Is There a Secret Ingredient in the Jewish Relationship with Food?

By | Jul 02, 2013

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.

Claudia Roden writes about the history and culture of food and is the author of The Book of Jewish Food, among other books.

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Susan Starr Sered

In traditional Jewish societies, public ritual roles have been the monopoly of men. Over the centuries, Jewish women have developed ways to express their sense of Jewish identity, find meaning in Jewish practices and affirm the importance of their work as women. Food preparation plays a central role in the ritual repertoires of Jewish women. For many women, control over food is empowering; whoever controls the soup pot controls who gets to eat and how much and what and when. The complicated laws and customs surrounding kashrut imbue control over food preparation with heightened meaning and power. Excluded from many of the public manifestations of Jewish ritual leadership, women have played key roles in the elaboration of food rituals, and nearly all Jewish holidays, celebrations and even days of mourning are associated with particular culinary traditions. Even Yom Kippur, a fast day, is bracketed by ritual meals immediately preceding and following the fast. Jewish culture includes a wide range of symbolic foods: fried foods at Hanukkah, triangle shaped pastries at Purim, cheesecake at Shavuot, haroset at Passover, challah on Shabbat. Traditionally male-dominated public Jewish rituals tend to be highly standardized (the shofar is blown a precise number of times with precise sounds; the congregation sits and stands at pre-determined points in the service). Food preparation, in contrast, allows room for individual expression; for example, the senior woman in a family is likely to have her own recipe for matzoh balls, a recipe that is likely to be seen by family members as superior to all others. To some extent, Jewish women’s intense relationship with food preparation is moderating as other paths for spiritual and social expression have become available to modern women. At the same time, in the current era of secularization and cultural globalization, women’s holiday dishes have come to be seen as the very essence of Judaism for large numbers of Jews both in Israel and in the United States.

Susan Starr Sered is a professor of sociology at Suffolk University and author of Women as Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem.



 Shalva Weil

Food is a cultural marker like language or dress, and Jews have always been influenced by the culture in which they live. I grew up in an Orthodox family in England, and we had Yorkshire pudding on Sunday mornings, like the non-Jews. It wasn’t very tasty and reflected the surrounding culture, but it was totally kosher. Similarly, Baghdadi Jews who settled in India en masse from the middle of the 19th century brought Iraqi Jewish food with them, and then added an Indian twist by using spices and other ingredients they found in the market. The Jews of another ethnic group I studied, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, ate the national dish just like any other Ethiopians—injera, a round pita-like bread, with a spicy chicken or meat sauce called wot, or a sauce made of chickpeas called chimbera. But they certainly didn’t do what non-Jewish Ethiopians did, which was to spear a cow when it was alive and then eat it raw. The Jews had shechita, ritual slaughtering of animals. They didn’t have all the stringent rules we have, but they took the way to do shechita from very basic biblical laws, according to their understanding. There’s a growing literature on cuisine among Jews from a sociological or anthropological viewpoint. It’s become a fashionable and legitimate academic pursuit. Where there used to be one Jewish cookbook on ethnic communities, there are now dozens, and people buy them by the thousands.

Shalva Weil is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she studies Jewish ethnic groups.



 Yotam Ottolenghi

In some ways, what happened in Israel is the exact opposite of what happened in the diaspora. When Jews came to Israel, the food they brought with them became their defining feature, whereas in their countries of origin, food identified them as Jews. That’s the paradox of immigration. When I was growing up in Israel, at school we had events where kids would bring food from their country of origin. A Jew from Poland would bring typical Polish food, such as gefilte fish and all kinds of sweet cakes. Jews from Iraq would bring their soups and all the things that are related to Iraqi cooking. Those events were meant to celebrate the diversity of various communities and to bring everyone together around food. Because of this, and its relatively young age, Israel has only just begun to establish its own cohesive cuisine, and it will probably take a few decades or more for it to become something that has a clear voice. Of course, there are ingredients that Israelis eat a lot of, such as chickpeas, tahini and aubergines. These are indigenous ingredients that are common in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and that came to Israel either through Jews’ countries of origin or because they were cooked here already by Palestinians. But there are some dishes that Israelis would argue they created. The Israeli version of falafel in a pita came about in the 1950s, when Yemenite Jews added schug [a type of hot sauce] to this Arab meal-on-the-go. Israeli culture now claims this as the national dish.

Yotam Ottolenghi is a chef, co-author of Jerusalem: A Cookbook and author of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, to be released in September.



Orit Rozin

Food was instrumental in forming the identity of nascent Israel. The founding of the state brought 750,000 new immigrants and the need to feed them all. Sharing food with others through rationing, a practical policy, was transformed into an ideological one in which old-time Israelis metaphorically broke bread with new arrivals. It was a symbolic way of creating a nation. Due to the economic need for austerity, the question of what kind of food the nation should eat became relevant. The Ashkenazi policy makers assumed that the Ashkenazi diet was the scientific one. For people from Yemen, Iraq or Morocco and other non-Ashkenazi Jews, this was a big adjustment. In the late 1950s, experts began to suggest that the non-Ashkenazi diet was more appropriate for the local climate and that all schoolchildren should get used to eating Mizrahi food. In 1958 a new edition of the bestselling Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) cookbook Thus Shall We Cook came out with a section  entitled “Mizrahi Recipes.” In 1963 there was a competition to find Israel’s “Queen of the Kitchen”; the winner was an Arab woman from Nazareth, and the runner-up was a Bulgarian immigrant who was Sephardi. It became evident that there was a desire for a new Israeli cuisine that would show togetherness and build a bridge between east and west.

Orit Rozin is professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and the author of The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel: A Challenge to Collectivism.



Mimi Sheraton

I think there’s a special relationship between all human beings and food. The relationships may be different and the foods may be different but I think just about every group is related to certain foods and certain attitudes and customs and so on. Jews are known to talk about and think about food a lot, but so do Italians, and the Chinese, and lots of other people. So I wouldn’t say that a special relationship with food is unique to the Jews, but I think they have their own way of caring about it and dealing with it.

Mimi Sheraton is a former New York Times restaurant critic whose books include  From My Mother’s Kitchen.

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3 thoughts on “Is There a Secret Ingredient in the Jewish Relationship with Food?

  1. As a Jew, I love food, too, but I also love the Jewish values of health, compassion, conservation, sustainability, peace, and social justice.

    To those ends, I practice The Vegetarian Mitzvah:

  2. Ellen Golub says:

    Nice article, but I kept waiting for the voice of the psychoanalyst. As Isaac Rosenfeld cryptically wrote in Adam and Eve on Delancey Street, “Eat, eat, eat. Not that we are never sated: food is not food and it cannot satisfy a hunger that is not hunger.” Hmmmmmmm.

  3. Kashrut has, unfortunately, become an industry. Factory farming shouldn’t be “kosher.” Hoisting and shackling shouldn’t be “kosher.” Force-feeding ducks shouldn’t be “kosher.” Pesticides shouldn’t be “kosher.” Have you seen the disgusting junk food labelled “kosher”? What about the Agriprocessors scandal? What we need is a new definition of kosher that forced kashrut back to its original intent of ethical and conscious eating. I was sorry none of your authors discussed this larger issue.

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