Academic journal article Shofar

You Are What They Ate: Russian Jews Reclaim Their Foodways

Academic journal article Shofar

You Are What They Ate: Russian Jews Reclaim Their Foodways

Article excerpt

The subject of this essay is the attempt of a new generation of Russian Jews to reestablish Jewish identity through the writing and publishing of Jewish cookbooks. After looking at ways in which Russian and Russian-Jewish foodways diverge, and then at ways in which Russian-Jewish cookbooks differ from representative post-Soviet ethnic cookbooks, the essay turns to the peculiarities of the books themselves. The books are very serious, and in a way impersonal: there is not a single reference to families or place or past life; there's not a single joke. Many refer in their introductions to loss and to the difficulty of rediscovery. All have great difficulty with kashruth.

"All that was left of their Judaism was the desire to go on eating and making a noise together."

Aharon Appelfeld1

A New York Times reporter, researching what he called "the grocery wars" on Manhattan's Upper West Side, asked a shopper at Zabar's why it was all so incense. "Jews and food," she said, "Are you kidding?"2 A recent Russian cookbook says the same thing. In the midst of an otherwise wistful introduction, it breaks into major key: "Jewish food is elegantly simple, very delicious and varied. This shouldn't surprise us, because Jews love to eat. A holiday for them is most of all good food."3

Given the different histories of Jews in Russia and the United States, the shared sentiments of my cookbook author and the Zabar's shopper is neither obvious nor predictable. It is true that from the 1917 Revolution through the 1920s, Russian Jews were moving in a direction similar to that of their American counterparts. They were moving to big cities; they were learning a new language. Some were assimilating, and some, to the contrary, were bringing Jewish institutions into the public sphere.4 Their foodways were not dissimilar from those of Americans in New York. But it shortly became very different indeed, necessitating, a hundred or so years later, the kind of reclamation that is the subject of this essay.

Jewish Food in Russian Culture: Similarities, Aversions, Convergence

Jewish food and Russian food share many features. Because the geographic space is the same, many ingredients are the same: the herring, the onion, the pot cheese and the sour cream, the potato, the cabbage, and the beet. Russian cookbooks list dishes that both Russians and Jews think of as Jewish-chicken soup, for example, or the meat jelly known in Russian as studen' or kholodets and in Yiddish as ptscha.5 Underlying the similarities are multiple differences in the way the foods are valued, the frequency with which they are eaten, and, indeed, in whether foods cooked from familiar ingredients actually cross the ethnic divide. Pre-revolutionary Jews kept their distance from many Russian foods that, because they were prepared with neither meat nor dairy in accordance with Russian Orthodox rules for fast days (about half the year), would have been quite useful to the kosher kitchen. Russians also kept their distance. Chicken soup, prepared very similarly to the classic Jewish version, is registered in Russian cookbooks but is nor made frequently in homes and carries no emotional weight. The same is true of "stuffed fish" [farshirovannaia ryba], listed in many Russian cookbooks and close to a classic Russian-Jewish gefilte fish except in its use of bread (instead of Jewish matzoh meal) and milk. Outside of cookbooks, both dishes are known to everyone as Jewish and do not figure in the Russian everyday or holiday repertory.

Distance is often underscored by distaste, and in fact, Russian culture harbors a longstanding aversion to markedly Jewish foods and smells. In Russian culture, Jews eat and smell like garlic; to say "it smells like garlic here" means "I have sniffed out a Jew." A. P. Chekhov's "Skripka Rotshil'da" [Rothschild's Violin] presents a good example; because the story, about a Russian musician in a Jewish klezmer band, is actually quite sympathetic to Jews and ends with cross-ethnic understanding. …

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