A moment symposium: is there a secret ingredient in the Jewish relationship with food?

Author:Breger, Sarah



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.


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.


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.


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...

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