Driving home last month from a visit with my family at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, I stopped off at the annual Jewish Food Fest in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Held under a tent in the parking lot of the RailRiders, the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, and sponsored by the local Chabad-Lubavitch center, the menu ranged from “traditional” Jewish food like corned beef sandwiches and stuffed cabbage to “Israeli” favorites like falafel and hummus. The food wasn’t cheap and — well, let’s just say that I’ve had better sandwiches and better hummus. I hightailed it out of there as quickly as I could.
Can food, in and of itself, sustain Jewish identity? It was in the 1950s that the folklorist Nathan Ausubel coined the term “culinary Judaism” as a style of Jewish affiliation. Sociologist Seymour Leventman agreed, diagnosing a “gastronomic syndrome,” heavily based in nostalgia, that “lingers on in the passion for bagels and lox, knishes, blintzes, rye bread, kosher or kosher-style delicatessen, and good food in general.” But by the Pew survey of 2013, when respondents were asked about “essential” elements of Jewish identity, only 14 percent answered “eating traditional Jewish food.” (By contrast, 70 percent replied “remembering the Holocaust.”)
Nevertheless, Jewish food festivals like the one in Wilkes-Barre have proliferated all over the country, bringing kugel and latkes to Savannah, Ga. (where 10,000 people were in attendance last year), challah and hamantaschen to Little Rock, Ark., and chopped liver and chopped herring to Sacramento, Calif. But as Rich Goldberg, who is one of the organizers of the festival in Richmond, Va., told a local news outlet, RVANews, last year, exit surveys showed that “People wanted to know where the cultural aspects were. We were a little surprised. We thought it was more about the food.”
It can’t be just about the food. The best fairs are those like the Hazon Jewish Food Festival (coming up this fall in Palo Alto and Philadelphia) or London’s early-summer Gefiltefest, where participants have the opportunity not just to sample Jewish foodstuffs but also to take workshops on how food articulates numerous aspects of Jewish tradition. As Nigel Savage, the founder of Hazon, reflected, “Lox-and-bagels is shorthand for a particular moment in American Jewish history, but the Jews who really loved bagels and lox had many other strands to who they were Jewishly.”
David Kraemer, who is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages” (Routledge, 2007), concurred. “Food alone is not and never was a viable basis for Jewish identity.”
Kraemer, whose course last year on “Jewish Food Ethics” was the most popular one at JTS, concedes that food “has a quality that can strengthen or be a hook for Jewish identity for some people.” But he sees much more powerful ways of connecting to Jewish heritage. “Going on a pilgrimage tour to Eastern Europe is more important than eating all the bagels in the world,” he said.
David Biale, who teaches history at the University of California at Davis, sees food nostalgia as a “drag on culture.” He reflected that the carp in his grandmother’s bathtub, from which she made gefilte fish, “may have floated out there for me as a signifier of something Jewish, but not for my children, who never saw it.”
Karen Falk, the curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in Baltimore, organized a major exhibit in 2011, “Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity,” about the role that food plays in American Jewish life. In researching the exhibit, she found that people defined themselves Jewishly by the foods that they consumed. They said, “‘I’m a cheese-burger eating Jew,’ or ‘organic is my kashrut.’” Food, she concluded, “is a metaphor for the ways in which we pick and choose parts of the tradition that we want to embrace or ignore.”
However we may relate to Jewish food, let’s retire the joke, first popularized in the 1980s by the late actor Theodore Bikel, that “all Jewish holidays have the same basic story. They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!” Besides the fact that the narrative of escape from genocide arguably isn’t true of any holiday other than Purim, it has been too often taken to mean that we can skip the seder or other Jewish ritual and head straight for the meal. And then we lose the profound connections that food has to history, tradition, culture and community.
Is it any wonder that we now have jalapeño bagels and octopus pastrami?
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). The author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” he writes about theater for the paper.