On the Jewish food scene: The Jewish national dish

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Question: What is the Jewish national dish? Before you rush to answer, please note that this question comes from reading “National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home” by Anya von Bremzen. The author, who came to the U.S. from the former U.S.S.R. as a teenager, wrote a book, “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing,” which I wrote a review of years ago. I didn’t ask for a review copy of this work (no Jewish content), but thought it sounded interesting because I’m fascinated by the history and anthropology of food. The book taught me one thing: I’m definitely not a foodie. At a certain point, I finally accepted I had no idea what all the foodie terms meant and concentrated on the more fun parts, rather than searching for definitions online.

However, back to my question: What is the Jewish national dish? Note that I’m not asking what the Israeli national dish is. (That, oy, would get us into the debate about whether Israeli food is just Middle Eastern cuisine borrowed from other nations and I’m so not going there in this column.) That thought does lead me to the answer, or at least my answer: there is no Jewish national dish. 

OK, before I get a thousand e-mails talking about the wonderful Jewish dish your mother and grandmother and great-grandmother made, please remember that those recipes were borrowed from the cuisine of whatever culture they lived in. If you compare traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazic recipes, you would see there is little to no overlap. And think of the debates about food within the Ashkenazic world: savory kugel or sweet? Cold beet borscht or the warm meat version? Last Hanukkah, I was asked if I was Team Applesauce or Team Sour Cream. (I didn’t even know there were teams. By the way, I spent most of my life eating latkes without any topping, although in the past few years, I’ve put a touch of sour cream on a few.)

Now that doesn’t mean that there are no foods I consider Jewish, but I do consider those foods regional dishes adopted and modified by Jews. Of course, some of them have become part of mainstream American culture. For example, consider the bagel that some regard as the quintessential Jewish food: when my non-Jewish friends regularly buy bagels, they aren’t thinking of its Jewish origin, that is if they’ve even heard of it. When I was a kid, you couldn’t buy fresh bagels at the local grocery store, but now they have a variety of types to choose from. I also remember that when I was in Israel in the 1990s and brought bagels back from Jerusalem to Beersheva, one of my Israeli roommates looked at them with disdain and absolutely refused to even taste one. Obviously, it was a foreign food and definitely not Jewish. 

Why, then, even bother to raise the question? It’s fun to think about, talk about, write about and eat food, even if you can’t agree on which culture the dish came from. And this exercise in food culture has made me hungry, so I’m going to sign off now and get something to eat.