On the Jewish Food Scene: Jews and pizza

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

My mother said the first time she tasted pizza it was love at first bite. She also claimed that someone in her family’s past must have been Italian. (That doesn’t seem plausible because her mother’s family was from Germany and her father’s from Russia, but she’s never had a DNA test so who knows.) I don’t remember when I first tasted pizza, but growing up in Endicott meant that I knew what real Italian food is. None of that pasta with a sauce that tastes like tomato soup. If you don’t think that’s possible, you should have heard the complaints from a friend when she moved to Alabama years ago. When traveling to visit relatives in Canada, she always tried to pass through our area so she could eat at one of our Italian restaurants.

While I like pizza with toppings, my favorite is just tomato sauce (and please go heavy on the sauce) and cheese. I managed to live with one doctor-recommended diet because I could have pizza twice a week. (That was homemade, no-sugar-tomato-sauce-with-at-least-two-different-types-of-cheese-on-a-whole-wheat-pita pizza. Sigh, those were the days that I only had to worry about sugar, not salt.) It was always my Friday night Shabbat meal and it was a great way to begin the Sabbath day. Of course, I still think good thoughts about the many slices of pizza my mother, my Aunt Naomi and I ate when we visited New York City for shopping and a Broadway show. Dinner was always a slice of pizza bought during a time when there seemed to be a pizza parlor on every corner of Manhattan.

While one might think that pizzas are of Italian origin, not everyone would agree. There always seems to be someone claiming that everything has a Jewish connection and that includes pizza. A Jerusalem Post article (available here) notes a possible connection to the dough used for pizza, although even the article admits that is unlikely. But the other Jewish claim makes a bit more sense: a Sephardi doctor, Dr. John de Sequeyra, proved that tomatoes were not poisonous. It may be hard to believe that tomatoes were once shunned. They were a New World food and weren’t grown or eaten in other parts of the world until the European discovery of the Americas. The smell of tomato plants, among other things, made people suspect they weren’t fit to eat. Thank goodness that was discounted, because I love tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup, etc. – almost anything made with tomatoes. That doesn’t mean Jews invented pizza, though. However, I’m just glad someone did. 

My mother and I so loved pizza that, for a few years, it was the main course for our Rosh Hashanah dinner. I’m still not sure what I’m making for the holiday yet, but writing this does make pizza a really attractive choice.