rabbis forbade Jews from trading pigs, participating in the sale and distribution of pork.”

‘Magnificent Beast’ looks at the history of the pig through centuries of civilization, and the ways in which it has been revered as well as reviled. (Courtesy Donkey Universe Films)

And yet, in America, things became a little more fluid for immigrant Jews — especially in New York City, where the Lower East Side bordered Chinatown. The filmmakers track an informal but well-chronicled exemption from kashrut — Chinese restaurants. Although the Trefa Banquet did not include pork on the menu, Jews became comfortable ordering it in a Chinese restaurant for various reasons. Freidenreich suggests that Jews of the era liked what they saw as the cosmopolitanism of Chinese food, and also that it did not represent the antisemitic Europe they had just fled.

“There was a feeling of safety in a Chinese restaurant,” Tess Gerritsen said. And, she added, “Maybe a little pork in an egg roll would be ‘safe treif’… not the same as ham for Easter.”

The Gerritsens learned enough about pigs to hope that people will have a newfound respect for them — whether they eat pork or not.

“They’re intellectual and maternal,” Josh Gerritsen said. “They think and feel just like any other animal. Arguably, they’re more intelligent than dogs. If you do eat pork, understand that, respect that, really honor the animal.”

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