A Moment Symposium: Is There a Secret Ingredient in the Jewish Relationship with Food?

By Breger, Sarah; Kandil, Caitlin Yoshiko et al. | Moment, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview

A Moment Symposium: Is There a Secret Ingredient in the Jewish Relationship with Food?


Breger, Sarah, Kandil, Caitlin Yoshiko, Levin, Sala, Meyers, Emma, Moment


JAMI ATTENBERG * SUE FISH KOFF * ARI HART * ANDY KASTNER * JONATHAN KLAWANS * DAVID KRAEMER TIMOTHY LYTTON * GIL MARKS * ALLAN NADLER JOAN NATHAN * YOTAM OTTOLENGHI * RUTH REICHL CLAUDIA RODEN * ORIT ROZIN * SUSAN STARR SERED MIMI SHERATON * MICHAEL STERN * SHALVA WEIL

GIL MARKS

There is no way you can practice Judaism religiously or culturally without food. Food has been intrinsic to Jewish ritual, life and culture from the outset. What is the very first act that the Israelites in Egypt are commanded to do? It's to have a communal meal--roast lamb and herbs, some nice shwarma. And with that, the beginning of the Jewish people is through a meal. The famous joke--"They tried to kill us, we won, now let's eat"--is not really that far from the truth. Within the Jewish legal framework is an understanding that various rituals are accompanied by a seudat mitzvah, or celebratory meal, whether a bris or a baby naming or a bar mitzvah or a wedding. Any sort of life cycle event is accompanied by a seudat mitzvah. Some foods are almost sanctified by their use in these meals or holidays and rituals. So food that may have not been Jewish at one point can become Jewish. Chicken soup, for example, became very popular after a meat shortage after the Black Death, leading Europe to become a chicken-raising culture. Simultaneously, Italian Jews introduced noodles to the Franco-German Jews, and chicken soup with frimzel, or egg noodles, became standard. But then what do you do on Pesach when you can't have egg noodles--the matzoh ball or knaidel emerges. You can see the continuing adaptation that created the cultural Jewish gastronomy.

Gil Marks is a rabbi, author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and founding editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine.

CLAUDIA RODEN

All Jews in Europe kept kosher until the 19th century, when they were emancipated and moved to the big cities--and many stopped keeping kosher. But most Jews in communities in the Muslim world went on abiding by kosher rules until the 1950s, when they started to leave their Muslim homelands. For the Jews of the diaspora, food has always been important, because observance of the dietary laws created a spiritual atmosphere around it. And when they stopped keeping kosher, the "Jewish foods" from their old homelands became even more important, because they were part of their identity. For Jews who weren't very religious, who had lost their old languages--like Yiddish, Ladino or Judeo-Arabic--food became one of the things that they held onto to remind themselves of who they were, of their past and their ancestry. Sometimes they have been labeled gastronomic Jews. In the last few years I've been traveling a lot--to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam--and I could see that some of the Jews there who were no longer keeping kosher were very concerned with keeping up their Jewish food traditions on the Sabbath and on festive occasions. Even some people from Russia, for instance, who didn't eat traditional Jewish food at all through the communist years, are looking for recipes. All Ashkenazi Jews had a similar culture and similar dishes even though they came from many countries in Eastern, Central and Western Europe; theirs was almost a fixed menu, from challah and chicken soup to gefilte fish, chopped herring and chopped liver. Jews who are not Ashkenazi, who are now all referred to as Sephardi, have different dishes. Although the communities differed from one country to another and sometimes from one city to another, some similar dishes could be found all over the Sephardi world. Among these are meat stews with fruit--lamb with apricots, prunes or cherries--which they picked up in Baghdad, and their Passover almond cakes and almond cookies that they adopted in Spain. Jewish dishes are kept because of what they evoke and represent, because they are a part of Jewish cultural identity. I don't expect they'll disappear completely. …

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