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Jews and food  why the intense connection?

  • Jewish food trends 2015 Babke
Have you ever wondered why Jews place such a strong emphasis on food? And have you thought about why the chaggim and Shabbat are based around a meal, and specific delicacies? Also, why is a Jewish simcha simply not complete without eating?
by TALI FEINBERG | Sep 14, 2017

This distinction is made even clearer when one attends a non-Jewish function, where food is rarely the focus.

As we approached the Yamin Nora’im, food is even more foremost in our minds, as we prepare the Rosh Hashanah meal, teach our children about apples dipped in honey, and fast from sunset to sunset over Yom Kippur. We eat in abundance, then fast, then eat in abundance some more. It’s just one of the patterns that make food almost an obsession in the Jewish world.

“There is no way you can practise Judaism religiously or culturally without food. Food has been intrinsic to Jewish ritual, life and culture from the outset,” writes Gil Marks in Moment magazine.

“What is the very first act that the Israelites in Egypt are commanded to do? It’s to have a communal meal - roast lamb and herbs, some nice shawarma. And with that, the beginning of the Jewish people is through a meal. The famous joke - ‘They tried to kill us, we won, now let’s eat’, is not really that far from the truth.”

But why? Some suggest it is about identity. “The process of identity formation though food consumption, a phenomenon by means of which social distinctions are created and distinct communities are enacted and maintained, is epitomised in Judaism.

In the case of Jewish identity, the tremendously powerful influence of food can be traced back to the profusion of food taboos contained within the Hebrew Bible,” writes Shannon Leavitt in her thesis “How is Jewish Identity Manifested Through Food?” (University of Santa Barbara, California).

She goes on to explore how Shabbat, kashrut, the seder and other food rituals around chaggim, lead to Jews maintaining a strong focus on food; and how for many American Jewish immigrants who assimilated, food became the main connection to their Judaism.

For South African Jews, our history is also deeply steeped in gastronomy, and some foods in particular. As Leah Konig writes in The Forward, Jews who came here from Lithuania brought deeply cherished recipes and food customs, from our unique name for challah (kitke - a term which likely stems from the German word for putty and is today exclusively used among South African Jews of Lithuanian descent) to our enduring love of teiglach and the tendency to pair kichel with herring.

“Over the centuries, South Africa’s Jews held tight to their Lithuanian food traditions, blending them with flavours from the foods of South Africa’s indigenous and immigrant communities and periods of Dutch and British colonisation”, continues Konig. The results were dishes like curried fish balls, kosher biltong and mock crayfish.

But is it healthy to be so emotionally connected to food, or particular dishes? And why are we naturally inclined to serve food in abundance, sometimes to the point of wasting food?

“I think it comes from identifying with a deep fear of scarcity, shortage and the threat of there not being enough,” says Cape Town-based psychologist Cara Browde.

“With the Jewish people’s history, we tend to hold on to abundance to manage that anxiety of being persecuted and victimised. It goes very deep and is transmitted non-verbally,” she continues. But she emphasises that we don’t have to follow these patterns and say: ‘This is just how we are.”

“We can be more thoughtful about eating abundantly, and try and understand the reasons why. We don’t have to carry on identifying with that fear, as it’s mostly not our reality anymore. Rather, we can focus on a sense of gratitude, and trust that there will be enough,” she suggests.

On the other hand, Judaism’s connection to eating could also lead to a healthy relationship with food. Gathering around a table for a family meal, cooking a hearty dinner as opposed to fast food, and teaching children the importance of wholesome dishes and being with family, are simply priceless in a world of rushed, packaged consumption.

Indeed, “on a higher spiritual level, food stirs emotion and memory”, writes Rabbi Joshua Rose, senior rabbi at Har Hashem in Colorado.

“For Jews, food also connects us to a broader connection than just personal memory. When I eat herring in sour cream - oh yes, I do - I am aware that I’m eating my people’s food, Jewish soul food. For Sephardic Jews, haminado or shakshuka are tied to the cords of mystic memory as well,” he writes.

“There is a higher spiritual level still to which food connects us. Food is an intersection of body and soul, because it connects us to the entire web of creation. The Jewish approach to food is to have us consider the origins of our food, to encourage us to be mindful of its source, the connection between our heart and soul, and the rest of the world.”

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