I’ve been thinking a lot about Jewish food lately. My daughter is planning her wedding and is designing the menu around ‘Jew-ish’ food — pastrami and rye, falafel in pita, black and white cookies, Israeli salads — a little of this and a little of that, mixing what we think of as culturally Jewish food and food from Israel. I have two new Israeli cookbooks filled with amazing pictures and recipes, and I want to try them all. Before we know it, I’ll be thinking about our Seder for Passover. And, The Souper Bowl is just around the corner!
I laugh when Rabbi reminds us that ‘oneg’ doesn’t mean cookies, but ‘joy’. But that actually sums up all of my thoughts around Jewish food — joy. For me, whether I’m learning a new recipe or having cookies at an oneg, it really comes down to the joy of sharing. We might be sharing recipes — I will never forget how privileged I felt when a special bubbe shared her famous and delicious brisket recipe, only to find that she used Lipton Onion Soup Mix! Or, we might be sharing the cooking experience — I love having the whole family in the kitchen helping to get a holiday meal on the table. I also love the shared food preparation for Hard Lox! Or, we might be sharing stories — small and insignificant or hugely important, when we’re having a little nosh at an oneg. And, we share lots of meals – I can distinctly recall every Shabbat at Home we have hosted or attended. Every one of those meals has given me the opportunity to get to know someone from our congregational family a little better. The Souper Bowl gives us another reason to share our recipes and a meal, all the while getting to know each other.
My new Israeli cookbooks, especially “Jerusalem – A Cookbook,” authored by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, make a point of explaining that it’s futile to try to attribute really any of the food of Israel to one ethnic or religious group. They have fused together in so many ways, over so many generations, that it’s impossible to unravel who invented a particular food or who brought it with them to Israel. They also ask, “Why does it matter?” The true beauty of food is its immediacy. The pleasure we take in eating great food is what matters. That thinking is what makes us not hesitate to serve both Israeli food and New York Jewish food at our upcoming celebration. It all tastes great and it all evokes, and creates, wonderful memories.
I have another book I love, called “Matzoh Ball Gumbo – Culinary Tales of the Jewish South”. In it, Marcie Cohen Ferris explains how African American women who cooked for affluent and middle-class Jewish families influenced their recipes. Jewish and African American women created dishes that blended Southern and Jewish cooking, like lox and grits and sweet potato kugel and Pesach Fried Green Tomatoes. (No surprise there, matzoh meal makes the best “bread crumbs”!) She also explains why Crisco was the answer to the prayers of Jewish cooks in the South. They finally had something to make their biscuits and pie crusts almost as flaky as those made with lard, by their Gentile neighbors.
I can’t write about Jewish food without considering the role of kashrut laws in our private lives and in the temple. As Reform Jews, particularly in the South, we may not be invested in keeping Kosher, but I believe it’s important to follow our Kashrut policy both in and outside the temple walls if an event is sponsored by CBHT.
Jewish food plays many roles in our lives. It enriches our relationships and is wrapped up in our memories. I wish you the best in all your Jewish food experiences!