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The Professor and the Hot Dog

The Professor and the Hot Dog

The rest is commentary


This is a story of a professor who got entangled with a hot dog. The hot dog lost. The professor won. Forever.

Dr. Velvl Greene was a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Minnesota. This was around 1960. Professor Greene was involved in the NASA program to find life on Mars. No, the hot dog was not from Mars. Hang in there.

My uncle Rabbi Moshe Feller had recently arrived in Minnesota, and was heavily on Dr. Greene’s case. They talked a lot.

Rabbi Feller called Dr. Greene and said, “Velvl, I know you’re traveling somewhere by plane. Before you take this trip, please do me a favor. Call the airline and order a kosher meal.”

Velvl replied, “What? You know I don’t keep kosher. If I don’t keep kosher in my house, why do I need a kosher meal on the plane?”

Rabbi Feller responded that when the other Jewish passengers hear that Professor Velvl Greene had asked for his kosher meal, it could inspire them as well. Why should they lose out just because he’s not there yet?

“You know I don’t keep kosher. If I don’t keep kosher in my house, why do I need a kosher meal on the plane?”

Velvl responded, “Look, I’m not so sure about all this, but if it is going to make you happy, I’ll do you the favor.”

Dr. Greene ordered the kosher meal, and boarded the plane the next day. But when the flight attendant came by, she handed him a regular, non-kosher meal. Dr. Greene was ready for this too. Clearing his throat, he declared for everybody to hear, “No, ma’am, I ordered a kosher meal!”

“Your name, please?”

“Professor Velvl Greene.”

All heads turned. Professor Greene had ordered a kosher meal! The attendant said, “Okay, I’ll be right back.”

While fellow passengers were feasting on chicken parmesan or steak, even wiping the gravy with bread, the flight attendant was nowhere to be found. The professor was hungry; his mouth was starting to really salivate. The aromas were stabbing his kishkes! He pushed the little button, and when the lady returned he said, “My kosher meal?”

She replied, “We’re still checking.”

After a few minutes, and after everyone on the plane had been served, the flight attendant came to his seat and said, “Um, Dr. Greene, there must have been a mistake. We don’t seem to have your meal on the plane.”

Dr. Greene was about to blurt out, “Fine, give me another meal.” After all, this wasn’t his idea. He ate all sorts of food at home. Problem was, how could he ask for that meal after he had just made such a big deal on the plane for everyone to know that Professor Velvl Greene had ordered a kosher meal? How would it look if he suddenly said, “Fine, give me a regular meal”?

But Greene was angry. He was very angry. He was angry at the airline. He was angry at himself for listening to this nonsense. He was angry at G‑d, because the least G‑d could do was arrange for his meal to be on this darn plane, especially after Greene had done something nice for G‑d! But he was most angry, fuming at Rabbi Feller for convincing him to do this. And Greene decided that he would show him yet.

He landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport at midnight for a one-hour stopover. He arrived at the terminal, and there was still one store open: a non-kosher hot dog stand. The hot dogs looked and smelled good, plump and juicy. There was even hot sauerkraut available. Velvl Greene was very hungry, but he was even more angry than hungry. He therefore headed first to the phone booth and called the rabbi—collect. A collect call in the middle of the night was sure to invite panic. And indeed, Rabbi Feller was deeply concerned that something terrible had happened.

“There is a hot dog stand 20 feet away from me. I just wanted to wake you up to tell you that I’m going to eat one, with mustard, onions, relish and kraut.”

“This is a very upset and hungry Professor Greene calling from O’Hare airport in Chicago,” he said. “I’ll have you know that they did not have my kosher meal on the plane, and I’m starving. I also want you to know that there is a hot dog stand 20 feet away from me. Before I go ahead and buy one and eat it, I just wanted to wake you up to tell you that I’m going to eat it. I’m going to have it with mustard, onions, relish and kraut. After I finish the first one, I’m going to have a second one!”

The rabbi was quiet for a minute, and then he said, “Velvl, on many occasions you have asked me about the essence of Judaism, what it all comes down to, what it calls forth from within us. Tonight, right now, in this telephone conversation, I’m going to tell you the essence of Judaism. It’s about passing the hot dog stand and not buying one. It’s about being able to get on your connecting flight without having eaten the hot dog. That’s all of Judaism; the rest is commentary.”

The professor says, “Feller, you’re nuts. I always thought you were nuts; now I know you’re nuts. This is all of Judaism? Feller, as every bite of this hot dog goes down my throat, I’m going to be thinking of you and saying your name. I am going to eat this in your honor.”

And he hung up the phone.

He headed straight for the stand, stood in line and waited for his turn. He was about to place his order, when something very strange happened. He tried to say, “Can I have a hot dog?” He wanted it, he was hungry, he was angry, and gosh, those hot dogs looked better and better with each rotation of the grill.

But he couldn’t.

At that moment, he got it. It wasn’t that he was stronger than the hot dog. Or than the craving hunger in his gut. It was that G‑d was stronger than that hot dog. And he had to listen to G‑d. Not out of fear, not out of guilt, but out of love. And that was Judaism. All of it.

Professor Greene never bought that hot dog, not then, not ever again. That trip changed his life. One small “no” for a hot dog, one great step for a man.

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Discussion (27)
October 8, 2013
I've heard this story before but I do like Rabbi Lew's writing style. Thanks.
Hoboken, NJ
October 5, 2013
A really beautiful story. Recommended for every shabbos table.
Moussia Belinsky
Baltimore MD
October 4, 2013
to Charlie Richman
I think that we are in accord. Some people do seem to treat being a Jew as a kind of awkward secret which one hides when one leaves the house.

I am amazed and grateful that I am part of the Brit, the covenant, that Ha Shem made with Abraham our father over 4000 years ago. It is something that is present each and every day as a guide to correct conduct in everything.
Kenan Moss
Carayaca, Venezuela.
October 4, 2013
I apologize for not making my point with clarity.
Kennon Moss is 100% correct about dieting and kashrut. My comment refers only to kashrut being a way of life, not here today and gone tomorrow like a diet. With kashrut we are talking about a way of living not a temporary solution and that is what a diet is; temporary and fleeting. I do not know who is fat or thin, I only used this poor analogy between a diet, dieting (not someones diet) maintaining the laws of kashrut; the decision to keep kosher is a day to day, forever decision; dieting is a here today gone tomorrow non-solution to weight gain. I only wanted to use the analogy also between a temporary diet and eating kosher in the home and eating treph outside the home.
Charlie Richman
Fripp Island, South Carolina
October 4, 2013
NOT a string bean
It's a very hot, hot pepper.

The story is not about the pepper (or as some view it - string bean)

With gout I'm not supposed to eat hot dogs, even if kosher. No processed foods.
Meira Shana
San Diego, CA/USA
October 4, 2013
If Charlie Richman's comment refers to my use of the word diet, I think that he has mistaken my meaning. Possibily I lacked clarity. Diet in the vernacular sense is some faddish way of losing weight. Diet in the technical sense is the correct way of eating. It is to this latter that I wished to refer. I have little meaningful argument with anything that he has said except that he seems to have assumed that I was fat (I dislike euphemisms), which I have never been. What is striking is the fact what is considered to be scientifically correct nutrition should be so close to kashrut. Nowhere do I suggest that one should eat that which science dictates. I eat what I do because I am a Jew and proud of it.
Kenan Moss
Carayaca, Venezuela.
October 4, 2013
Kashrut and Dieting
Dieting is not an an effective way of losing weight; one needs to change his way of life for l satisfaction with self and effective weight loss. Maintaining the laws of kashrut is also a way of life; this way of life leads to other positive ways of life integral to being a committed Jewish person. Eating kosher in the home and non-kosher out of the home is not a way of life like dieting is not a way of life. What we fail to comprehend is that we are rewarding ourselves by following the Laws of TORAH, and that it also has psychological and perhaps health benefits. When I went to Basic Officers Training in the Army 50 years ago they provided no kosher meals, I was 5'7" and 122 pounds.Because I only consumed juice, baked potatoes, milk during training I was the only trainee who gained a few pounds, which I needed. I also gained confidence and physical strength. Then and now I am ways I will never know. I have never regreted the bar mitzvah decisions I made.
Charlie Richman
Fripp Island, South Carolina
October 3, 2013
an apology to yossi lew
I do apologise. I was so carried away by the funny way I came back home, that I forgot to say thank for a wonderfully wise, moving and humorous article about Dr. Velvl Greene and his journey back to kashrut. I would also comment on Leonard Burd's comment: it's not old fashioned Leonard it's cutting edge. As we learn more than we thought we could ever know, we discover that it's about eating healthy - zero fads. And more important, it's about who we are. Nowadays I refuse to eat tref just to please other people or to avoid causing some embarrassment in public. I am not embarrassed by being who I am and that is what counts.
Kenan Moss
Carayaca, Venezuela.
October 3, 2013
on ignorance
When I was a child I thought that "Beef Stroganoff" was kasher. In my family we contributed to make many a gastro-entrologist quite rich. If it wasn't one digestive disorder it was another.

I ended up with Lipoprotenaemia, which took time to diagnose as I have never been fat. As I was alergic to the medication my only hope was a diet. So, I went to see a Nutritionist.

After weighing me and measuring me and scanning the results of all the test that I had been subjected to, she loked at me and said "Señor usted no sabe comer" -Sir you don't know how to eat. She gave me a course on eating correctly and told me to buy a scale. Soon I felt renewed.

I discovered that with few changes I would in fact be eating kasher for the first time in my life. The joke in all this is that she wasn't even Jewish!
Kenan Moss
Carayaca, Venezuela.
October 2, 2013
It is all about accepting yourself as a Jewish person, saying that we are different, I'm not going to be a a Jewish person in home, and a mentch- gentile-goy on the street. I'm what my people are, and if they eat kosher this is what I'll do, even if it makes no sense, hard, inconvenient and old fashion. Thank you.
Leonard Burd
Chicago , USA