Professor publishes book on religion, food
Food is a topic of interest among many on the Hill, but few shy away from the process of eating it and focus instead on studying the rules that govern its consumption. Pulver Family Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies David Freidenreich has been researching religion and food, and how the two work together, for over 10 years, with his research culminating in the summer publication of his latest book, Foreigners and their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law.
Freidenreich, who received his bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and his Ph.D in religion at Columbia University, began the research for his book as his dissertation. The book focuses on food and uses insights surrounding rules regarding its consumption to explain the ways that people think and how they think about each other.
“When you’ve been researching a topic for 10 years and you’re still excited about it you know you’ve found something good,” Freidenreich said.
When describing his research findings, Freidenreich compared them to a school lunchroom. “Middle school cliques govern who you can and can not eat with, similar to religious law: ‘Thou shalt not hang out,’” he said. Jews, Muslims and Christians all have different ways of eating, and who we eat with reflects how we think about “us” and how we think about “them.”
While many believe religious laws surrounding food simply to be ingredient based, Freidenreich explained that the rules also involve who can make the food and who can consume the food.
To conduct his research, Freidenreich “gathered laws [regarding food] from Spain to Persia, the Bible to the Middle Ages and from Hebrew, Arabic and Latin languages.” He then examined what the similarities and differences were between them, and used that information to piece together the main question his book sought to answer—what are the authors of these texts thinking, and how do these laws about food in Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures construct a more broad relationship between these religions? The result is a work that explores how Jews, Christians and Muslims perceive themselves through interreligious tolerance and a comparative study of religion.
The success of his most recent publication follows another project he began on campus, Colby’s Maine Jewish History Project, which still continues today. Freidenreich explained that he wanted to work closely with students on campus, but knew that it would be difficult in his specialized field—medieval law work. Meanwhile, when he began to look at Jewish history in Maine, he realized that hardly anything has been published on the subject. “It was such a great opportunity,” he noted, “because the subject matter was so accessible. It hadn’t yet been tapped and there were audience members wanting to better know themselves and those who were here before them.”
Through an intense and interactive JanPlan course on the subject, Freidenreich and several students began collecting information through oral stories and boxes stored in local attics processing, analyzing and interpreting this data based on its context and then giving it back to the community. This led to the creation of the website, “Jews in Maine” (web.colby.edu/jewsinmaine), on which the work College students as well as community members produced is collected and read in one location by all citizens.
Freidenreich notes that not all of the students on the team are Jewish—“at least half of the research team is not Jewish. They are also Mainers and more, one student this past year was an international student from China who just wanted to learn more about Maine.”
He also felt that students really engaged with the research because it gave them a sense of place in Maine and the knowledge that their work is going to be read by people other than the professor. “Students were able to present work to the community, which is a rare opportunity to engage those around us. I don’t know how many other colleges offer these opportunities.”
Freidenreich, who is also an ordained rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary, is currently on sabbatical researching his next book project. For his next book he is hoping to take the findings of his recent book and see if the same rules apply in all conditions, including religious minorities. “In Foreigners and their Food I looked at just one slice of the pie, but now I want to examine the whole pie,” he explained. He will be spending the fall in Maine reading works on the subject, and then will spend the spring in Europe and Israel examining original documents to complete his research.
For those interested in religion and food, be sure to mark your calendars. Freidenreich will be returning to campus on Wednesday, Nov. 30 to present his book and will offer a talk on the subject matter.