What is the pork taboo of Judaism? The documentary film ‘Magnificent Beast’ sinks into it

Celebrating the inaugural class of rabbis graduating from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1883, a famous dinner party in Cincinnati offered an outrageously decadent menu. Known to history as the Trefa Banquet, his courses represented a culinary challenge to kosher laws, featuring trif – or non-kosher – foods such as biblically forbidden shellfish and shellfish dishes.

Yet even though the banquet was held in a town nicknamed for its pork industry, there was one notable omission: pork. The pork taboo is arguably the best known and most observed of all Jewish culinary prohibitions, and a new documentary film explores its origins. Mother-son duo Tess and Josh Gerritsen’s “Magnificent Beast” screens at the Miami Jewish Film Festival through Jan. 26 and will air on PBS beginning Feb. 6.

“I think people loved it,” Tess Gerritsen said in a Zoom interview between the filmmakers and The Times of Israel. “The first thing I hear is, ‘I didn’t know pigs were so complex, I’ve 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 best-selling mystery novelist whose titles “Rizzoli & Isles” have captivated readers around the world. With “Magnificent Beast,” she and her son tackled a different kind of mystery, a culinary mystery. She said that coming from a Chinese background, she was unfamiliar with Judaism’s pork taboo, and after majoring in anthropology in college, she became more curious about it.

As she explained, “The whole thing about food taboos left me baffled. Why would anyone choose not to eat something high in calories and protein?”

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

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

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

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

“Professor Colby really crystallized it,” said Tess Gerritsen. 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 to our food… 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 United Kingdom and Egypt. They encountered owners and their pet pigs, including one that bit Tess Gerritsen. They joined chefs and foodies attending a pork-themed event in Boston sponsored by an organization called Pig 555, while in Maine they visited farm-to-table Primo restaurant, which raises its own pigs and hosts a pig day to celebrate their many pork 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 hunt invasive feral hogs, with the filmmakers even capturing a nighttime kill on camera.

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

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

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

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

As Freidenreich explains in the film, the pork taboo in Judaism is rooted in two separate biblical passages describing clean and unclean animals to eat. Pigs fall into the category of quadrupedal land animals, and to be considered clean, these species must have cloven hooves and chew the cud. Pigs have cloven hooves, but they do not chew the cud, which makes them unclean.

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

“There are very different opinions about where the pork taboo came from,” said Josh Gerritsen. “All archaeologists [interviewed in the film] are friends and colleagues. They said, ‘I respect so-and-so, but they’re wrong. That’s the reason.'”

Stony Brook University zooarchaeologist Katheryn Twiss explains the genetic changes that accompanied pig domestication in “Magnificent Beast.” (Courtesy of Donkey Universe Films)

In the film, some experts suggest that the ancient Israelites took over 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 although many animals were mummified as pets or as food for the afterlife, mummies pork have never been found. Still, 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 researchers suggest alternative possibilities. She suggests there was a distaste for pigs’ propensity to eat carrion or their young, as he wonders if the Israelites feared the ecological damage pigs could cause to a pair of species that were kosher – sheep and goats.

Whatever the reason, Ikram notes the ancient nature of taboo not only in Judaism, but also in halal Islam. (Even in Israel, the taboo is not followed uniformly, as New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman discovered when he encountered a “white steak” in an Ashkelon restaurant – an anecdote that he shared in his memoir “From Beirut to Jerusalem”.) Over the centuries, as the ever-adaptable pork spread across the world 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 are becoming very skeptical of their association with pigs. The rabbis prohibited Jews from selling pigs, participating in the sale and distribution of pork.

“Magnificent Beast” delves into the history of the pig through centuries of civilization and how it has been revered and reviled. (Courtesy of Donkey Universe Films)

And yet, in America, things got a little smoother for Jewish immigrants — especially in New York, where the Lower East Side bordered Chinatown. The filmmakers follow an informal but well-documented exemption from kashrut — Chinese restaurants. Although the Trefa banquet did not include pork on the menu, Jews felt comfortable ordering it at a Chinese restaurant for a variety of reasons. Freidenreich suggests that Jews at the time loved what they saw as the cosmopolitanism of Chinese cuisine, and also that it did not represent the anti-Semitic Europe they had just fled.

“There was a sense 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 have learned enough about pigs to hope that people will have a new respect for them, whether they eat pork or not.

“They’re intellectual and maternal,” said Josh Gerritsen. “They think and feel like any other animal. You could say they’re smarter than dogs. If you eat pork, understand that, respect that, really honor the animal.