November 21, 2018

Jews and Food

“What’s up with Jews and food?” joked probably more than one Borscht Belt comedian in the middle of the last century.

I found myself asking this same question just last week. And I wasn’t wondering about impressive Jewish chefs like the culinary peacemaker Yotam Ottolenghi, co-author of a cookbook you can give to your son and his Muslim fiancé; or Jessica Koslow, the force behind the uber-hip restaurant Sqirl; or even Sammy Friedman, the original owner of the Jewish soul food palace Sammy’s Roumanian in New York City. How could we ever forget that place? I know I can’t. I’m still burping up garlic from when my parents took me there in 1980.

It’s not Jewish innovation with food that’s on my mind in these searing hot days of summer, when the only appropriate clothing is none and the only food that makes any sense to eat is ice cream by the gallon. What I find exhausting, I mean intriguing, is how many of us seem to be forever struggling to tame outsized appetites that if left unchecked lead to outsized bodies.

Like many of my fellow Jews, I, too, have a love-hate relationship with eating. Except for those few years in the ’90s when I made a lame attempt at anorexia, so it was more hate-hate, but in that way that you “hate” the ex who dumped you, broke your heart, ruined your life, and you never want anything to do with him again. Except that you still love him more than anything.

Food enthusiasts of the extreme variety know that even the most pious and generous human inevitably will disappoint in a way that a Salt & Straw double scoop of cinnamon snickerdoodle and chocolate gooey brownie served up in a waffle cone never will. In-N-Out always delivers what it promises, right?

But I digress. I don’t have any double-blind studies to back me up, and you could argue that I have spent most of my life on the coasts, where a lot of Jewish people settle, but I have met a very large number of Jews in diet programs and eating disorder support groups over the past 25 years. Even outside of these rooms, I have noticed that when Jews run out of conversation, they almost reflexively fall into either a debate about where to get the best fill-in-the-blank delicacy, or the latest diet on which they are determined to finally lose “the weight” to meet their future skinnier sister-in-law, attend their son’s bar mitzvah or emcee their kid’s wedding.

I have total compassion for this preoccupation, as I come by it honestly, if not genetically. I remember my grandmother looking eerily like a mosquito, with a head disproportionately larger than her tiny body. She raised my mother with a piece of wisdom she would have said rivaled anything from Maimonides if she had known who he was. To wit: You can never be too rich or too thin.

To make sure this map for life didn’t skip a generation, my mother taught it to me. And this is how you get a daughter with an eating disorder who’s terrified of spending money. And a comedian who tours the country performing a show called, “Two Thin.” Because what’s funnier than anorexia and bulimia?

The late Lionel Blue, a popular British rabbi, author and broadcaster said, “Jews are like everyone else, only more so.” So here’s my latest theory on the segment of the Jewish population that eats Szechuan beef while reading Shape magazine, and bear in mind it’s not something we would ever say out loud.

What if our always wanting to be thinner is a function of Blue’s point? Is it a conscious or unconscious attempt to tame the “more so” aspect of us? That part of what we aspire to when we diet, in addition to not looking like an outdoor sofa cushion when wearing prints, is to look the opposite of “more so,” which is to say, less Jewish? And, yes, there is a chance I am speaking only to female coastal cultural elites. But I don’t think so.

This flattening out of ourselves, which began with our noses, then moved to the curls in our hair and finally to our round bodies, feels like the last vestiges of assimilation. It’s our final stabs at obliterating any physical manifestations of our “more so” -ness. The longer I live, the more uncomfortable this makes me.

Unless you’re living under Schwartz Bakery (and lucky you if you are), you know there’s been a recent uptick of anti-Semitism, so I’m no longer interested in being “less so.” Am I just giving myself socio-political justification to enjoy muffins the size of a baby’s head? Why, yes, I am.

To be clear, I am not advocating that we all eat cheese until our arteries explode, because then the terrorists really will have won. I think my new Jewish acceptance approach is starting to work for me. The other day, I left the house with a waistband that was a little too tight, an unkempt mane of curly, even frizzy hair, and I laughed really loudly at something my friend said. Just like other women do. Only more so.  

Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”