Food, Words and Song
Jan 7th 2015

Cuisine, in addition to text and melody, is important in the survival of Judaism.

Particularly during the winter, I enjoy comfort food, a good book and music to stir the soul. Each makes claims on my identity.

In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the late Gil Marks points to adaptation and transmission as essential to Jewish cuisine. In Jews and Words, Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Saltzberger make the claim that “ours is not a blood line; it is a text line”. Jewish history and peoplehood “has always depended on the intergenerational transmittal of verbal content.” Joshua Jacobson, who will be our guest for Shabbat Shirah, defines Jewish music as having “a Jewish text, a Jewish descriptive program”, that is transmitted and transformed by time and locale. These are quite a mouthful?

Oz, the well-known contemporary novelist, and Saltzberger, a scholar of European history, present a secular perspective on story and study, narrative and nomos, text and tradition. They discuss the the continuity of conversation through the ages, vocal women, time and timelessness, as well as the precedence of Jews or Judaism.

They place the well-known comment by Saadia Gaon (Baghdad, d. 942) that “Jews are a people only by virtue of its Torahs” in dialogue with two secular Hebrew writers. Micha Yosef Beryczewski (d.1921) wrote that “Jews have seniority over Judaism. The living person precedes his ancestors’ estate.” Yehuda Amichai (d. 2000) had an entirely different metaphor:

The Jews are a primeval forest reserve
in which the trees stand crowded, and even the dead
Cannot lie down. They rest, erect, upon the living.

The Ozes suggest that at “subtle juncture of faith, argumentativeness, and self-targeting humor” we have created an “irreverent reverence” that defines our identity. And “every time we, or you, or the rabbi, or the rabbi’s daughter, read a text, we author it in our own image…. Even if we repeat ancient words verbatim… they are new now, and they are ours, in our image, in our contexts….” The ongoing transmission of text is, for them, a creative enterprise.

According to Jacobson, much of Jewish music involved the adoption of well-known melodies to a Jewish religious context. Sometimes this involved borrowing from melodies internal to the community, while at other times the melody came from local, secular sources.Jewish music is “defined not by anything objective, intrinsic to its nature, but by how it is perceived, how it is received.”

In his gastronomic gazetteer, Marks points to cuisine, in addition to text and melody, as being important in the survival of Judaism. “By our food, we declare and affirm who we are and who we want to be.”Our emotional attachment to rituals often feature food. Beyond religious practice and belief, from hamentashen to haroset, our food creates a geographic and gastronomic matrix that link us together. Through trade and travail, marriage and movement, Jews adapted recipes to their own needs.

What makes Jewish cuisine? Start with halakhah, Jewish law.The  prohibition against using fire on Shabbat gave rise to the Shabbat stew. Wherever it was consumed and whatever it was called - cholent (Ashkenaz), hamin (Italian), adafina (Morocco), dfina (Tunisia), matfoni (Kurdistan), chalebibi (Persia) - all had the same intent. To enjoy hot food on Shabbat, the stew had to simmer in a slow oven all Friday night to avoid starting an oven on Shabbat day.

Matzah may be soft (Yemenite) or crispy (pretty much everyone else), but it is a flat-out basic on Passover. Substances that represent the opposite of matzah were forbidden in remembrance of the Exodus: hametz, or leavened bread, and seor, usually mistranslated as yeast. Marks notes that we drink wine at Seder which has fermented by action of yeast. Seor is actually starter dough, an Egyptian invention that became a basic element of baking. Carefully cultured in each home from flour and water, yeast and bacteria, it was a special possession that lasted for centuries. Our ancestors had to rid themselves of seor each Passover to truly start fresh.

Add local flavour. Certain foods were specific to local communities, while others are ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world. Hamantaschen have nothing to do with Haman’s hat (ancient Persians wore turbans, not three-cornered berets), but everything to do with a middle-European mohn-taschen: a pastry pocket (tasch) filled with poppyseed (mohn).

Some foods came from the general culture and were adapted to Jewish life. Hallah, the braided Shabbat bread known to Jews everywhere, derives its name from the Biblical term referring to the small piece of dough given to the kohen-priest. It became a Sabbath constant by adapting a Teutonic braided bread of  the 1500s which was part of winter solstice celebrations devoted to the goddess Holle.

Share with others. Occasionally, food identified with Jews migrated into the larger culture. Fried fish was introduced to Britain by 16th-century Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. Thomas Jefferson wrote about eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion.” In 1860, Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, opened the first fish and chip shop in England.

Cream cheese, developed in upstate New York in the 1870s, became popular among immigrant Jews who smeared it on bagels (first mentioned in 1610 as a food for expectant mothers) and then ate it with lox (a European method to preserve salmon). A classic!

Merely because a Jew developed it, doesn’t make it Jewish. It depends on a living community. Neither yogurt -popularized by Isaac Karasu, a Solinikian Jew who lived in Spain and France and named Danone after his son- nor cheese doodles -invented by Morrie Yohai, a Turkish-Jew who grew up in Harlem- would be identified as Jewish.

Lenny Bruce famously commented that white bread is goyish, pumpernickel in Jewish. What would he think of sushi and salsa being served at bar mitzvah parties? On the other hand, the New York Times recently published an article about the revival of schmaltz!

In The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, Leon Kass suggests that eating, a basic animal necessity, is humanized through table manners, hospitality, sharing, good conversation and ritual. The preparation, arrangement, and sociability of dinner can become a means to celebrate and broaden community, friendship and values. Kass argues that kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, are an example of a practice that embodies an ethics of eating and a reverence for life.

Lionel Blue, the quirky British theologian, describes a butcher shop and bakery in Golders Green on a typical Friday morning. He comments that this would not be seen as a religious drama by Christians, but the very act of purchasing and preparing food for Shabbat is a mitzvah.

This is part of why Michael Wyschogrod, can describe Judaism as “a religion of the body.” In contrast to the vision of the Church, Judaism connects holiness to carnality, the physical, to food. Meir Soloveitchik writes: “Gefilte fish, matzah, cholent—lowly substances, all—are, in their own way, foods of faith, and eating them, with the proper perspective, allows our tables to be dwelling-places of the divine.”

The Bible commands festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem to eat sacrifices “before the Eternal your God.” We shared songs of the Levites, study of sacred text, and a meal - lamb with matzah and bitters. Even the humorous ten word explanation of Jewish holidays - “They tried to kill us. We won. Now let’s eat” - indicates that a Jewish spiritual path involves the physical.

Whether it is through the words that come from our mouths, the music that flows from our lips, or the food we put into our mouths, we are reminded that by cherishing a narrative, a melody or a recipe, we come to cherish a tradition, a people, and a religious civilization.


Jews and Words, Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Yale (2014)

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks. Wyley (2010)

“Jewish Music; What is that?” Joshua Jacobson (2009).

The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, Leon Kass. Chicago (1999).

To Heaven with Scribes and Pharisees: The Lord of Hosts in Suburbia, the Jewish Path to God, Lionel Blue. Darton (1975)

The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel, Michael Wyschogrod. 1989. Jason Aranson (2000).