Digging into food history

Lori Stein and Ronald Isaas explore the development and celebration of Jewish cuisine.

POMEGRANATES, LIKE those seen here for sale in Jerusalem, are among the many iconic foods linked to Rosh Hashana. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
POMEGRANATES, LIKE those seen here for sale in Jerusalem, are among the many iconic foods linked to Rosh Hashana.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
You don’t need to do a lot of research to discover that Jews like to eat. They like to eat on holidays, they like to eat on weekends and they like to eat pretty much year-round. But Lori Stein and Ronald Isaacs have put plenty of research into their entertaining and informative new book, Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith.
Most people know that Jews eat halla on Shabbat. But do they know that it is meant to be sprinkled with salt as a homage to the Temple sacrifices? It’s pretty common knowledge that gefilte fish is a Jewish food, but apparently fish and chips was first created by a Jewish merchant in England in 1847.
These are just some of the facts and tidbits that can be found throughout Let’s Eat. Stein, a food writer, and Isaacs, a rabbi, each bring their own contributions and unique voice to this tome.
Each chapter in the book focuses on a Jewish holiday in the calendar, with sections included for Shabbat, Israeli Independence Day and life cycle events. Each section tends to start with very straightforward and basic explanation of the holiday – something superfluous for many readers but understandably included. There are also several recipes found in each chapter for a range of classic Jewish dishes. Most are written out at the end of each section, but some are woven into the text itself which will make it harder for anyone who wants to recreate such dishes.
Beyond the primary information are plenty of facts and figures that provide extra insight into the history and evolution of Jewish food and its surrounding culture. After all, it’s not as though people have been eating doughnuts on Hanukka for centuries.
That apple dipped in honey for Rosh Hashana? That was first mentioned in the 14th century by a rabbi known as the Maharil who wrote the book Minhagim (Customs). In Israel, Tu Bishvat has become the national holiday of planting trees. But this idea – and link to the holiday – was first proposed only in the late 19th century, and took root (pun intended) when the Jewish National Fund began heavily promoting the idea in the 20th century.
The most common matza sold around the world comes in a box and is, of course, square shaped – an invention of the Manischewitz company in 1888, which “changed the shape of matza and matza making forever,” write the authors.
Little highlighted areas throughout the book that explore more obscure Jewish food traditions around the world contain some of the most interesting tidbits, such as the fact that some central European Jews in the Middle Ages would eat a vegetable called erd epel before Yom Kippur, which curbs sexual desire, thereby allowing them to focus on prayer. Bukharan Jews would apparently build a Haman snowman on Purim, cover him in garbage and then melt him in a bonfire at the end of the holiday.
Let’s Eat takes a decidedly light-hearted approach to the topic at hand, which can be refreshing and prevents the book from being too academic. The authors discuss the Rosh Hashana simanim (the symbolic food items eaten on the holiday) because of their admittedly tenuous connections to hopes for the new year. Stein makes a joke about adding leeks to the roster so that your enemies will be “hacked and exposed by Wikileeks.”
Sometimes, however, the authors’ somewhat flippant tone rings hollow, such as in the chapter about Shavuot: “If the cheesecake is not as important as the Torah, it’s a solid second.” And when discussing the High Holy Days, the authors write that “we’re called upon to literally beat our breasts as we confess to a pre-written list of sins that we barely understand and have probably not committed.” Certainly I’d hope one could find a more inspiring service or approach to the holiest day in the Jewish calendar than that.
Stein and Isaacs take a fairly progressive look at religion, with certain somewhat murky claims, such as that some people now refer to Tzom Gedalia as “Tzom Gedalia and Yitzhak” in honor of assassinated prime minister Rabin, “a more recent political martyr.” Or that the groom breaks a glass at his wedding to remind us “that the world is not absolutely perfect." Grooms today may decide to pick their own motivations – most prominently tradition – but the breaking of a glass is certainly rooted in remembering the destruction of the Temple.
Stein and Isaacs have put a lot of effort into the book and while it isn’t groundbreaking, it is pretty comprehensive, despite its flaws.