Let’s Hear It For Jewish Food.

This Purim, I remembered my Aunt Susie, a spectacular woman, who died somewhere in her nineties, her facilities horribly impaired by multiple strokes. She retained her lucidity by locating herself in the seasonal flow of Jewish holidays.  My last visit with her was the week after Purim. She was blind by then, as I recall, and couldn’t follow much of what people were saying. But out of nowhere, somehow, she managed to remind her daughter, “Purim is over; start planning the Seder.” 

Most rabbis and cantors, I suspect, measure time by prayers. “New month falls this Wednesday; must say new-moon prayer this Shabbat.” “Rosh Hashanah starts Monday evening this year, so Selichot service is two Saturdays back, not just one.”

Other people don’t do that; they measure time in other ways – if they are lucky, by the food. I grew up loving the Jewish year because I ate my way through it: Rosh-Hashanah honey cake, Simchat-Torah apples, Hanukah latkes, Purim hamentaschen, my mother’s Passover meringues (a family tradition), and Shavuot cheese blintzes. Yom Kippur was the day you couldn’t eat at all, except for the break-fast which was great for kids who got to eat it without having to fast first. 

When I grew up, I discovered sefardi foods as well, not to mention other excuses to eat differently (like Tu Bishvat, which no one in our little town observed). 

Either Napoleon or Frederick the Great is said to have left us with the caution that “an army marches on its stomach.” I don’t know from armies, but I am an expert on religions, and let me tell you, with just its liturgy but no ritualized eating to go with it, the Jewish People does not march very well at all.

Gastronomic Judaism (as it is usually known) has been often, and cruelly, maligned – in part by me, a sin for which I readily repent, and probably would have repented sooner if there had been a repentance food to remind me to do it. I didn’t actually mean the holidays, mind you. I had in mind Sunday-morning lox and bagels; not to mention Chinese food on Christmas, neither of which is Jewish at all. Probably the best bagels I ever had came from a Cincinnati bagelry owned and operated by an Irish Catholic, and serving people on their way home from Sunday mass. The Christmas-eve diners at your local China Lion or Lichee Gardens are there because it’s the only place open, not because they are necessarily Jewish. 

I repeat: I didn’t mean authentically Jewish holiday fare; my repentance a moment ago was probably an overreaction.

A woman once dared me to ask her why she had converted to Judaism, and then, without waiting, answered her own question. “For the food!” she said. 

“You converted for the food?” I asked, trying not to sound amazed.

“Yes,” she assured me. “My parents were Roumanian and I missed my mother’s cooking, but then found that Jews still eat it.” 

So I know that most Jewish food was never Jewish to begin with. We borrowed ethnic foods from the peoples among whom we lived, usually the poorest food, because we were all poor together and had to make do with what we all, equally, didn’t have enough of. 

“For the food” may not be the most sophisticated response, I grant you, but I heard the story in the first place only because the woman giving it was attending my visiting lecture at her synagogue. She converted for the food, but she eats it with appropriate ritual, it turns out, and attends synagogue as well.

What I was (and still am) opposed to was empty ethnicity – for three reasons. 

First, it deteriorates into nostalgia, which is not lasting: it is hardly compelling for people who did not grow up with it. 

Second, writer Svetlana Boym describes two versions of nostalgia. The warmly “reflective” nostalgia that I am describing may be harmless – no one in my family ever wanted to return to the “good old days” in Polish shtetls. But it easily becomes “restorative” nostalgia, the romanticization of those “good old days” and the attempt to recapture them at the expense of the people they victimized; like the Polish Law and Justice Party that glorifies Polish nationalism, and its anti-Semitism; like those southerners who yearn for Old Dixie – not just its Southern Cross battle flag but the burning cross of the KKK restored. 

Third, even reflective nostalgia isn’t altogether harmless. If Judaism is nostalgia, it locks out anyone who wants to join it but who has no nostalgic memories to qualify. 

For those three reasons, I have steadfastly opposed a Judaism of pure ethnicity, a long-held conviction I neither recant nor repudiate. 

Equally, when I call for something deeper, I by no means belittle the sensory enjoyment under which all that depth lies buried, and without which, none of it may ever be unearthed. How shallow would be a seder with my mother’s meringues, but no mention of freedom from slavery; or her honey cake but no prayer for a good and sweet year. 

And how headily worthless would be the opposite: just preachy sermons on slavery and learned truisms on how a new year with joy is better than one without it.  

The point is, holiday food comes with ritual: it is symbolic. Symbolic food that loses its symbolism becomes just food. But theology unsymbolized devolves into academic sterility. Traditional food without theological underpinning is the flesh of religion without its bones — you finish the meal (literally) with nothing left behind to chew on (metaphorically). Theological principles with no culinary traditions to hold them are the bones of religion without the flesh: solid academic argument with nothing to sink your teeth into. 

Have I mentioned the fact that last week we celebrated Purim? Aunt Susie would have told you to finish up your hamantaschen and start planning your charoset. I actually preferred my mother’s meringues. But you get the idea.

2 responses to “Let’s Hear It For Jewish Food.

  1. My family was not “religious” but Jewish ethnic food was found a-plenty in my home owing to my parents’ parents’ Eastern European roots. But I was a Cincinnati boy. Hamburgers and pickles. Hot dogs and french fries. And of course, Cincinnati chili. When the kishke and kasha varnishkes appeared, I moped and demanded something with mayonnaise and white bread! And yet somehow, I became a rabbi. Today I enjoy hamentashen, matzo brei and latkes as much as anyone else, and there’s no doubt but that they underscore of my Jewish living. But without the texts and ethical teachings that my grandparents brought with them from the shtetls, my hamentashen would be dry and tasteless. Thanks for a wonderful article, Larry!

    • You put it so well! I do not say I liked all Jewish food. Some of it I despised. I still greet that plain seder matzah with trepidation. But most of the Jewish cooking I hated had nothing to do with the holidays. Holidays are generally either feasts or fasts. On fasts, we didn’t eat altogether. On feasts, the food was always good — sweet, the way the festal holidays are supposed to be. And actually, if you put enough Haroset on the matzah, even the matzah begins to taste good.

      And come to think of it, if I was picky about the food, I learned to be equally picky about the theology. What’s fair is fair after all. You know you are nostalgic when you stop being picky.

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