A version of this article appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 2013. It is reprinted here with permission.
What is the stereotypical theme of every Jewish holiday? “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” Why should the eating be any less important than the first two?
Food is a core element of Jewish identity, culture, and civilization. People who have lost almost every other connection with Judaism remember family recipes, communal meals, special tastes and smells of their childhood. They may even call themselves “bagels and lox Jews.” Never mind that neither food is uniquely Jewish! Bagels today are eaten by anyone, and in a wide variety of flavors. (Blueberry? Asiago cheese?) Bread made in loops, or with a hole for easy storage and sale on a stick or string, dates back at least to Roman times; and dough that is boiled before baking, sometimes in a loop, is common in Eastern Europe, and not only among Jews. Lox did not become a Jewish food until the early twentieth century among immigrants in New York.
So, what makes a Jewish food Jewish? It can’t be a function of who eats it; borscht and brisket, like bagels, are not eaten only by Jews and can be prepared and served in many ways other than those typically handed down by Jewish mothers. (Barbecued brisket, anyone?) Maybe a food’s Jewishness depends on who makes it – though I have experienced plenty of “Jewish” delis whose food preparation staff discuss orders in perfect Spanish (until they get to the word biale). Is a Jewish food one invented by Jews, or simply a food like bagels or borscht, commonly eaten in a country where Jews have lived, that comes to be identified with them as they migrate?
What counts as Jewish food may be subjective and arbitrary, as Lenny Bruce’s famous observation suggests:
Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes – goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish – very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
Perhaps what really makes Jewish food Jewish is not who eats it or who makes it or who invented it; rather, Jewish food may be Jewish by virtue of who values it for its memories, associations, and connections. How else did chop suey and egg foo yong become Jewish, if not for the twentieth-century Jewish “tradition” of eating out at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas?
For Humanistic Jews, food is a positive way to celebrate Jewish identity. To consume Jewish food is to enjoy life beyond language and intellect. (The term epicure, from the Greek humanist philosopher Epicurus, from whose name the Jewish term apikoros, or heretic, is derived, today refers to someone who savors the this-worldly pleasures of food and wine.) A true appreciation of Jewish food takes a combination of senses and skills beyond those needed for the close study of Jewish texts. It’s an opportunity to “do Jewish,” not merely to talk about what it means to be Jewish. If we believe that Judaism is deeper and wider than talmudic study and debate, then Jewish food has to be part of the picture.
Jewish food stays with a person who partakes of it, not only as love handles but primarily in the form of sensory experiences and memories. Jewish food is accessible to people of all ages and persuasions (so long as food allergies and dietary restrictions are taken into account) and enables us to sample and celebrate diverse Jewish cultures in digestible “bites.” For many nonreligious Jews, family meals at Rosh Hashana or to “break the fast” (even if they weren’t fasting) at the conclusion of Yom Kippur are more meaningful than synagogue services.
Most important, Jewish food is a repository for Jewish culture and a way to connect with Jewish history and the wider Jewish community. Consider just a small sampling of cultural food connections:
- Special holiday foods: Challah for Shabbat; apples and honey for Rosh Hashana;
latkes (potato pancakes) on Hanukka; hamentaschen (pocket pastries) or sufganiyot (jelly donuts) on Purim; matza, karpas (greens), beytsa (egg) and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover; dairy dishes on Shavuot– each of these foods has its own history, evolution, and ritual connections. Some Sephardic Jews put matza on their shoulders during the seder as a symbolic way to relive the exodus from Egypt. The Purim hamentash likely began as a mohntasch (poppy-seed pocket) whose name was changed to connect it with Haman (thus arose the assumption that this three-cornered pastry was modeled after his hat). And this listing doesn’t even touch on family rituals related to the serving and eating of brisket, kugel, and the like.
- Days of not eating: In addition to Yom Kippur, the traditional Jewish calendar includes several fast days connected with Jewish history and culture. The Fast of Gedalia, which falls between the High Holidays, commemorates a failed Jewish revolt. The Fast of Esther immediately before Purim, originally called Nicanor’s Day, celebrates a Jewish victory over a Greek general named Nicanor. The fast of mourning on Tisha B’Av is a reminder of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on that date.
- Multicultural varieties of Jewish cuisine: Jewish food is not limited to Ashkenazi dishes from Eastern Europe. My father’s family from Syria has an entirely different sense of haimishe (homey) cooking. Such Israeli foods as hummus and falafel are adopted from Middle Eastern cuisine. Today Jewish foodies are experimenting with Jewish food traditions borrowed from Turkish, Moroccan, Indian, and other cultures.
- Expressions of Jewish values: Biblical legislation (e.g., Leviticus 19) requires that
farmers leave the corners of the fields and the gleanings of the wheat harvest for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. At Passover, in the opening Ha Lakhma (“This is the bread of affliction…”), we read, “All who are hungry, come and eat,” and rabbinic rules in the Mishnah prescribe that even a poor person should be provided with four cups of wine for the seder (Pesachim 10:1). Although the belief that food equals love is not unique to Jews, it is certainly an important part of Jewish cultural life. And is it any wonder that the earliest Jewish story about rules and disobedience of them had to do with forbidden fruit?
Jewish food is a particularly important ingredient of both folk and women’s culture. Before modern times, Jewish women were often limited to hearth and home (when they weren’t earning a living to pay for their husbands’ Torah study). Jewish food was a daily lived experience of Jewishness that was women’s primary responsibility and an important part of their domain.
Imagine, then, how limited a celebration of Jewish culture would be without exploring the many facets of Jewish food!
All of the foregoing does not touch on the kosher laws, which the rabbis of the talmudic period admitted were “mountains hanging by a hair.” To take one example, the commandment “Thou shalt not boil a kid goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) became the basis for not consuming any meat from any animal along with any dairy product from any other animal, having to wait hours between consuming one of these two types of food before consuming the other, and requiring separate sets of dishes for each. But just what foods count as milk? What meats are kosher, and how must they be prepared and cooked? What foods, such as vegetables, are pareve – in neither category, and thus edible with either? What particular rules apply to Passover? How these rules evolved, and why, are certainly questions of historical interest, and awareness of them is a part of Jewish cultural literacy. Familiarity with the rules of kashrut (koshering) and with their origins and meanings can help us understand contemporary Jewish lifestyle choices: for example, why some Jews and Jewish establishments strictly observe those laws, while others follow them less rigorously or settle for “kosher style” or keep kosher at home but not when dining out. But these rules are largely irrelevant to the current food choices of secular, cultural, and Humanistic Jews.
An index of how far the laws of kashrut have fallen from their one-time preeminence in Jewish life is that today only about one in five American Jews
follows those rules (National Jewish Population Study, 2001). At certain Israeli McDonald’s restaurants, one can purchase a cheeseburger on matza during Passover. Most “Jewish delis” sell Reuben sandwiches (corned beef and Swiss cheese) with side orders of coleslaw, a combination that is blatantly trayfe (not kosher). Some contemporary Jews are exploring the concept of “eco-kosher,” the idea that even traditionally kosher food should be avoided if raised, prepared, or served in an ecologically or ethically unsustainable way.
Is it okay to serve pea soup with ham at a Yom Kippur “break the fast”? My congregation has even debated whether to have a reception after Yom Kippur services, since our Rosh Hashana onegs are very successful in fostering a sense of community. Or we might organize a social event without food following the service and call it a “no-neg.” In the end, we chose neither but encourage people to chew on the food for thought provided by the ceremonial experience.
Jewish food, as part of Jewish life, is serious business. One can imagine an alternative ending to the famous story of Rabbi Hillel teaching a convert the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. After explaining that one should not do to another what is hateful to oneself, and all the rest is commentary, he could have ended with, “Now, come and eat!”