The Jewish Love Affair with Food

April 1, 2019
The seder plate at Spago features braised beef short ribs and homemade grated horseradish, among other symbolic foods. Photo by Maxine Picard.

Anyone who has heard a Jewish joke here and there has probably heard the one about how every Jewish holiday is the same. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat. While certainly comical in nature, there is something truthful about how intrinsic food is to Judaism.

Think about it. Panera Bread recently made waves around social media for their bread-sliced bagels. Before that, Cynthia Nixon, caused an outrage in New York when she ordered a cinnamon raisin bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato and onion (gag!). Then there’s the debate over bagel bread, bagel thins, the list goes on. Jews are very opinionated about our bagels!

As if that isn’t enough, every holiday has some sort of signature dish. Even on Yom Kippur when we are fasting, we have carefully planned out our meal to “break the fast.” Try heading over to “The Nosher,” an entire website devoted to all things Jewish and food. My favorite is the March Madness Jewish Food Bracket. What is it about Jews and food?

I thought about a lot of this lately, as I spent the month of March doing the Whole 30 diet. It is incredibly restrictive, but as someone with almost no willpower and a lifelong battle with weight, I needed to do it. The Biggest Loser competition at work was definitely a motivating factor as well. I lost fourteen pounds, but what I gained was a greater understanding of just how hard it is to be Jewish and struggle with food issues.

Not wanting to pass on the fun, I took my five-year-old daughter to communal hamantaschen and challah bakes. And did not eat either. This was the first Purim I can ever remember not having a single piece of hamantaschen. The challah is in my freezer. Potatoes were the only carbohydrates I ate during the entire month of March. Passover this year will be a breeze! I’ve already done it four times over and as of this writing, rice is the only thing I have re-introduced into my diet. Dairy and sugar are still out…for now. Sugar and various forms of it are in just about everything. For those who abstain from corn syrup for Passover, you know. I read more labels in the past month than I have in my entire life.

So what did I learn? Yeah, I learned that sugar (and various forms of it) is in just about everything. But, I also learned that as you go about your daily life in the Jewish community, it is hard to eat healthy. None of the foods on that “Bracket Challenge” are what could be called healthy. Now imagine going through the communal motions as a Jew—an oneg, a holiday celebration, a Shabbat dinner. I did it all. And I often had to eat later when I got home. Aside from the synagogue dinner for Purim where I ate a plate of very tasty roasted vegetables, the healthy options are rarely there when it comes to Jewish celebratory meals.  

Purim itself includes the Talmudic custom of drinking so much that the “person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). While I have never been one to drink, I can imagine that this can be problematic for someone who struggles with alcoholism.

I am in no way trying to be the “Debbie Downer” of Jewish food. I fully recognize and appreciate the rich value that food brings to our culture. I can think of no stronger symbolism in Judaism than the upcoming Passover seder. And I was choked up when I read about how Joyce Feinberg’s z”l (one of the 11 murdered at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh) daughter-in-law still has a batch of her matzah ball soup in the freezer.  But, I also recognize and appreciate the value of inclusiveness and embracing modernity.

So, just as you might add an orange to your seder plate, I hope you will consider that Passover, like all holidays, is about more than just the food. It is about celebrating the fact that indeed, they tried to kill us and they failed. And, we eat. And drink. Whatever that might be. And be supportive of others in their own choices. As my dad reminded me, “It’s not a sprint, but a journey.” True that.

Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a social worker and Jewish educator living in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and their two young daughters.

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