Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Orthodox vegetarians?

One thing I have not had much opportunity to do in my investigation of Orthodoxy up to this point is acquire any real familiarity with the various "Orthodox cultures." What I know of Orthodoxy comes largely through the theological and spiritual writings that I have read and the experience of communal worship in which I have participated. I have had some limited personal interactions with different Orthodox individuals, but it seems like for the most part they have been American converts, and conversation has rarely addressed more cultural issues. The parishes I have frequented are mission parishes--relatively recent plants, attracting a mixture of individuals from different Orthodox cultural backgrounds and a large proportion of converts. (The two exceptions are one visit to a Ukrainian cathedral and one to a Russian cathedral. But in neither case did I even have a conversation wtih anyone, much less experience any significant culture.)

Perhaps if my situation were otherwise, I would not be so confused about food stereotypes that have come up in a couple of films I've seen. One is Everything is Illuminated, which is about a young Jewish man searching for information about his grandfather, but the search takes place in Ukraine. The other is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I'd seen a few times before, but I don't think I'd watched since I got interested in Orthodoxy. I happened to watch it last night, mostly because I wanted to go back and observe the Orthodox customs and practices that were referenced in it, now that I'm coming from a place of greater familiarity.

In both films, there is more or less the same joke, where a Westerner (Jewish in one, white-bread American in the other) explains that he is vegetarian to his hosts from a historically Orthodox culture (apparently secular Ukrainian in one, at least semi-religious Greek in the other). In both cases, the reaction of the hosts is complete befuddlement. They can't conceive of what it might even mean to be a vegetarian, much less why anyone would choose such a lifestyle.

I must say, this surprises me. I mean, I realize that not everyone who practices Orthodoxy, and certainly not everyone who lives in a historically Orthodox culture, actually observes the fasts to a significant degree. But it seems like there would at least be a general awareness of the practice of abstaining from meat (and indeed, animal products in general)--occasionally for devout believers of all sorts, perhaps regularly for some monastics. It seems like the joke is based on a stereotype of total ignorance, like abstaining from meat is a Western invention (or at least one that bypassed the Orthodox East). I don't even know where such a stereotype would come from in Western perception, much less in a film like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which seems to have enough direct Greek(-American) influence to avoid the sort of mistake a Westerner might make.

It's a mystery to me.


Jim N. said...

Lots to 'step on' in this one. :) I loved Everything is Illuminated, btw. Although I thought the suicide of the grandfather was misplaced. Was that suppose to be 'repentence'? Anyway, if you read the Lenten Triodian, the 'genearlly accepted fast' as Bsp. KALLISTOS enumerates is essentially boiled vegetables with salt, and water. Maybe bread or some fruit. But that's about it, and only once a day at that. Yet we have at least two 'Lenten cookbooks' at the parish which provide recipes on making anything out of everything but meat and dairy, with plenty of substitutes for the banned items. Its sad, really.

I suppose that a letter of the law vs spirit of the law argument could come into play here, but I find that adhering to the letter in the this enables me to fully participate in the 'spirit' of the fast. At any rate, I don't think the decadence of the one family or the secularization of the other in those films is how things used to be practiced. Let's face it: we're lazy and self-willed people, and many of us will often do the minimum we can to appease our seared consciences.

Hmmm... perhaps I'm overdue for a confession! :)

Trevor said...

Too true. We do often do the minimum. But it still seems like the ideal would be somewhere in the consciousness, even if it's a grossly corrupted form. I mean, we like to compare Orthodoxy with Western Catholicism, which has downgraded the official standards over time. I remember in my own lifetime the shift from no meat on Fridays to no meat on Fridays during Lent. But I suspect that most Catholics still get the idea of abstaining from meat in some fashion, even if it does allow for fish and dairy. How could a family that sends its kids to Greek school and at least shows up in Church for weddings and remembers to cross oneself against bad luck totally lose track of even the concept of abstaining from meat?

Jim N. said...

secularization? Who can say...