Complicating Kosher:

How the Trefa Banquet Changed American Judaism

Photo Courtesy of  Jay Tong

Photo Courtesy of Jay Tong

This week we’re discovering the meal that changed the face of American Judaism. Featuring Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, we’ll learn how a lavish banquet in 1883 Cincinnati kicked off a fierce debate about what it means to keep kosher. How did a dish of frogs’ legs bring about one of the largest religious arguments the US has ever seen? We’ll explore how a dispute over regional Jewish foodways changed the face of the religion at the end of the 19th century- from a dream of a single united Jewish American faith to the numerous denominations we know today.

Written and Produced by Laura Carlson

Technical Direction by Mike Portt

Editorial Help from Lynne Provencher

Episode Soundtrack:  

Jahzzar, "Solitude" & "The Lake" (licensed under a Attribution-ShareAlike License)

Andy G. Cohen, "A Perceptible Shift" and "Piscoid" (licensed under a Attribution License.)

With Special Guest:

Professor Jonathan Sarna


Dr. Jonathan Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University. He is also past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

He has authored dozens of articles and has written, edited, co-edited over thirty books. His book, American Judaism: A History (2004) won the Jewish Book Council’s “Jewish Book of the Year Award” in 2004 and has been praised as being “the single best description of American Judaism during its 350 years on American soil.”


The Trefa Banquet: July 11th, 1883

Intended as a celebratory meal following the first rabbis to be ordained at the nearby Hebrew Union College, the Trefa Banquet began with a ride up Cincinnati's famous Fuhnicular- which took guests to the top of Mt. Adams to enjoy a lavish meal at the elite Highland House. 

The Highland House

The Highland House

Discover the Menu from the Infamous 1883 Trefa Banquet

Although the banquet was catered by a prominent local Jewish businessman, Gus Lindeman, many attendees of the banquet were horrified to learn the meal included many non-kosher foods including, raw clams, soft-shelled crab, and frogs legs.