Originally published in the Anglo-Japanese magazine Eat in August 2000
There’s nothing more Jewish than fish on Fridays. Or so I thought, growing up in a household that tucked into pedestrian fried hake and chips every week after blessing the meal with the Sabbath “kiddush” prayer, wine and challah bread. If we were lucky, of course, that fried fare was preceded by the garlic-and-dill heavy potato-and-fish soup whose recipe my grandmother had brought with her from Poland. It was many years before I began to understand how our family — and who knows how many other Jews from the same part of the world — had come to adopt this peculiarly Catholic habit as their own. Figure it out: if you lived inland in a predominantly Catholic society, Friday was the one day of the week you might find fish in the markets.
Thus the circumstantial pragmatism and syncretism of Jewish cuisine.
Indeed, if I’d grown up in New York City, I might well have imagined that Jews had been eating Chinese on Sunday nights ever since Moses led them out of the desert. Yet another tradition born of circumstance: the first mass wave of Jewish immigrants to settle the city at the turn of the century created a New World shtetl in the Lower East Side – adjacent to Chinatown, whose exotic aromas tempted more adventurous Jewish diners over to sample a cuisine quite unlike anything their mothers cooked. And those mothers saw their own advantages in a weekly excursion for the cheap, delicious fare offered in the raucous restaurants of Chinatown that served as communal kitchens to a fellow immigrant – it could save her having to cook on Sunday nights. Thus the roots of tradition, and even today there are at least 12 kosher Chinese restaurants in New York to cater to the minority of Jews who continue to observe Biblical dietary laws.
Of course, the fact that there are also 24 Italian kosher restaurants, 5 kosher sushi bars, 6 burger joints, and two each of French, Mexican and Indian restaurants certified kosher signifies the depth of temptation to which New York living has subjected the Jewish palate. Indeed, at an up-market ultra-orthodox Lubavitch wedding these days you’re more likely to be served sashimi than chopped herring.
Historically we’ve been a wandering people, and along the way we’ve let our appetites and imaginations roam, taking notes on the culinary habits of all those in whose midst we’ve lived over centuries. That’s put a tension between denial and temptation at the very heart of Jewish cooking — denial prescribed by dietary laws originally evolved out of ancient hygiene concerns but subsequently upheld as a measure of piety; temptation in the form of the local cuisines Jews encountered in their dispersal across Europe, Asia and North Africa. The resolution of that tension has always been syncretic — to incorporate local recipes into the Jewish family cookbook, adapting them in keeping with Jewish dietary laws and giving them a Yiddish (or Ladino) name and inflection.
Today my father finds most of the “Jewish” food he was weaned on in New York’s Polish and Ukrainian diners – perogen (pierogi), kasha, latkes (potato pancakes), schav (pickled sorrel leaves), borscht and more.
But Sephardic Jews – those whose Diaspora included the Iberian and Agean peninsulas, the Bosphorous and the Maghreb, before setting sail for climes as exotic as Brazil, Cuba and Jamaica – would find the fare at most New York Jewish delis more than a little bland. Where dill is probably the herbal mainstay at Ratners or Katz’s, Sephardic chefs would be more inclined to reach for the allspice or cayenne pepper. And where Jews of Eastern European origin would celebrate a family or religious occasion with cheesecake recipes learned originally in Russia; Sephardim might be more inclined towards almond cake.
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But Jewish cooking is more than simply a patchwork of traditions adapted from various exiles. There are its mainstays, such as cholent, which can be traced back to Biblical times. And others that, whatever their origins, have been adoptively Jewish for centuries – think bagels, for example. Believed to have originated in the Roman era, the boiled and baked O-shaped roll was brought to Poland by Jews in the 12th century, from where it spread both east and west. Lox, that’s another story. Cured and lightly smoked salmon was probably a taste acquired in Northern Europe — indeed, the word is simply a Yiddish version of the German “lachs” for salmon.
The syncretic habits of Jewish cuisine may have made it most at home in the U.S., which likes to think of itself if not as a melting pot, then as a buffet table. America encourages its immigrants to sample each other’s cuisines. And Jews have been doing that for centuries. Here in America, they’re part of the mix: After all, these days you can get a bagel at McDonalds.