What Makes Food Jewish?


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.

Best of Lox: Russ & Daughters remains
the planet’s best source of smoked salmon

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.

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20 Responses to What Makes Food Jewish?

  1. Bianca says:

    Tony – I’ve had similar food experiences, although in reverse. My Serbian maternal grandparents are s Orthodox Christians by all accounts and so is the rest of my family, with some smattering of Catholic. But when we moved to the US my mom talked about how she feels an affinity for Jewish culture, in part because of their similar traditions. These similarities, which I’ve never heard of in the Christian world, included her family’s tradition of using unleaven bread “around Easter” (Passover?) keeping meat and milk in separate dishes and motzah ball soup, which we called knedle, which I think may be a Yiddish term term for motzah ball soup? I could see the meat/milk bit being a disease prevention precaution, and knedle being a regional dish, but unleaven bread? Clearly there’s some Jewish influence on my Serbian ancestry. They lived right at the intersection of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, so there was lots of intermingling of cultures. I don’t know whether at some point my family lived among lots of Jews and picked their traditions, or if there’s a Jewish branch in the family tree, but I can see the interplay of culture. In NY, I’ve been to packed bagel stores on high holy holidays filled with gentiles. And when I introduced a Jewish friend to sushi, her reaction was, it’s great, it’s just like lox!

  2. hi,first time thanks the commet’s owner. i am murat from Turkey. i want to say
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    also just country and really honest king (padisah) and soldiers. Ottoman bring
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  3. Maria says:

    Wow, interesting article. As a woman who’s interested into foreign cuisines and likes to cook I find this article very helpful. Thanks to you I learned quite a lot about jewish eating habits and traditions. Food stuffs you get to really depends on where you live, your family background as well as people you meet with every day. You are doing the right thing, people shouldn’t forget their customs and should do everything to preserve them, even eating habits. Well, that’s my opinion. Take care. 😉

  4. Your statement about the melting pot rings so true. This helps propagate all the delicious foods of fusion cuisine, the growing trend of mixing different styles together.

  5. I always find the origins and background behind the ethnic foods we enjoy fascinating. Some tidbits here I didn’t know about (bagels thought to have originated in the Roman era).

    I grew up with Lox and Bagels almost every Sunday morning (with some smoked white fish thrown in). So maybe fish on Sunday too?

    Food brings family and friends together. Thanks for the great article.

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  12. rada says:

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  15. I did not know much a bout jewish food i have to try one.

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