I never really understood the appeal of a pastrami sandwich. Sure, it’s tasty, and who doesn’t love cured meats, but my friends, growing up, would flock to good delis in droves. They would repeatedly exclaim, “I just love Jewish food!” before slathering mayonnaise on a roast beef sandwich. I would usually look at them with confusion, as I had never eaten rye bread and had no idea what “those black seeds” really were.
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Recently, Jewish food endeavors have been all over the news. From Jewish food trucks to glitzy, modern restaurants, Jewish food is getting a makeover. There’s even Jewish charcuterie now, which I guess isn’t too different from corned beef, really.
All this excitement has got me wondering what exactly Jewish food is. For my childhood friends, it was always knishes in New York City. But for me, with my Israeli parents (even Ashkenazi ones), I never ate at delis, nor did I ever grab bagels and lox for breakfast. In fact, the first time I actually had lox was at a restaurant in Amman, Jordan, when I was 21 years old.
We Jews were once famous for being nomadic. Even to this day, you can find Jewish people in most countries in the world. From Zimbabwe to Chile or as far as Australia, our people have taken bits and pieces from the cultures around us, and melted them in a pot to create modern Jewish cuisine.
Once, when my family was visiting the Black Forest in Germany, we sat down at a restaurant. Immediately, my brother and I looked at each other and began quickly scanning the menu: were there entrees that didn’t include pork or shellfish? Would we go vegetarian? My Dad spotted something that looked delicious and somewhat exotic: a German grated potato cake with braised meat.
When the dish came, my father suddenly exclaimed, “It’s a latke!” After getting over the paranoia-incited panic attack of my dad bursting into Hebrew in Germany, we looked down at our plates: the “German grated potato cake” was indeed a giant latke.
Jews living in Germany who celebrated Hannukah probably borrowed a little from their religious roots and a tad from the local population. Non-Jewish Germans probably borrowed a little from us, too. Similarly, you can find challah in Switzerland, muffletta in Morocco, and an array of other delicious, and, well, native dishes. And the Israeli food we love so dear? Lebanon’s been fighting Israel for proprietorship of that, too.
Jewish food is delicious, but let’s be frank here: there is little that separates “Jewish” food from any other, save for the kosher aspect. Kosher Chinese food is just as Jewish as a kosher Aussie barbeque, which is just as Jewish as kosher New York deli sandwiches. To say that an eatery is a “Jewish” restaurant simply because it’s associated with some Jewish people is succumbing to a pretty ridiculous stereotype. Would you say a restaurant that serves fried chicken is “American?” No. Americans would call it “Southern.” We should take the same attitude with our food. There can be Jewish-Syrian restaurants and Jewish-South African restaurants, but there isn’t one kind of “Jewish” restaurant.
Furthermore, by calling certain foods “Jewish” and certain foods not, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. If, instead, we just called it kosher or non-kosher, or called all kosher restaurants Jewish, we’d show others that Jewish food can really be from anywhere, and justifiably exhibit the Jewish people’s wandering roots. My manna growing up wasn’t a bagel with cream cheese, it was a bureka. Does that make my food any less “Jewish?” I like to say that the most “Jewish” or “Israeli” thing you can eat is a pita with hummus, chicken schnitzel and French fries: a variety of influences that combine to make one delicious meal, just like the Jewish people.
Across the street from where I live is a “Jewish deli.” Its storefront is littered with that font that looks like Hebrew and reads in English. The sign reads “Shiva platters! Bar Mitzvah catering!” On the glass wall, there’s a menu posted. Luckily for us, they serve ham sandwiches too.
I’m happy Jewish food is getting a makeover. It’s well deserved. But it’s time to start looking a little more critically at the stereotypes Jewish people spread about themselves.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
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