Goldbergers and Cheeseburgers: Food and Particularism among American Jews

1. Bacon and Manischewitz My brother, both a carnivore and contrarian from day one, adored the crispy, fat-streaked bacon he sampled surreptitiously in friends’ kitchens. Bacon was not allowed in my family’s home – perhaps no surprise, considering we were … Read More

By / June 1, 2006

1. Bacon and Manischewitz

My brother, both a carnivore and contrarian from day one, adored the crispy, fat-streaked bacon he sampled surreptitiously in friends’ kitchens. Bacon was not allowed in my family’s home – perhaps no surprise, considering we were Jewish. But my mother’s family – Jewish Russian immigrants who settled in the Midwest – had abandoned the laws of kashrut when she was only 12. It wasn’t the treyfkeit, insisted my mother (who holds a Masters of Public Health and was the champion of our household’s nutrition campaign), but that bacon was “unhealthy” – high cholesterol, clogged arteries, saturated fat. Perhaps my mother was sublimating and actually had some internal aversion to bacon that had formed during her first 12 years of life. But if that was the case, she never explicitly said so. So, while my brother tried to coax our mother to reconsider her position, the house remained free of the fatty breakfast meat he craved. The only times she relented were during our family’s yearly vacations to Las Vegas. Standing in line at one of Vegas’ hedonistic buffets, or sitting in a family-style coffee shop and casino, my brother was permitted to order whatever he wanted. And so he did: a plate of bacon, straight up and defiantly dripping with savory grease. He would sit and eat, blissed out on taboo, savoring his breakfast with holy reverence.

I recently told this bacon story in front of a small audience at a pluralistic Jewish conference. My hope was to provoke a discussion about eating, family, and the various ways we experience and negotiate our multiple traditions (Jewish, American, Israeli, etc.) through our food choices. I wanted to draw out some of the stories that make the Jewish community beautifully particular – both internally and as a part of the larger world. But before I got past the second line of my story, I was sternly interrupted by a woman who said, “Oh you can’t talk about bacon like that – it’s Shabbos!” Just as accidentally cutting meatloaf with a butterknife contaminates not only the food but the knife itself, so it seemed my mention of bacon treyfed up this woman’s entire experience.

I was irritated, but not particularly surprised. Food – what we choose to eat (or not eat), what we share with friends, and what we feed to our families – is a vital aspect of many cultures, and can serve as a point of connection to family memory, lineage, and cultural inheritance. And it is certainly central within the Jewish tradition, where its significance extends far beyond nutrition into culture, identity, and community. In her book Miriam’s Kitchen, for example, Elizabeth Ehrlich describes the wisdom and stories her mother-in-law shared with her in the kitchen – interactions, which, together with the richly-storied recipes that Miriam taught her became Ehrlich’s entry point into a meaningful Jewish life that she had rejected years before. So of course people worry when it’s treyfed up.

Food is also a primary expression of cultural uniqueness, in that it creates a common culinary palette and set of shared taste memories that can serve as a source of distinction or pride. Case in point: Last summer, a friend of mine brought a bottle of Manischewitz wine to a party of both Jews and non-Jews. It was not long before a crowd of usually-closeted Jews circled around this friend, excitedly sharing their adoration for and horror stories about the syrupy Jewish wine. The interaction was brief, and isolated from the otherwise integrated party, but it provided a momentary sense of belonging and connection for the Jews in the room. Perhaps these types of interactions explain why even with the rising secularism in American Jewish life (especially outside of New York City), some Jews still seem to cling to food traditions – metaphorically, if not halachically.

In fact, this is not a new phenomenon. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden describes the term fressfroemigkeit, or “culinary Jew,” which was used in 19th century Europe to describe assimilated Jews who expressed their Jewishness solely through eating traditional Jewish food on holidays. Similarly, some of today’s less traditionally observant Jews refer to themselves (only half-jokingly) as “bagel and lox Jews.”

Why are “culinary Jews” so common? On the one hand, food is easy. Regardless of whether one decides to affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions (e.g. synagogues or movements), the desire for the comfort of group identity and cultural significance can often be satisfied reliably, if temporarily, by a hot bowl of matzoh ball soup. On the other hand, despite its apparent easiness, food is a meaningful bond. Eating together is the consummate social act, and a shared vocabulary (e.g., recipes) can serve as a link between traditionally observant and alternatively or non-observant Jews (at least in theory). The chewy warmth of a fresh challah, the buttery crumble of rugelach, or a hunk of rich, raisin-dotted kugel carry within them layers of personal and collective Jewish memories that extend beyond denominational lines.

Whatever its sources, culinary Judaism is not a simple phenomenon. In fact, behind the seemingly innocuous food practices of neither-assimilated-nor-conventionally-affiliated Jews lies a complex history of food and particularism, and uncertain questions for the future. 2. Post-Assimilation, Kosher-Style

America’s Jewish grandparents (many of whom immigrated to the US from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) endeavored to blend in to their new surroundings. Fearing the discrimination they faced in Europe and seeking acceptance in their new home, many chose to modify or abandon their cultural particularities and adopt the values and trends that mimicked those of the dominant Protestant society. In her book Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950, Jenna Joselit explains how these changes were particularly evident in the choices these new American Jews made around food and other domestic rituals: in their homes, Jewish mothers began to focus less on traditional European Jewish recipes and the laws of kashrut, and more on their children’s health and success in America. Of course not all immigrant Jewish families exchanged Jewish cooking for American food trends, but in their struggle to integrate and thrive in American society, many of their traditional practices were either muted or completely abandoned. Ehrlich’s anecdotes in Miriam’s Kitchen reinforce Joselit’s argument:

[Our immigrant grandmothers] wanted their children to be of the New World, even as they fought the confusing temptations of New World streets. They wanted their children to have the best, even if it was unkosher, treyf. I don’t mean that only as a metaphor. Somewhere around 1940, my Brooklyn grandmother, listening to a nutritionist on the radio, heard that bacon had special disease-fighting properties…Thus my aunt insists from time to time her mother pressed coins in her hands, urging a lunch of BLT on the Brooklyn College Campus.

Of course, the urge to assimilate strongly affected the American-born children of the Jewish immigrants. These children, who heard the stories of their parents’ religious persecution in Europe, and experienced discrimination themselves, were compelled to assimilate to an even greater degree into their surrounding American culture. My mother’s family serves as a telling example. Her grandmother, who was born and raised in Russia, kept a kosher kitchen. When she moved with her family to America (first Brooklyn and then to Minneapolis), she insisted on upholding kashrut standards and continued to make many of the recipes she was taught as a young woman. She also resisted learning English. Yet when her daughter (my grandmother), got married and had children of her own, she discarded the laws of kashrut when the kosher butcher in town closed shop. Traditional foods were reserved for Pesach seders or family simchas, whereas everyday cooking was almost unidentifiable as Jewish. Like many other Jews, however, my bubbe did retain a nostalgic affection for “kosher style” food and delicatessens, which implied a sense of “kosher quality,” but came complete with Swiss cheese and corned beef Reuben sandwiches. As the third link in this chain, my mother’s kitchen fully reflects the trend of assimilation. She married my father (who is not Jewish), and raised me and my brother in a Jewish, but decidedly non-kosher household. As mentioned before, bacon was not allowed in our kitchen. But tall glasses of skim milk accompanied nearly all of my family’s chicken, steak (and occasionally lobster) dinners.

Unlike our ancestors, today’s American Jews enjoy unprecedented levels of acceptance. In America, our generation lives without the daily fear of being directly discriminated against for our Jewish background or practices. And interestingly, over the last few decades, Jews have gained some global recognition for our cultural (and culinary) uniqueness. This cultural acceptance has created a far more comfortable environment for Jews to claim their Jewishness – both for themselves and in public settings. To some degree this reclamation is religious, as more opportunities for pluralistic and non-dogmatic Jewish ritual and prayer are emerging in cities and communities across America. But it is largely cultural. Jews – myself included – are beginning to embrace the Jewish roots that our grandparents and parents abandoned out of fear and a desire to fit in, but without the traditional religious trajectory of a baal tshuvah or organizational affiliations of a mainstream Jew. They are increasingly seeking meaningful ways to integrate Jewish life and tradition into their otherwise secular lives – many through culture or kitsch, and some (though fewer) through increased observance of Jewish rituals.


Jews’ interaction with Jewish food and food traditions plays a revealing role in this most recent transformation of American Jewish life. The Manischewitz brought to the party, for example, was a tongue-in-cheek but also (perhaps subconsciously) sincere way of asserting Jewish identity and community. Another friend of mine threw a latke making party at Chanukah – an event which was decidedly designed to bring together Jews to celebrate and create Jewish food. Other Jews, though perhaps still a considerable minority – are seeking out a Jewish foundation for their ethical food choices. For example, a growing number of Jewish vegetarians link their abstinence from meat to Jewish values. Some – echoing Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s idea of “eco-kosher” – are also beginning to examine and reframe what it means for food to be “fit” in a world where heavy pesticide use, factory farms and conventional monocropping techniques dominate our food and agricultural systems. And the organization I work for, Hazon has pioneered several projects, which enable participants to examine food through the double prism of Jewish tradition and contemporary food issues. Through their food choices, these Jews are attempting to find ways that their ancient, inherited tradition can breathe new meaning into their modern lives.

3. Different, but not Separate But what about the function of traditional kashrut (as a religious, not only cultural) Jewish food practice deliberately to separate Jews from non-Jews? Here, I, along with many of my culturally Jewish peers, part company with our more Torah-observant compatriots. Despite their embrace of Jewish particularity, contemporary cultural Jews are less willing than many traditionally observant ones to compromise their various other identities. On the one hand, yes, they are bored with the hyper-universalistic, “we are the world” sentiment, they grew up with, which attempts to blend all cultural particularities into a single muddled patchwork. But they are cautious about the areas in Jewish life that tend towards self-segregation and seem to purposefully deny meaningful contact with the much larger, non-Jewish world. They roll their eyes at people who insist upon dogmatic or narrowly defined Jewish boundaries, like the woman at the conference who balked at my bacon story. They are comfortable trying out the rituals that highlight Jewish tradition’s uniqueness, but wary of the ones that ask them to separate themselves from non-Jews or less-observant Jews (e.g. declining an invitation to their friends’ barbeque because it will not be kosher). They desire the familiarity of home-cooked kugel, but want to be able to enjoy their “transgressions” – without guilt.

Separation – some scholars say, is a central, not incidental, aspect of kashrut, though few would identify it as the only aspect. Deuteronomy 14:2-3 says, “For thou art a holy people unto thy God, and God hath chosen thee to be his own treasure out of all peoples, that are upon the face of the earth. Thou shalt not eat any abominable thing…” The Israelites, it seems, made a connection between their chosenness and their consumption (as well as their sexual relations and other customs prescribed in Deuteronomy, and in Leviticus in the Holiness Code). Cultural anthropologist, Mary Douglas, elaborated on the connection between holiness and separation in her book Purity and Danger, by explaining how food prohibitions created a set of boundaries, which rendered anything outside of those boundaries as unfit. By setting prescribed boundaries which hindered eating and socialization with non-Jews, the laws of Kashrut helped these ancient Jews assert their distinct identity – which, for a tiny, vulnerable minority, had considerable benefits.

Today, most Jews do not share the ancient Israelites’ intense need for identity separation. This change does not render the laws of kashrut irrelevant, but the lack of desire to separate does make them seem less crucial for the survival of the Jewish people. Contemporary Jews have the relative freedom to weigh their Jewish and not-explicitly Jewish values against one another in making personal ethical and ritual decisions. And many Jews – whether or not they would articulate it as such – choose to privilege their values of unhindered diverse friendship and community over traditional Jewish law. One can argue that these less-observant Jews choose not to keep kosher simply because it easier – that they just cannot be bothered with restrictions against shrimp or, in my brother’s case, bacon. I think that is a fair argument; there is no question that not keeping kosher is easier then abiding by the laws, and that it gives Jews access to a wider array of food choices. But it comes with a price as well: in a country where many Jews live and have relationships outside of all-Jewish contexts, keeping strict kosher can make sharing meals and friendships difficult.

It is of course possible – if more complicated – for Jews who do follow more observant food rituals or laws to strike a balance between particularism and universalism. Blu Greenberg wrote in How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, about how she negotiates kashrut’s distinctive eating laws and practices on the one hand, and the values of friendship and respectful contact with non-Jews or nonobservant Jews on the other. In one anecdote she describes how she and her husband, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, devised a method of asking restaurants to double wrap a portion of fish in foil before putting it into a non-kosher oven, and not opening it until it was at the table, where the Greenbergs would provide their own cutlery. This technique, she says, enables them to eat with anyone and at virtually any restaurant in the world. The Greenbergs seem to have found a method that allows them to have their cake and eat it too. But ultimately, even despite their good intentions, a gap is created between themselves and their (potentially silently embarrassed or irritated) hosts. Under the right circumstances, this gap can lead to an even stronger bond of understanding and friendship. But more often, I think, this gap is why so many contemporary Jews do not keep kosher or participate in Jewish rituals that “limit” them from the non or less-observant Jewish world.

My own eating choices indicate a hesitation to separate myself from the larger world. I became a vegetarian at the age of 17, because I was concerned with the amount of resources (corn/grain, water, land) that were diverted towards feeding animals – and wasted – in order to feed people. As I have grown more fully into my own Jewish identity, I added a second level of significance onto my vegetarianism – that of being “kosher by default.” Although keeping kosher was not originally part of my choice to stop eating meat, it has become a significant part of the reasoning I use to explain my dietary choice to myself and others. I am generally pleased that my vegetarianism stops me from eating pork, shellfish, or mixing milk and meat. I am not comfortable, however, with moving beyond this admittedly “kosher-lite” lifestyle – for example, if my eating habits limited my ability to share a meal with friends or family. Similarly, my two-year stretch as a vegan ended partly because I felt like every meal I ate with other people ostracized me. Although I do maintain my own set of vegetarian standards, I have come to value a shared table over morally condemning someone for their choice to eat meat, or trying to convince them otherwise. Unlike keeping strictly kosher, where virtually an entire meal could be off-limits if butter and meat are served at the same table, being vegetarian still allows me to sit at the table and choose from the dishes that do not include meat. And even though a strict level of kashrut observance (or strict vegetarian eating) does not necessarily separate the eaters from their family, it can – and often does – separate them from eating in their family’s home.

In aggregate, the significance and meaning of kashrut is different today from the world of our parents, and our grandparents (as well as our ancient ancestors). Within the relative acceptance of a universalistic society, the particularities of Jewish tradition and culture are neither an obligation nor a curse, but a joy. However, particularism within a pluralistic context requires a much more complicated level of decision-making and identity construction than either parochialism or assimilationism. Through our personal and communal negotiations with food and community – as “out” Jews and as world citizens – Jews seeking both the cultural comforts of home and the multicultural community of the wider world are creating the lived Jewish rituals that following generations will revere (or reject) as tradition.

Fast forward 25 or 50 years from now: The children and grandchildren of this generation of Jews will be young adults. With any luck, they will be seeking to find their own connections and contemporary relevance in their ancient, inherited traditions. Will they seek the same comfort and relation to Jewish foods that this generation does? Will they still feel a cultural or familial link to the heavy, shmaltz-fried recipes their great and great-great grandparents treasured? Or will the nostalgia for grandpa’s famous egg cream have faded, the recipe forgotten in a dusty box in the attic? More importantly, does it even matter? What is really being preserved through the transmission of traditional Jewish recipes and food rituals l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation)?

The answer, I think, lies not in the particular borscht, latke, or strip of lox itself, but in the lasting connective power of food. The definition of “traditional Jewish food” is changing, and will continue to change along with the people who create it. Some of the Eastern European Jewish foods commonly identified as Jewish will linger on, some will be lost completely, and some will become hybridized with foods from other cultures – just like borscht, latkes, and lox originally were. The question is not one of the recipes but of the meanings invested in them. My grandchildren, for example, might someday remark that Pesach is not Pesach without grandma Leah’s spinach matzah lasagna, or look back fondly at the lox sushi their parents served every week at Shabbat lunch. What is important – both in food and in the rest of Jewish life – is that the value of “authentically Jewish” is maintained, even as its contents shift: that the memories and values of Jewish life are passed on, for new generations to struggle with, redefine and make their own.

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