What Makes Jewish Food Jewish?

 

Chess Pie
Chess Pie

“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014

Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food.

If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.

An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie.  Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.

Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother.  Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:

Passover Brisket

beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.

In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.

Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.

Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.

Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.

Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)

Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.

Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.

After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.

Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.

Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.

Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.

Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.

 

Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!

Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.

After Shabbat – What then?

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Once I got used to keeping Shabbat, I began noticing a change in my Saturday evenings, after Shabbat was done. During Shabbat, I direct many thoughts to “the back of the stove,” the mindspace where my unconscious may be working on it, but my conscious self is not allowed. When a nagging worry shows up to nag, I push it to the back of the stove. When a possible solution to a work issue shows up, I shove it to a back burner to cook some more. At the time, it’s a relief – I don’t have to do that now. However, it gives the half-baked idea some additional cooking time, and builds a little pressure to get on with it come Saturday night.

Thus Saturday evenings went from a time generally wasted to my most productive night of the week. Havdalah is made, ending with Eliahu HaNavi, and I rise in a ball of energy, pulling the pots to the front of the stove.  Suddenly I’m cooking with gas.

What is Motzei Shabbat (the evening after Shabbat) like for you? Is this “burst of energy” just my little quirk, or is it a common thing?

Image: CC Joyce Cory, Some rights reserved.

Miss Out on Your Jewish Childhood?

Queen Esther
Queen Esther

Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.

Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.

Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.

  • Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
  • Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
  • Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
  • Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
  • Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
  • Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
  • Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
  • Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!

You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)

It isn’t too late. You might be just in time!

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A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain

Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!

Conversation

You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.

When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.”  In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.

Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.

As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs.  If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.

There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.

The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.

Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”

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It Was Very Good: Judaism and Disability Rights

Two activists, two rabbis: all "very good."
Two activists, two rabbis: all “very good.”

 .וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

These words from Genesis 1 are simple and eloquent:

God saw ALL that God made, and behold, it was VERY GOOD.

This little line is key to many areas of Jewish thought, but none more so than in the arena of human rights. Human beings are all equal, whatever our race, whatever our gender, whatever our abilities, whatever our sexual orientation, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we are part of creation, which is tov me’od, very good.

This is especially important in the realm of disability rights. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of racism or sexism, and there’s general agreement that those are wrong. But then we look at a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a hearing loss, or a person with developmental, mental, or emotional disabilities, and we forget that they, too, are “very good” just as they are. This is “ableism” and it is pernicious.

Ableism whispers that the women in the wheelchair whose speech is slurred has nothing important to say. Ableism suggests that the developmentally disabled man who makes us uncomfortable should not be visible in our congregation. Ableism suggests that when accommodating a person is “too expensive” or “too much trouble” or “too uncomfortable” we can write it off with a shrug. Ableism suggests that some people’s feelings are less important, that their lives are less important, and that it is OK to write off certain human beings because gee, they are a lot of trouble.

Ableism is wrong from a Jewish point of view because it flies directly in the face of our core belief that all human beings are equal, and all creation is very good.

Jewish tradition has a rocky history around issues of disability rights. While in Leviticus 19:14 we are commanded “not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind,” two chapters later we read  Leviticus 21: 16-21, which outlines physical requirements for the priests who will lead public worship. The priests who lift their hands in worship and participate in the sacrifices must be physically perfect. Maimonides explains this rule by writing “most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple should be held in the highest regard” (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45.)  In other words, people are ableist, and this requirement is in place because of our shortcomings, not because there’s anything wrong with the person with a disability.

Ableism is as bad as racism, as bad as sexism, as bad as homophobia, as bad as ageism, as bad as any other “-ism.” We can learn better. Just as we can fight racism and other prejudices in our hearts and in our behavior, we can fight ableism. We can change. We can demand change in our institutions and in our communities.

God saw what God had made, and behold it was very good. Isn’t it time we took God’s word for it?

What’s Klal Yisrael?

Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972
Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972

Members of the Jewish community of Sochi and Israeli delegates to the Olympics held a memorial for the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists in Munich at the Summer Games in 1972. [from a report in The Forward, 2/10/2014]

Jews live in lots of interesting places. The largest Jewish community in the world is the one in the State of Israel, and there are large communities in Los Angeles and New York City. But there are also small communities all over the world, little groups like the one in Sochi, Russia.

Wherever Jews live we feel a connection to other Jews everywhere and in every age. Thus the Jews of Sochi feel a connection to 11 Olympic athletes who were murdered in Munich 42 years ago. This is what Klal Yisrael means: “All of Israel.”  Klal Yisrael includes both the yeshiva boys and the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem,  the intermarried Jews and Chabadniks in Los Angeles, the totally secular and the totally Satmar in New York. It includes the Jews of Singapore and Nashville and Auckland, the Jews of Buenos Aires and, yes, Sochi.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by The Happy Rower