The Deeper Meaning of a Pop-Tart

by Cantor Eric Schulmiller

Forget the New Year’s Eve ball drop. At the end of December, fans of the Kansas State Wildcats and the North Carolina State Wolfpack (and soon thereafter everyone on the internet) witnessed the perfect culmination to 2023. The moment featured Strawberry, the official mascot of the first-ever Kellanova (née Kellogg’s) Pop-Tarts Bowl, an anthropomorphic toaster pastry who looked like the love child of Gritty and Grimace, the two most viral (and unhinged) mascots of late-stage capitalism. To the jubilant roar of a stadium full of college football fans, Strawberry was ritually lowered into a giant toaster and then consumed by the winning team. As he descended, smiling beatifically and holding a sign that said “DREAMS REALLY DO COME TRUE,” the rite triggered memories of another public Pop-Tarts sacrament – one that I personally took part in many years ago. At the time, in October 1998, I had just finished leading my first high holidays at RSNS as a student cantor. Looking for a sweet way to begin the Jewish New Year, I caught wind of a celebration that Kellogg’s was throwing for the 35th anniversary of the Pop-Tart in Madison Square Garden. As I entered the world’s most famous arena, I was greeted by the “World’s Largest Pop-Tart.” Composed of 10,500 individual Pop-Tarts laid edge to edge and made whole by a layer of frosting, we were all invited by the emcee (celebrant?) to partake of the record-breaking breakfast treat, following a lecture by an art historian about the decades-long intersection of the Pop-Tart and the art world.

Over twenty-five years later, we just finished another New Year’s celebration. Not the shofar’s beckoning call of renewal at Rosh Hashanah, nor the desperate debauchery of December 31st. I’m speaking about Tu Bishvat – the Jewish New Year of the Trees. In the dead of winter, the 16th-century hippie Rabbis of Safed transformed an obscure Talmudic tax deadline into a mystical celebration of the never-ending flow of Divine sustenance, as epitomized by the dependable blossoming of fruit and nut trees each spring. What would these sages think of our foil-wrapped breakfast treats, and the “fruit filling” contained within? The answer might surprise you.

As much as the Rabbis enjoyed a good fig or date, to them, the sweetest fruits of all were the secrets waiting to be plucked from the Tree of Life – the Torah itself. Our teachers viewed the sacred text as intricate and multivalent, and they understood that its study requires a layered and sophisticated approach. They saw in the orchard a perfect metaphor for this process of discovery and created a Tu Bishvat experience modeled on the Passover seder, a four-part food-based ritual which honors and encourages inquiry over answers, process over product. As I did at Madison Square Garden, our congregation will gather on Tu Bishvat to consume a variety of sweet and comforting fare. But in this case, we follow the lead of the Rabbis, who mapped increasingly-sophisticated methods of textual interpretation onto our sequential consumption of tree foods.

We will begin with shelled nuts and fruits with an inedible rind or peel, acknowledging that our experience of art, literature, and the world begins at the surface. As Paula Poundstone famously noted, before we can toast the Pop-Tart, Kellogg’s reminds us to remove them from their foil pouch! Next, we proceed to eat fruits with an inedible pit. This encourages us to look a little deeper, uncovering the seeds of allegory, just as the story of the Pop-Tart may become clearer when we watch Unfrosted, the $70 million Pop-Tarts movie written, co-directed and starring Jerry Seinfeld set to debut on Netflix this year.

We then move on to fruits that are completely edible. Once-obscure metaphors and connections greet us, as we embrace vulnerability, lowering the ironic curtain to stand unadorned before the world and its beauty. If we listen carefully, we can make out the rhythm of the beating heart of the human being inside the Pop-Tart costume. We share in their desire to be loved, to be consumed, to be remembered.

The fourth and final segment of the Tu Bishvat seder is emptied of tangible produce. We contemplate no almond, no pomegranate, no apricot or carob pod. We see only the promise of a new dawn, the seed not yet planted but still present in the hope of the thaw of spring. We recall the words of Mary Oliver, who wrote,

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches–

We swing our feet over the edge of the bed, don our slippers, and trudge bleary-eyed into the kitchen. The sun’s warmth and light greet us with their miraculous return as we pry open the foil pouch and set the toaster to its work.

Cantor Eric