Not Just Bagels, Lox and Gefilte: What's Considered Jewish Food in 2019

Until recently 'Jewish food' was synonymous with Eastern European kosher dishes. But food writers are redefining that term, and asking: Should hummus be included? Should bacon?

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Gefilte fish. From "The Jewish Cookbook," by Leah Koenig
Gefilte fish. From "The Jewish Cookbook," by Leah Koenig
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Until fairly recently, the term “Jewish food” in the context of American culture was synonymous with East European Jewish food. Indeed, in North America – in contrast to Israel, for example – that was considered Jewish cuisine par excellence. If you said “Jewish food” you were talking about bagels, lox, gefilte fish, brisket, pickles and chicken soup with kreplach.

“Growing up Ashkenazi in the New York area – in New Jersey – Jewish food referred to Ashkenazi holiday and deli foods,” said Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a co-author of “The Gefilte Manifesto” (2016) who also teaches Jewish food anthropology, in a series of conversations with Haaretz.

Added Israeli-born Naama Shefi, founder of the New York-based Jewish Food Society, which works to preserve Jewish cuisine and culture, “The term ‘Jewish food’ is still identified in the American consciousness with Ashkenazi food.

“When people first hear about us, they still assume that we only deal with gefilte fish and blintzes, and I have to explain each time anew that the ‘Jewish kitchen’ includes sabich [an Iraqi Jewish dish made with fried eggplant], spicy fish and kubbeh soup” (made with stuffed semolina dumplings).

The balance of forces between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, and the decisive influence exerted by Israel – where the category of “Mizrahi food” originated – on the shaping of Jewish-American consciousness, are not the only factors that affect the definition of Jewish cuisine.

Chicken soup and kreplach from “The Jewish Cookbook,” by Leah Koenig.

“Throughout most of history, the term ‘Jewish food’ referred to kosher versions of various local cuisines – generally more meager versions, because the Jews were poor,” said Nir Avieli, of the sociology and anthropology department at Ben-Gurion University.

“But at the end of the 20th century, following hundreds of years of secularization and modernization processes, that definition changes,” added Prof. Avieli. “From being kosher food, [based on] religious practices, which Jews eat in different places around the world, it becomes food that bears a distinctive Jewish cultural imprint: everything that people choose to imbue with a Jewish cultural meaning.”

The attempt to create a modern cultural identity grounded in an ancient religious connection is not confined to members of the Jewish faith. Last year, the book “Feast: Food of the Islamic World,” by cookbook author Anissa Helou, who is of Lebanese extraction, was published in the United States and England. “Feast,” which is in part a compilation of recipes from Muslim communities worldwide, also tries to address the issue of the common denominator shared by those communities, aside from distinctive geographic characteristics, that doesn’t only involve foods that comply with religious prohibitions (such as halal, which, in the Jewish version, is kashrut) or those identified with religious festivals.

A new wave of Jewish cookbooks, many published during the past year, reflect an effort to redefine a secular Jewish-American identity for the current generation.

“The field of cookbooks,” said Yoskowitz, “has expanded in general, so it’s only natural that there would be more Jewish cookbooks. As food takes on an outsized role in American culture, identification with a culinary heritage is becoming increasingly a form of group identification. The term ‘bagel and lox Jew’ used to describe a cultural Jew in a derogatory way. Now it’s considered a legitimate type of cultural identification.”

With the new books have come panel discussions and other gatherings relating to the subject of “who is a Jew.” Some of the writers and chefs maintain that Jewish food is everything that Jews cook and eat – but that approach could encompass almost every type of food in the world. “Such a hard question,” Yoskowitz said, sighing. “I define Jewish food differently every time I am asked. Currently, my working definition is, a disparate collection of foods that tell Jewish stories. There are so many Jewish stories – some religious, some cultural – just as there are so many Jewish foods.”

The question of Jewish food, he continued, “gets complicated when it comes to something like ‘Chinese food,’ which American Jews eat on Christmas in New York and across the country. Does that make Chinese food Jewish? I say no, but it makes eating Chinese food on Christmas with other Jews a Jewish eating experience. Though the recent ‘The 100 Most Jewish Foods’ [edited by Alana Newhouse, of Tablet magazine] lists Chinese food as a Jewish food.”

That list was compiled in consultation with a team of well-known chefs and people who write about food of Jewish origin, who come from different places around the world, explains journalist Gabriella Gershenson, the book’s recipe editor. Published early this year, the book is a collection of short essays, not all of uniform quality, which set out to elucidate the Jewish-cultural context of the foods it describes.

Pickled delicacies. From "The Jewish Cookbook," by Leah Koenig

“Some things were absolute no-brainers,” Gershenson noted, “like challah, matza and other ritual foods. One of my favorites came into play very late in the process, actually on the set of the [photo] shoot: the used tea bag. One of the editors had saved her tea bag and set it down on a disposable coffee cup lid. We all saw it at the same time and had a revelation that it had it go in. One of the controversial ones was, of course, treif [non-kosher food], which in the original version was actually listed as bacon. We felt that because bacon looms so large in the Jewish psyche – the forbidden fruit of culinary Judaism – it is, in a way, a uniquely Jewish food.”

An unknown world

Last month saw the publication of “The Jewish Cookbook,” the fifth book by Leah Koenig, a Jewish-American journalist and cookbook author. Her previous efforts also dealt with the Jewish kitchen, but the scale of the latest one – with some 450 recipes – suggests an attempt, not only to provide modern versions of traditional dishes, but to create a contemporary canon of Jewish cuisine.

Koening is, of course, not the first person to try this. A notable previous attempt was undertaken by Claudia Roden. Her 1997 work, “The Book of Jewish Food,” was based on long and comprehensive research in Jewish communities across the globe. Roden’s original motive for writing the book, as she told me at the time, was to try to evoke the aromas and flavors characteristic of the cosmopolitan Jewish community in 1940s Cairo.

Roden’s book was structured as a journey, which also told the history of Jewish communities; Koenig offers a more concise recipe book, with chapters featuring appetizers, main dishes and desserts.

According to Koenig, “Roden’s book, and the works of Joan Nathan and other influential Jewish authors, are perfect, and there is no reason to touch them.” At the same time, she noted, “the definition of Jewish food is something dynamic, which changes and develops. Claudia’s book, for example, didn’t have recipes from the Jewish-Ethiopian community, which was almost unknown at the time. I hope that my book has succeeded in giving expression to my generation’s conception of the Jewish kitchen.”

Koenig, 37, was born in Chicago to a German-Christian father and an Ashkenazi mother, and for the past 15 years she has lived in Brooklyn.

“I grew up on Ashkenazi-Jewish food, and at some point, hummus also entered the picture,” she told me. “But davka, the more I developed professionally, I understood that there was a whole world that was unknown to me and the Jewish community. “’What is Jewish food’ was the question that defined the list of recipes that ended up going into the book.

“The Jewish Cookbook” author Leah Koenig.Credit: From "The Jewish Cookbook"

“Jews usually adopted dishes from the local kitchens of the places they lived, and did not invent them,” Koenig added. “The common denominator of the recipes is the Jewish cultural freight they carry. An avocado and hard-boiled egg salad is not a ‘Jewish’ food per se, but if people eat it in certain Jewish communities on Shabbat morning, then it takes on a Jewish character.”

Work on the book took Koenig two years – less than the time spent by her counterparts in earlier generations. (The internet, she notes, is a time-saver. “Today you can find even people from far-flung, small communities relatively easily.”)

The dishes that have entered the contemporary Jewish canon through what is identified today outside Israel with that country’s cuisine – including hummus in tahini, falafel, bourekas and shakshuka – stand out clearly in her book.

“The evolution of Jewish food is faster in Israel,” Koenig observes, adding that “developments occur with greater intensity there because it’s a small space where Jews from all over the world have gathered. But those processes, and the openness toward cultural traits of other Jewish communities, are also taking place in the United States.”

Hummus. From “The Jewish Cookbook” by Leah Koenig.

To raise the issue of hummus is, as usual, to enter a minefield: that of extensive, ongoing discourse related to cultural appropriation. As though it weren’t enough that Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians are fighting over “ownership” of hummus – although that battle is, of course, only a metaphor for the conflict over land, identity and economic resources – now it’s also being associated with the Jewish kitchen. Hummus has thus found a place in both “The 100 Most Jewish Foods” and “The Jewish Cookbook.”

“I am not claiming that hummus is a dish that’s unique to the Jewish kitchen,” Koenig says, “but it entered the book because it has significance for Jewish communities, among them the Jewish community in Israel and other Jewish communities that originate in the Middle East. Today no one argues with the fact that borscht has become a symbol of Jewish identity. That doesn’t change the fact that borscht is also the Ukrainian national food.”

As to whether hummus and falafel should be considered Jewish foods, Yoskowitz says, “I cringe as I say ‘yes.’ Because of the outsized role Israel plays in American Jewish life, it’s hard not to say yes.” For his students, he says, hummus and falafel are already an integral part of Jewish cuisine. “In Israel there may be some kind of an acknowledgment of the Arab roots of falafel and hummus, but in the American Jewish community, where Sabra is the largest hummus brand in supermarkets – there isn’t a widespread awareness.”

This is a subject he feels “complicated” about, Yoskowitz adds. “But then again, in New York, sour garlic-dill pickles are considered a Jewish food. Try telling that to a Polish person.”

Still, not everyone knowledgeable in the field accepts the categorization of hummus and falafel as Jewish foods per se.

“The conflation of Jewish and Zionist here has made the relationship of Jewish food to Israeli food complicated. I’ve never understood why one assumes the other,” says Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation (the most highly regarded culinary-arts institution in America) and author of an Ashkenazi-Jewish cookbook, “The Mensch Chef: Or Why Delicious Jewish Food Isn’t an Oxymoron.”

“This is not to say I don’t love Israeli food,” says Davis, “but it feels disingenuous to call myself Jewish and to call Israeli food Jewish – just as it feels disingenuous to think my politics are determined by my family’s bloodline.”

“For the non-Jewish American audience, Israeli cuisine offers a more convenient, less chaotic and more Western approach to Middle Eastern kitchens,” said Nir Avieli. “For Jewish Americans, Israeli cuisine is also connected to the Zionist concept, which involves a return to the soil and to agriculture. These days, food is perhaps the easiest expression of identification with Israel and with the Zionist idea.”

Russ & Daughters Café. The ultimate New York-Jewish experience: nostalgia, style and bagels. Credit: Dan Peretz

Jewish cuisine in New York: As recommended by Naama Shefi, founder of the Jewish Food Society

Russ & Daughters Café: A few years ago, members of the fourth generation of the founders of a deli that specializes in smoked and pickled fish opened a place that offers the ultimate New York-Jewish experience: nostalgia, style and bagels. Take note, too, of the excellent cocktails, including six versions of Bloody Mary and the dill-garnished Lower East Side Cocktail.

Kish Kash: A workers restaurant founded by Tel Aviv-born chef Einat Admony in the West Village that features homemade couscous and spicy fish.

PJ Bernstein: A delightful neighborhood deli on the Upper East Side, founded in the 1960s. There’s an extensive classic deli menu, but one of the most famous dishes is chicken soup with kreplach – and it’s perfect. It’s a treat to sit at the bar and take in nattily dressed New York women of a certain age and the deli’s regular clientele.

Mansoura’s Bakery: A Jewish-Syrian establishment in Brooklyn that specializes in sweet pastries and is famous for its baklava. Worth a special trip.

B&H Dairy: One of the reasons I like the winter in New York is the dairy lunch at the counter of this diner, a rare survivor of the Jewish dairy eateries that once dotted the East Village. Despite the passage of the years, it’s easy to imagine the Jewish-Yiddish scene that thrived in the East Village and the characters it produced. The recommended dishes here are borscht and pierogis. Every dish comes with a thick slice of challah and salty butter.

Acme Fish: A family business that produces and sells smoked fish to the trade, but is open to the public on Friday mornings; come early, because there’s a long line. If you’re planning a high-quality Jewish brunch, this is the place to stock up on salmon, trout and other varieties of smoked fish.

Katz’s Delicatessen: Everything has already been written about the prodigious pastrami sandwiches and about the place where Harry met Sally, but it still shouldn’t be overlooked. I’d say one dish here can feed three hungry people.

Harry & Ida’s: A boutique sandwich counter in the East Village that features pastrami and other brined meats. Grandma’s recipes in a modern, creative incarnation.

Black Seed: An excellent bagel bakery that also offers a selection of sandwiches.

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