By Harriet P. Gross
Some like ‘em soft. Some like ‘em hard — but not so hard that they have to be cut with knife and fork. Matzah balls, that is.
I recently attended the third annual Jewish studies banquet at Southern Methodist University, where the first course of an otherwise excellent dinner was chicken broth with matzah balls as hard as described above.
I briefly discussed this culinary lapse with the young woman sitting to my right, who was Kenitra Brown, an SMU law student also working in the university’s department of religious studies. She has little to do with the menus for these events, but much responsibility for planning the events themselves. So we dropped the food discussion to talk of other things.
Jewish studies programming is offered through the religious studies department; SMU also has a campus-wide religious studies club. These two organizations issue the yearly banquet invitations. I asked why I was lucky enough to get one, since I have no formal connection to the university.
“All religious studies majors and minors are invited, as well as any interested SMU faculty and staff,” Brown explained. “The community list is compiled from affiliations and suggestions.” I don’t know who suggested me, but I’m certainly grateful.
She also told me that this banquet series began with people looking at ways to inform both the university community and all of Dallas about SMU’s Jewish learning opportunities. An engaging event with a good meal and an interesting lecturer “fleshed out from there,” she said.
The lecturers have indeed been interesting; so far, they have all been academics with specialties in areas that lend themselves to a light touch.
The first presenter, in 2011, was Professor Nora Rubel of the University of Rochester. One of her religion courses covers American Judaism in relation to American “foodways,” and her banquet speech dealt with how “The Settlement Cook Book” — first published in 1901 and still a beloved homemaker standard today — transformed the Jewish American kitchen.
Last year’s lecture had the intriguing title of “Jewish Humor and Nervous Wrecks: Fools, Bumblers, Schlemiels and the Women They Love.” Adam Rovner teaches in the English department of the University of Denver, but in its Judaic Studies Center he explores what he calls “a recognizable strain of ‘Jewish humor’ that runs from ancient texts to modern literary and cinematic comedies.”
In his joke-rich presentation, he emphasized that he takes humor seriously “in order to explain how Jewish men and women are portrayed in our contemporary culture.”
The banquet’s centerpiece this year continued the tradition of lighthearted seriousness, as Rebecca Alpert of Temple University gave an informal slide-show lecture that went beyond her usual courses in religion and women’s studies: “Jews and Black Baseball,” it was called.
After documenting the influence of the first on the second, she broadened her topic to include basketball, and we learned much about Abe Saperstein, owner/coach of the virtually unknown Savoy Big Five, the team that became the very well-known Harlem Globetrotters.
Working with Brown on making these interesting programs possible are Jill DeTemple, an SMU professor who advises the religious studies club, and Serge Frolov, who holds SMU’s Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies.
(This is a good time to note that the next of his twice-yearly Levine Lectures will be on Tuesday, April 16. Not so freewheeling as the banquet speakers, but certainly as interesting, will be Tammi Schneider of Claremont Graduate University, who will emphasize Jacob’s wife, Leah, in her presentation called “What Do We Do With Genesis? Feminism and the Bible in the 21st Century.”)
Oh, yes — before the recent banquet ended, I did send this message back to the kitchen: “You are giving Jewish cooking a bad name. Next time, boil your matzah balls for 20 minutes minimum with a lid on the pot, and DON’T PEEK.”