Drash on Parashat Beha'alotcha
Rabbi Nathan Alfred
United Hebrew Congregation. Singapore
Singapore is both a food-lover’s paradise and a kosher nightmare. Keeping kashrut here is a question of constant watchfulness; you must always stay alert! From the liberal sprinkling of shrimp sprinkled on your Thai mango salad to the oyster sauce so popular in Chinese food, there are potential pitfalls in every direction. Disney even make films about it: for those in the know, the underlying sub-plot of last year’s blockbuster, “Finding Dory”, clearly referenced the deflation felt every time you go into a local restaurant and ask the waiter which fish is on the menu. Finding Dory – a bottom-feeder now ubiquitous across the Red Dot – is an inglorious moment of disappointment. “I’m glad I asked”, you think to begin with, before moving on to the vegetarian option and pondering the question: “Why is everything treif?”
While some might wonder whether God had tasted Asian cuisine before embarking on the laws of kashrut, I prefer to toe the line and frequently remind myself of the health benefits of being almost vegetarian. But this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcha, with its bitter complaints and food nostalgia of the Israelites in Numbers 11 resonates strongly. “Who will feed us meat?” (v.4) “We remember the fish” (v.5) are never far from my mind as I recall the kosher delis of London, Paris and New York, the permitted street-food of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Singapore, kosher chicken performs the remarkable feat of being skinless but containing feathers. Schmaltz is not just a dream but an oft-repeated fantasy, and even smoked salmon – the Jewish gold of many an Ashkenazi Kiddush – is no staple but an overly expensive treat. One of the favourite topics of our community’s Thursday morning minyan is to talk about herring – salted not pickled – and its complete absence from our shores. One UHC member goes on “herring runs” to Sydney, and investigated the possibilities of organizing their import to Singapore. Sadly, we concluded that the 100kg minimum would prove beyond even our most optimistic consumption patterns, and so it remains an occasional treat, ever in our thoughts. It is not for want of trying – when I had occasion to speak to the Polish Ambassador to Singapore last year at a Holocaust event, it was naturally the first question I put to him. He shook his head sadly and agreed it was a major problem.
What herring is for Ashkenazi Jews, no less a treat is boutargue for Sephardim, and particularly Tunisian Jews. Salted mullet roe may not sound much to the uninitiated, but as Maimonides would say about more cerebral matters “those who know – they know!”. And here Asia both fails dismally – there is one shop selling boutargue in Singapore, and what is already expensive in Sarcelles or Djerba becomes exorbitantly priced on Dempsey – and offers hope. My first visit to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo led me to the discovery of what I consider “fresh boutargue”, locally known as mentaiko. This is cod ovum, not mullet roe, but the Japanese touch of marinating these pressed fish eggs in chili pepper sauce is the most wonderful touch of Asian spice. And what’s more, these are available in Japanese shops throughout Singapore.
Suffice to say, I have no doubt that I would have numbered myself amongst those who rebelled against Moses and complained about the nutritional monotony of the manna in the desert. In my ingratitude at the simple sustenance that was plenty enough to keep me alive, I am quite sure that I would have been part of those struck by plague whilst stuffing themselves with meat “until it comes out of your nose and becomes nauseating to you” (v.18). I recognize myself in the cravings of the Israelites, and as much as part of me appreciates that it is not perhaps how things should be, I acknowledge that a large, ever-thickening, part of me became of a rabbi because of Kiddush. As a child, that could be the best meal of the week, the fish balls and pickles “we remember the cucumbers!” (v.5) more than enough reason to come to shul on a Saturday morning.
As a rabbi today, I do not deny that reality even as I – and many others - struggle with our waist-line. The UHC post pictures of the glories of each Kiddush, and our minyan grows stronger. And we continue to grumble as well, as we continue to live paradoxically on our island, where eating is both paradise and nightmare.