On July 11, 1883, a large group of about 200 American Jewish VIPs sat down to eat a festive meal to celebrate the ordination of the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College (HUC) at the elegant Highland House in Cincinnati, Ohio. For Isaac M. Wise, president of HUC, it was a sweet moment validating four decades of tireless work to unite American synagogues with the primary purpose of pooling resources to create a rabbinic school for the Jewish community in the United States. His students were now ordained rabbis and the time to celebrate had arrived.
Ten years earlier, dozens of laymen responded. to Wise’s call for unity by establishing the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC, now the Union for Reform Judaism) and then just two years later in 1875, he officially opened HUC in the Queen City. It seemed that Wise’s many detractors both among Jewish traditionalists and radical Reformers were finally proven wrong as the four-member HUC class of 1883 ascended the pulpit of his own Moorish styled Plum Street Temple.
However, the moment proved fleeting as word of a massive culinary faux pas at the ordination dinner slowly spread throughout the American Jewish community. With the exception of serving pork, nearly every category of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) was violated, including serving three types of seafood at the ordination dinner. On the other hand, the wine was good, beginning with Amontillado sherry and concluding with Martell cognac as were many of the dishes at Wise’s great repast.
By 1884, the Highland House event had already become known as the “Trefa Banquet,” a double entendre not only descriptive of the original menu but also an attack on the integrity of Isaac M. Wise and by extension, the entire Reform Movement. By contrast, the myth of the Trefa Banquet grew slowly. First, was the account of the meal in David Philipson's 1940 memoir, My Life as an American Jew. Philipson was one of the four ordainees but inexplicitly falsely maintained that a number of distinguished rabbis rose in protest at the banquet itself. Second, was an incisive 1966 article in Commentary magazine by immigration historian, John J. Appel, which revived controversies surrounding Wise’s role in planning the dinner, as well as its bitter aftermath which nearly closed HUC.
While there is no question that treif was served at the Highland House banquet, 135 years later there are still a number of historical questions that need to be addressed. First, the dinner itself was not disrupted by protests which led directly to the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886 like a Boston Tea Party igniting the American Revolution. The daily press in Cincinnati reported on the ordination service and the banquet in detail and no protests were recorded. It took two weeks for editors of Jewish papers hostile to Wise to pick up on the story and amplify it. Mostly likely, a young Henrietta Szold who had accompanied her father, Baltimore’s Rabbi Benjamin Szold, to Cincinnati spilled the beans when she lamented in a letter to a New York paper, using a pseudonym, that she had personally failed to protest at the dinner.
More important, the banquet dinner itself was not unique nor exceptional among American Jews in the Gilded Age. Two weeks after their ordination, two of the newly minted rabbis served a nearly identical meal at their double wedding when Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf married the sister of Rabbi Henry Berkowitz. Later, the two worked side by side at Philadelphia's two large Reform synagogues on North Broad Street, Keneseth Israel and Rodeph Shalom, during the Progressive Era. In October 1883, four months after the Highland House dinner the B'nai B'rith organization held its national convention in Cincinnati and again, treif was served. It was an age of excess and fresh seafood, especially oysters, was available in Cincinnati overnight in newly refrigerated cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Without question, the menu of the Trefa Banquet was typical of its time in upscale American culinary culture of the time – with the exception of pork which was losing ground to the expanding American beef industry.
Finally, the changing nature of American Reform Judaism at the end of the 19th century needs to be considered in any discussion of the Trefa Banquet. Ironically, when the UAHC was first formed in 1873, it required all member congregations to keep kosher, perhaps a compromise by Wise to create a religious organizational umbrella for all American Jews. In reality, his congregational union quickly morphed into what would become part of the Reform denominational structure in which increasingly radical views prevailed. In 1885, a group of Reform rabbis promulgated the Pittsburgh Platformexplicitly rejected all aspects of kashrut and labeled Jewish dietary practice a relic of a different stage in the history of Judaism and no longer spiritually meaningful for modern Jews. Although Wise was chairman of the Pittsburgh Conference, he ambivalently labeled the radical platform as a “Declaration of Independence.”
Much of the legacy of the Trefa Banquet was shaped by Wise’s exchanges with his detractors in the months and years that followed. He was quick to point out inconsistencies, hypocrisy, and fraud with respect to keeping kosher both at the personal and commercial levels. At other times, it is hard to know if Wise saw any humor in the situation. At one point, he defended serving seafood on the grounds that they were “ocean vegetables,” perhaps a play on the French term for seafood, “fruit de mer,” while at other times he employed “scientific” evidence about reclassifying oysters. Wise, who lived on a farm and personally kept kosher, even had two pet pigs, that, according to family sources were named Kosher and Treif.
Food policy is much discussed in contemporary Reform Judaism. The ethics of food production, animal rights, sustainability, tradition, and health are all important topics among Reform Jews today. The dinner at the Highland House was but one instance in which Reform Judaism was struggling to keep Judaism alive in the hearts of followers more than a century ago. There is much we can learn from their decisions, goals , failures, and successes and, by extension, our own.