What makes a food Jewish? The easy answer is any dish that Jews cook, or really, any food that Jews like to eat. Of course, if that is the definition then Chinese cuisine would be a subset of Jewish food. The reality is that it is hard to define what makes a particular food Jewish.
Recently Thrillist published an article on the popularity of Jewish food which focused primarily on Eastern European and Israeli cuisine. There is much more to Jewish food than that, but these segments are the ones that are hot right now. As I read the article I felt that there was something missing, the role of religious life in food.
First, virtually none of the restaurants mentioned in the article are kosher, which I find not only sad, but quite inconvenient. I experienced this difficulty recently in Montreal when I wanted to sample the signature smoked meat sandwich. There are plenty of Jewish restaurants in the city that will serve you the local delicacy, but only one that is kosher, and it is a hole in the wall with no seating.
The new, hip reinvention of Jewish food is based on the nostalgia of a generation of eaters looking for the comforts of bubye’s kitchen. I understand the feeling, but it reminds me of something a teacher of mine in rabbinical school once said, “The Jewish tradition is like an investment account. Those who have little or no connection to their Judaism constantly draw down the principal until there is nothing left.”
Jewish comfort food reminds us of our past and gives us a warm feeling, but when it is disconnected from the tradition then something is missing. So many of the most famous Jewish dishes are connected to ritual and halakha (Jewish law). How many are aware that gefilte fish was created because of the prohibition of sorting on Shabbat? One is not allowed to remove bones from fish on the Sabbath, and a ground fish dish makes the task unnecessary.
Cholent, a meat stew, was developed so that Jews could eat a warm meal on Shabbat afternoon. The pot is prepared on Friday and left on all night so that the dish is hot and tender for lunch the next day. And of course there are the Jewish foods connected to holidays that most people are aware of: latkes fried in oil to represent the oil of the Hanukkah menorah, hamentashen from Purim that recall Haman’s hat (or ears), etc.
Jewish foodways are steeped in the religious tradition of our people. It is certainly possible to remove one from the other. Many of our favorite dishes have become popular among non-Jews who have no idea of their origins, but something is lost in dissemination. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Our food is our identity, but it’s not enough. The dishes we consume need to lead us on a path of learning that brings us closer to our origins, our community, and our faith.