On the Jewish food scene: The days of whitefish and lox

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A great deal has changed since I was a teenager, but one thing has not: the food at a b’nai mitzvah kiddush luncheon must include whitefish (either plain or in a salad), lox and bagels. It doesn’t matter how many fancy-shmancy new kinds of food are included: without that specific bread and those fish, it ain’t a real b’nai mitzvah meal.
OK, so I’m exaggerating. I can think of at least one bat mitzvah I attended in the past few years that didn’t include those, but they are pretty much a staple of Jewish brunches, whether after services or for other events. And, while this last year has allowed for fewer of those gatherings, that doesn’t mean people had to do without them. They just, unfortunately, had to pay for their own. (Why unfortunately? Have you seen the cost of smoked whitefish lately? It’s expensive!)

Another staple that is not quite as common as it used to be is herring. At a fancy kiddush, that meant at least two types, usually one in cream sauce and the other in wine sauce. Although, if all these fish weren’t available, people just opened a few jars of gefilte fish to take their place. Cut them in pieces, plop them on a plate, put some toothpicks in them and they’re ready to serve. If you have some horseradish to go with them (which you put in a bowl to use like a dip), then you have everything you need.

Sense a theme here? The question you might ask is, “Why so much fish?” But that’s not exactly the right question. You should be asking, “Why so much cold fish?” The answer is easy: no cooking on Shabbat means cold food. All the fish mentioned above can be served cold. In fact, they taste better cold. And while I know whitefish, lox and herring can be cooked, I’ve never tasted them any other way but smoked or pickled and served cold. 

And why the bagel? I’m tempted to say, “Why not?” When you think of the quintessential Jewish food that is not connected to a holiday, the bagel usually comes to mind. Well, at least to Americans. When I was in Beer Sheva during rabbinical school, I had an Israeli roommate who thought a bagel was so weird she refused to try it. It still doesn’t make sense, but even after explaining to her that it was just bread in a different shape, she wouldn’t even take a taste.

There is one major difference in the b’nai mitzvah meals from my past that might amaze people. I remember every kiddush luncheon included a table covered with wine glasses filled with concord grape wine. Yes, I mean wine, not grape juice. And everyone – I mean everyone because we teens and preteens also took a glass – could have some. There was no bartender and no one watching the table. 

I don’t know if that happened in other synagogues, but it was definitely part of kiddush luncheons at the former Temple Beth El of Endicott. I never remember being tempted to drink more than one glass. Alcohol was not a forbidden fruit and adults used to give us sips from their drinks when we were out to dinner. (Whisky sour – yum!) That was helpful when laws got stricter when I was in college. Alcohol was not a big deal and I didn’t mind not being able to drink. (Soda, on the other hand, did not appear on our dinner table so that was far more tempting.)
Of course, with the pandemic this past year, there have been almost no meals for guests after b’nai mitzvah. While that saved on the family budget, it is sad that the community couldn’t gather in person to celebrate the new Jewish adult. But, maybe, once it is safe to come together, each synagogue can hold an oneg or kiddush for those who celebrated any simcha during this difficult time, even if we don’t serve traditional Jewish food. After all, it’s having our joys recognized by our extended communal family, rather than the food, that really counts.