The last time I was in Jerusalem I went to Mahane Yehuda, the city’s central market, where I haggled with a spice merchant over the price of dried mint. The merchant refused to lower his price. I walked away. He called after me. Jet-lagged, tired of bickering, I said, “Don’t worry. I’m coming back.’’ Everyone around me—shoppers, merchants, delivery boys — roared. A rabbi standing a few feet away laughed so hard hechoked. In a very clear and irritated voice I had actually said, “Don’t worry. I’m a pig.”
The reason I became a Holy City laughingstock was that I confused “come back,” hozer, with “pig,” hazir. I was tired. The two words are similar. Friends say the spice merchant still remembers me. It’s not every day that a Jew stands in the middle of Jerusalem’s largest market and calls himself a pig. What made my mistake so hilarious to Israeli ears was that, for many centuries, Jews were pigs.
As early as the Third Century, Christians fixated on the Jewish refusal to eat pork. Pig-eating was a point of Christian pride, one of the new religion’s selling points. A Christian could keep his foreskin and eat pork, too. Over the centuries this enthusiasm for sausage and baby-back ribs segued into ham-fisted hatred for Jews. European folklore explained that Jews did not eat pork because
Jews were pigs in disguise. (Jews could not eat themselves.) To the Christian mind, Jews were dirty and smelly. Like pigs, they could be slaughtered with impunity.
Europe’s Jews must have felt they were surrounded by lunatics. The Christian pork obsession was so passionate and persistent, however, that some Jews started taking the fuss seriously. A Talmud scholar in the 13th Century noted the similarity between the Hebrew words for “come back” and “pig.” He wondered if this weren’t a clue that, come the Messianic Age, God would “return” the pig to Jews as an animal permissible for consumption.
Christians weren’t much interested in pork as a symbol of Jewish liberation. Once it was settled in their minds that Jews were pigs, they set about putting this notion to good use. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews forced to convert to Christianity were called Marrams, or swine. The Spanish somehow doubted that any conversion effected through torture could be sincere and were always dropping in on the Marrams to make sure the new converts had pork products on hand. The Marrams took to hanging hams outside their front doors and always kept a sausage or two tucked away in a kitchen cupboard, just in case.
In Regensburg, Germany, a carving on the cathedral’s exterior depicts Jews suckling a pig’s teats. Well into the 18th Century, one of the gates leading into Frankfurt was decorated with a painted relief showing a Jew sucking shit from a pig’s ass. (Pigs, after all, eat their own excrement.) This rather striking image, the Judensau, Jew Pig, was popular among the German-speaking peoples. A Singular Beast, Claudine Fabre-Vassas’s anthropological study of “Jews, Christians, and the Pig,” offers reproductions of two German engravings. One from the 17th Century repeats the scene from the Frankfurt gate; the other, an 18th-century work, depicts a Jew similarly occupied while the pig nibbles on a human turd.
You don’t easily forget something like that. Even as they fought to establish the state of Israel, there were Jews who remained haunted by the Judensau. Fired by dreams of a “new Jew” emancipated not only from Judaism, which had caused Jews so much sorrow, but also from Christian fantasies, they made a point of eating pork on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of . the Jewish year.
I have a friend who, on both his mother’s and father’s side, descends from families that escaped to North Africa during the Spanish
Inquisition. In this century they made their way to Montreal. My friend’s mother cooked dishes reminiscent of Spain. His father spoke Ladino, the Spanish-Hebrew dialect common to Jews whose ancestors fled the Inquisition.
But my friend’s sister as a teenager began to complain that her nose was large, that her hair was kinky. She started reading books by Christian author C.S. Lewis. She saved her allowance to have her hair straightened. One evening my friend and his mother went to a movie. When they returned, they heard Handel’s “Messiah” blaring from their home. Inside, they found my friend’s sister, arms outstretched, kneeling before the living room stereo. My friend says he and his mother laughed out loud.
The next morning they confronted the sort of thing that happens in reality but never in Fiction. My friend and his mother woke to the smell of something odd going on in the kitchen. His sister, in her bathrobe, was standing in front of the stove, frying a big pan of Canadian bacon. She went on to become a Christian. Later, while in college, she married a young man who was the son of German immigrants. His father was unapologetic about the fact that he had once belonged to the Hitlerjugend, the Nazi youth movement.
Sausage King (817 Washington Street, 619-297-4301) carries a vast array of pork sausages and cold cuts made on the premises.