Beyond Chicken Soup: The Future of Modern Jewish Cuisine

Thousands of years of cooking in exile inspired Israeli cuisine. It’s now time for Diaspora Jews to take something back.

Emil Salman

Last week, my dad and sister attended an event in New York City at the celebrated Israeli restaurant Balaboosta to celebrate the new book by Israeli food writer Janna Gur, “Jewish Soul Food.” Gur, who is also editor of a leading gastronomic magazine Al Hashulchan, is a food celebrity in Israel. In her new cookbook, Gur looks beyond Israeli food to global Jewish cuisine. My sister called me excitedly as she left the festivities: “there was sabikh and real Israeli pickles and majadara!” she recounted, “and so many Israelis!”

I love Israeli food. Every time I eat it, I get the feeling of coming home. Whether it’s the little chopped pieces of tomato in the salads or the chickpeas boiled for hours, even the street food in Israel feels like its made with care. And when I am far away, if I get to eat Israeli cooking that actually tastes authentic, I immediately experience the type of comfort and relaxation that only homemade food can provide.

After my stomach stopped rumbling in jealousy, I paused for a moment to consider how strange this night at Balaboosta must have been. Expat Israelis eating sabikh in New York; New Yorkers trading bagels for majadara; food normally sold on the raucous streets of Tel Aviv being fashioned on pristine white crockery at a fancy restaurant in Soho. As I considered these contradictions, I realized that perhaps this event was in fact global Jewish unity at its finest.

Throughout history, Jews in exile developed cuisines to suit their needs, while being influenced by their neighbors, Gur notes, and with the ingathering of the exiles, these dishes grouped together to form Israeli cuisine. Today, in Israel, we see this global resonance in both homes and restaurants; one can go and order jachnun and moussaka and hummus and gondi without having to buy an around-the-world ticket.

But modern Jewish cuisine goes beyond the ingathering of Diaspora dishes in Israel. With strong Jewish communities living outside of the Jewish state, Jewish cuisine continues to develop both independently of and in interaction with Israeli cuisine.

In this telling, Gur’s cookbook is Zionist to a tee. Her work essentially attests to Ahad Ha’am’s claim that “Judaism in exile cannot develop its individuality in its own way,” that the State of Israel will allow for the fullest, most authentic flowering of Jewish culture.

This flowering Jewish culture is evident in the advanced, inventive and spirited culinary scene that Israel boasts today. The Sarona Market, opening soon, will become the Eataly of Tel Aviv. Restaurants like Machneyuda resource their menus from markets only steps outside their door. And websites like Tel Aviv Foodie Guide keep consumers up to date and informed, while sustaining a healthy level of competition and innovation among local restaurateurs. With this environment as a backdrop, traditional recipes are fusing with modern technique in order to produce a uniquely Israeli cuisine that is simultaneously local and global, comforting and gourmet, classic and trendy. The foodie scene in Tel Aviv truly attests to the value of Altneuland (The Old New Land) that the city was named for.

After having been fed with influences from around the world, Israeli food culture can now give back to the Diaspora. We can go beyond the stereotype of New York Jewish food by elevating the presence of Sephardic recipes in our American menus, and we can preserve the traditions that 2,000 years of Diaspora life created by encouraging Diaspora Jews to cook Israeli dishes in their own homes.

We, Diaspora Jews, can also be empowered by the vibrant Israeli food scene and take ownership of it. By eating Israeli food in New York, we subtly say that we, American Jews, have claim to Israeli food. Our hipster smoked pastrami and our fancy whitefish are part of the evolution of Jewish culture. For Jewish innovation isn’t just happening to food in Israel. It is happening in Brooklyn, Portland and Los Angeles, too.

Dedicating a night in New York to Israeli food, then, is an admission that Jewish culture is becoming more innovative worldwide. Ongoing collaboration between Israel and the Diaspora is necessary for the most authentic flowering of Judaism, especially as we figure out how – amidst a globalizing world – to maintain the various traditions that have sustained Judaism for thousands of years.

But first, let's eat.

Zoe Jick is a candidate for the Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she focuses on Jewish Studies. Previously, Zoe was the Associate Director of the World Zionist Organization: Department for Diaspora Activities. Zoe is a Wexner Graduate Fellow for Jewish Education.