Despite making up just about two percent of the U.S. population, Jews remain keepers of an incredibly varied culture. We see this first-hand in the wide range of Jewish identities which exist in America alone — an Israeli Jew may arrive in the U.S. cooking with chickpeas and pomegranates, only to balk at the copious amounts of “white food” which many Ashkenazi Jews consume. Likewise, latkes and gefilte fish may seem so intrinsically Jewish to these Eastern European Jewish communities that shunning them is to eschew Judaism entirely. Jewish culture is, therefore, dependent upon the interpreter’s own experiences, creating a collection of identities as varied as its people. Yet despite their differences, these groups unite themselves under the larger “Jewish” title, celebrating tradition and commitment to the community in similar ways: Through food.
Gil Marks, rabbi and author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. notes that “there is no way you can practice Judaism religiously or culturally without food. Food has been intrinsic to Jewish ritual, life and culture from the outset.” With this in mind, it’s easy to see why many non-religious “cultural Jews” are turning to food in order to solidify their identities; though this may seem like a modern phenomenon, Jewish cuisine has always been more than just fuel to keep the body running. In the 19th century, Claudia Roden points out, a large number of American Jews stopped keeping Kosher in the 19th century upon moving into cities. However, this did not significantly diminish participation in Jewish culinary tradition as one might expect. More than ever before, “food became one of the things that [Jews] held onto to remind themselves of who they were, of their past and their ancestry.”
This emphasis on ancestry and keeping tradition is hugely important to Jewish culture, says Elexa Perlman ‘20. As an ethnic religion, the community is maintained when its members thoughtfully and purposefully pass down their practices to future generations. These rites and rituals are not strictly religious, however. Since most American Jews cite ancestry and culture as the cornerstone of Judaism rather than religion itself, we can see why family recipes and holiday meals can mean more to some people than reading from the Torah. Chelsea Frisch ‘22 emphasizes how gathering around the dinner table at the weekly Shabbat meal can aid in community cohesion — “When everyone puts their hands on the Challah to rip it apart, it really creates a sense of togetherness. Even if it isn’t your favorite meal, the repetition of bringing everyone together every week makes [Shabbat] a really special experience.” The importance of the Shabbat dinner is amplified with every repetition as the diners remember generations of ancestors who came together in much a similar way.
Additionally, food is one of the ways in which we continually solidify our values and sense of self. Many Americans interact with food three or more times a day, giving us multiple chances to make a statement through what we do — or don’t — consume. Vegans solidify their values every time they refuse meat, and others may do the same when they choose to buy from one company over another. Interacting with cultural food operates similarly.
Andrew Buckster writes in his article “Keeping Kosher: Eating and Social Identity Among the Jews of Denmark” that “eating [a cultural food] always involves an individual choice about connection to that group.” When Jewish individuals come together for a Seder, celebrate Shabbat or tear a loaf of challah in unison, they make a powerful declaration about who they are and the traditions which they will impart upon their children. In a world which can often pressure its residents to assimilate and become a part of the static, firmly asserting one’s undeniable Jewishness is an act of brave defiance.
Amelia Clute is a rising junior in the college of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.