Regular readers and those who know me in real life know that I’m hardly the domestic goddess. Yet, I must modestly confess that I make a mean challah. The reason I would like to share my challah tips with y’all is this: I don’t make ANY food unless it’s EASY. I don’t have the time, interest, or talent. So if challah wouldn’t be EASY I wouldn’t make it. It’s actually that simple. People have all these intimidational fears of challah and frankly I just don’t know why. You don’t even have to separate eggs.
With all the heavy topics we’ve been covering lately, it’s definitely time for a light post. Um, thematically, that is.
For awhile I was tortured by brisket. Not as in heartburn, but in trying to figure out how it became a Jewish food. I posted it on Facebook, with not much info forthcoming. From there I wondered about rugelach, knishes, and matza ball soup. So I hereby present to you what I have learned. Turns out some Jewish food is seriously, spiritually Jewish; some peripherally Jewish; and some barely Jewish. Note: this list is specific to Ashkenazic eating, since it’s what I know. I’d love your input on Sephardic foods. Here’s what I know, in reverse order of Jewishness:
The Barely Jewish
What’s up with the ubiquitous Kosher Pickle? Turns out that pickling your food was a highly common practice in Eastern Europe, by Jews and non-Jews alike. But Jews discovered a great use for the pickled cucumber and imported it to the shores of NY marketed in just that way: as a palate cleanser while eating the highly tasty (and fatty) cuts of deli meats they favored. As such, the Jewish/”kosher” pickle became a fixture on the Lower East Side, to the point where Heinz made the marketing decision to brand their pickles kosher so they’d sell (even though pretty much all pickles are kosher).
Sorry, folks, there’s nothing Jewish about a knish. It’s a Russian food that Jews – once again – imported, popularized, and marketed on the street corners of the Lower East Side. And boy, is it good.
I could find absolutely no info about how rugelach became a Jewish food. Ah, well. I still highly recommend them. Especially the ones from the shuk in Jerusalem, warm and fresh out of the oven…mmmmm. But I digress.
4. Hummus, pita, falafel
Speaking of Israel, I am equally sorry to inform you that hummus, pita, and falafel are not Jewish at all. More middle-Eastern. More Lebanese, actually. But go ahead and indulge, if it makes you happy.
The Peripherally Jewish
I am going to out this Jewish food right here, right now. For those of you that haven’t yet noticed, mandelbroit is nothing more or less than Italian biscotti. Sorry! I know, it’s like the end of the Wizard of Oz. Turns out Jewish travelers from Eastern Europe went traveling and discovered this pastry in Italy. They immediately sniffed out the Jewish benefits: one, it was made without butter – and hence, was pareve – a big perk in kosher dining, especially for special occasions such as Shabbat and holidays when meat or chicken were usually served. Secondly, and this I’m making up, they last forever. Because, actually, they’re stale to begin with. So they brought it back to the shtetl, called it “almond bread” – or mandelbroit in Yiddish. Voila! A Jewish pastry is born.
This is a pasta, not dissimilar to couscous, that you will routinely find in the kosher aisle of your local grocery store. It became customary to eat this with Shabbat dinner, since its name is similar to the Yiddish “farfallen,” which means “it’s over with, it’s fallen already.” This was to remind ourselves that once Shabbat begins, the problems, decisions, and stresses of the week are to fall away.
3. Matza ball soup
Ah, that fixture of Jewish cooking. First let’s talk about the matza balls. Clearly, this custom began on Passover, when we were looking for just about anything that could be prepped with that bane of Jewish eating: the matza (also to be inexplicably found in your local grocery kosher aisle year-round, possibly due it’s always/never getting stale…see mandelbroit). In any event, matza balls must’ve been such a hit and as such spread (no pun intended) to the rest of the year’s menu. What about the soup it is featured in? Let’s call it what it is: chicken soup. It’s obvious what’s Jewish about chicken soup: chicken is kosher, so let’s start there. Many Jews in Eastern Europe could not afford meat, but it didn’t take much in the way of finances or property to buy some chickens and let’s face it, soup is the best method to make a little go a long way. Hence, chicken soup: a Jewish staple, and the perfect backdrop to those fluffy matza balls, also called by the Yiddish kneidlach (literally, “little kneaded things”).
4. Brisket, pastrami, and the Jewish deli
Brisket IS Jewish, after all. Here’s why: it turns out that not all cuts of beef are kosher. Jews don’t eat the hindquarters of the animal due to the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of Esau (yes, Jews believe in angels) and his thigh being dislocated in the process. Thus, states the Torah, a Jew is not to partake of the animal’s hindquarter. Brisket is from the front of the animal and as such is kosher (some are more kosher than others, cough, cough).
Pastrami on rye – Jewish? Well, pastroma
is a Romanian/Yiddish word for salted brisket cuts – and the Jews,
again, imported and popularized this cut of meat. They also changed the
name to “pastrami” to be similar to the Italian “salami.” What was
Jewish about it? It was from a kosher animal, and a kosher cut, to
boot. Why did Jews keep delis in the first place? There were some
kinds of foods (in the technologically simpler age) that one could buy
universally – fish, baked goods, produce – but kosher meat was not one
of them. The Jews always had to manage that one themselves. Hence,
Jews opened delis to provide their own meat, and it quickly became the
equivalent of the Irish pub: a place where Jews could gather, talk
Jewish talk, catch up on Jewish news, and just hang out and be Jewish.
To this day, the “Jewish deli” is a fixture – but make sure your
kosher-style deli is not serving you ham (which is neither kosher nor
kosher-style). As for rye, I have no idea.
5. Bagels and lox
Bagels were also a regionally Eastern European food, but became popular among the Jews for Saturday night consumption. It was a religious tradition to cook something new for Saturday night, pursuant to the belief that an “extra soul” was given to us for Shabbat, and departed on Saturday night, and thus, both to “console” ourselves on its departure, and to “escort out” its presence, a new food was cooked and eaten. Bagels may have become popular because it’s quicker than bread (if you prep the dough prior to Shabbat). And maybe the extras were readily available for Sunday morning – hence Sunday morning bagels! As for lox – again, the Jews of Eastern Europe discovered this from the Scandinavians, and considering it (and herring) came from kosher varieties of fish (salmon, carp), it instantly became a favorite. The way it was prepared was also ideal, since it didn’t need refrigeration. Some unknown person capped it off with a shmear of cream cheese, the immigrants made it famous in New York, and lo and behold, the bagel became synonymous with the Jew. Frighteningly, if you google bagels and Jews, expect to be hit with a boatload of virulently anti-semitic literature. It’s that iconic.
The Super Jewish
Kugel is a really, really good food. In High German it means “round things.” It started as kneaded dumplings and eventually morphed into the baked [insert insufficient translation here, such as pudding and casserole]. Word has it that it is similar to the Hebrew “k’igul” which means “like a circle,” and was intended to replicate the round manna (which is described in Torah sources as “round like a coriander seed”) which we celebrate on Shabbat. Hence, its centrality on Shabbat and holidays (and random Tuesdays when we’re in the mood…just sayin’). Why potato kugel specifically? No special reason other than… it was readily available in Eastern Europe. Now you can find recipes for all kinds of avant-garde kugel such as butternut squash, broccoli, strawberry and other random items more traditionally called “dessert.” But that’s the beauty of kugel. Mix it, bake it round, call it a kugel, and it’s a kugel. Check out www.www.joyofkosher.com for lots of awesome kugel ideas and recipes.
2. Gefilte fish
Guess what? The weird jarred stuff in the jelled broth is not up to par. But let’s discuss why it came to be Jewish. In halacha (Jewish law), there is a rule that on Shabbat one of the creative labors we refrain from is “sorting/organizing.” This would apply to eating fish, because you have to sort through the bones to eat the fish. So them Jews came up with an equally creative solution: grind them bones in with the fish, and cook! Ha ha! Then you can pretend there aren’t any bones. Throw in a carrot and onion, and maybe you won’t even notice them! No sorting necessary. Now we got a little smarter: we eliminate the bones entirely, beef it up with a little matza meal/breadcrumbs, and cook. Me, I buy the frozen raw loaves and I actually bake it. It’s goooooood. And very halacha-compliant. Bon appetit.
3. Braided challah
What makes challah challah? The braiding, of course. A braid has many spiritually significant themes. Here’s one, lifted from aish.com: Part of the preparation for the Shabbat is engaging in melacha,
creative activity. Braiding is creative activity. The braid is a shape
that does not appear in nature. (Ficus trees are hand-braided.) It is a
shape that is made by humans and it is representative of the human
ability to manipulate the raw material of the world. Braiding the
challah strands helps us harness our creative capacities for the purpose
of observing the Shabbat. I love that.
4. And finally, stuffed cabbage and kreplach
While these foods aren’t inherently Jewy, but merely a regional favorite in Eastern Europe among Jews and non-Jews alike, they were incorporated into Jewish eating on special occasions such as Yom Kippur pre-fast meal; Purim dinner; and Simchat Torah, due to their “wrapped” construction. This was significant as it symbolized God’s hidden and concealed plan on those spiritual days.
What Jewish foods are your favorites? Do you know what’s Jewish about them? Most importantly, are you hungry yet?
Related posts: Read about cholent!
Attachment parenting is not for me. I don’t like people hanging on me or touching me all the time, and I hate being tethered. But who knew it was so controversial?
Bad for the kids… bad for the marriage… bad for the mom… are these accusations true?
After reading about Mayim Bialik’s book and other “out there” attachment parents, I decided to analyze my feelings, and here’s the conclusion I came to. I don’t know if attachment parenting ultimately produces: better or worse kids; kids that are more neurotic or more confident; more exhausted or more serene parents. All I know is that I couldn’t do it.
What impressed me about Mayim is that she didn’t seem to arrive at this parenting approach emotionally, based on her personality. She arrived at it, initially, scientifically.
“Writing her Ph.D. thesis on the role of hormones in obsessive-compulsive
disorder in children with a particular genetic condition, Ms. Bialik
thought deeply about the science of human attachment. At the same time,
friends whose attachment-parenting approach she had once found “kooky
town” (“All they talked about was their kid, and their kid was always on
them,” she said) seemed to be getting impressive results.”
(OK, it helped that she “fell in love” with nursing on demand [aaaagh!!].)
So why am I talking about this?
Pull out the words “attachment parenting” and insert “Orthodox Judaism.”
How many people who feel it’s “not for them” feel the need to dis the system? To prove that it’s flawed? Its proponents backward? Its products worse off for the experience? How rarely have I heard someone admit: “It’s not for me, but I admire it and admire those who are willing to put in the hard work because they consider it a worthwhile system for a better future”?
How much education have the detractors of attachment parenting amassed about what it really means – or is most of the backlash due to ignorance, stereotyping, fear of the unknown and perceived judgment at the hands of adherents?
Recently I posted something about Homecoming on Facebook. One respondent angrily expressed the social mayhem and damage that ensues from these high school dances. A friend of mine later commented (in person – yeah, for reals) that this person was obviously a baal teshuvah – one who adopts Torah observance as an adult – who was unpopular in high school. The assumption was that people arrive at Orthodoxy for emotionally needy reasons.
I reacted by doing something that’s becoming a habit: I lent her a book. This one was by a popular and cool Jewish guy, a consummate jock and highly successful business person, who nevertheless felt that “something was missing” in his life, and intellectually, philosophically, researched and eventually adopted observant Judaism.
If kosher, Shabbat, and other observances are “not for you” that’s cool. I get that. I won’t say I agree, but I, as a detachment parent, get it. But please don’t feel that you then have to dis the system. The system exists – has existed – for thousands of years. Accept it if you wish; accept parts of it if you dare; ignore it if you must. But try to stay philosophical about the issues.
“You don’t recycle?? Don’t you care about the environment? How could you not?? It’s not so hard. Seriously. There are recycle bins wherever you go these days. Can I come over to your house and show you how to do it? I’ll bring the bags and everything. See you tomorrow!”
“You don’t keep kosher?? Don’t you care about your soul? How could you not?? It’s not so hard. Seriously. There’s kosher stuff available wherever you go these days. Can I come over to your house and show you how to do it? I’ll bring the kashering pot and everything. See you tomorrow!”
1. Which conversation really happened?
2. Which is more offensive?
3. Would either inspire you to change your ways?
Okay, so I shamelessly stole that awesome title from Azriela Jaffe’s book, and will pay back the favor by linking it here. (Thanks, Azriela.) I haven’t actually read the book but I’ve heard lotsa good things about it.
Neither have I ever dealt with this issue personally, but many of my friends have. The thrust is that when someone decides to keep kosher, or go from “regular kosher” or “kosher style” to strictly kosher, they may be unable (unwilling?) to eat in their families’ and friends’ kitchens. Result? Confusion, perceived judgment, and hurt feelings. IMHO, one of the main issues is that the parties involved become emotionally bogged down and thus unable (unwilling?) to see things objectively.
So, for the purpose of distance and illustration, let’s look at four analogous instances. Ready?
My husband is doing a bris. He suggests that the family serve kosher food at the bris to honor the Jewish symbolism of the occasion. They decline. They offer to order him a kosher meal. Or, sometimes, they don’t.
We have guests over that are gluten-free. It’s my first experience with gluten-free eating, so I poke around online and ask them for ideas. “Don’t worry,” they say, “don’t put yourself out. There are lots of things our son can eat. Thank you!”
My friend tells me an acquaintance invited herself over for Shabbat dinner, and asked what she’d be serving. “Brisket,” she said.
“Oh, sorry, I can’t have that. It’s too fattening.”
At a holiday dinner, my mother-in-law brings out a number of dishes, most of which, coincidentally, contain mushrooms. It turns out that her guest is allergic to mushrooms.
1. Is it the responsibility of the bris host to order my husband a kosher meal? Is it reasonable for him/her to be offended if my husband can’t eat the “regular” (non-kosher) meal?
2. Is it my responsibility to make sure I have gluten-free food for my guest, or should he/she fill up on GF food prior to coming? Should I be hurt if he/she won’t eat food that I thought, erroneously, was GF?
3. Is this guest rude?
4. Who feels worse: the guest, or my mother-in-law?
What do you think? Have you ever been in any of the above situations?
Today I am over at joyofkosher.com, blogging about cooking, per the upcoming holiday of Shavuot/Shavuos. (Remember Shavuos?) For those of you that know Jamie Geller, or own Quick and Kosher, her cookbook, or Meals in Minutes, her newest one, this is her site. And it’s great.
I’m not really sure what I’m doing here. See…(furtive glance side-to-side)…I don’t like to cook.
As a rabbi’s wife and mother of seven, though, I cook a-plenty. But
for me it’s kind of like brushing my teeth. I do what I need to do to
maintain my reputation as a functional adult, and if it smells good, so
much the better.
But I have tricks! (…continue reading…)
I don’t know where you live, but here in Cleveland, there is a Speedway 5 minutes from my home, right in the heart of the Orthodox community. It’s open 24 hours, and you will always see Orthodox Jews coming in and out, buying Slurpees.
Well. You need to understand a few somethings.
- When you keep kosher, there are very few fun foods you can buy for a buck.
- There are also very few stores you can buy fun food at that are open 24 hours.
- The fact that Slurpees are kosher is very exciting – us kosher folks are ALWAYS scouting for “what’s kosher?” at Costco, Target, or the local grocery.
- When you have kids (as most Orthodox Jews do, for a lot of child-rearing years), a Slurpee is a great easy incentive that all kids love.
- When you’re a teacher of Torah or a parent of a Torah-observant home, you are always seeking to motivate your kids to learn Torah/do mitzvot; hence easy, cheap incentives are always being sought.
Note: the frightfully blue tooth color actually does fade with time.