August 20, 2019

A Journey from Shiksa to Shakshuka

I was not raised in a religion; my parents gave me the gift of choice when it came to spirituality. I’ve always known on a deep level that God exists, but the context for understanding my Creator was unclear. For many years I felt adrift, doing my best to find peace in the midst of chaos. Then I took a college writing course called “The Holocaust,” in which I was asked to examine this most heinous event in human history. Signing up for this class proved to be a life-altering choice. I was consumed by memoirs like “Night,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “All but My Life.” I yearned to know the Jewish people better — to understand their faith, optimism and hope, even in the darkest of times. I left the class full of curiosity, my heart open and ready to learn more. It was the beginning of my spiritual awakening.

And then I discovered the food. Or, more accurately, I discovered my future husband, who introduced me to the food. When we first began dating, he told me about the incredible meals he grew up with in Israel. Born to a Sephardi mother and an Ashkenazi father, he was familiar with dishes and spices that were completely foreign to me. Before meeting him, I only knew the Jewish food that most Americans know: matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, kugel. I was wholly unfamiliar with Sephardic cuisine. One morning, my fiancé cooked us a sizzling skillet of shakshuka — and that was it. I was hooked on Jewish food.

I solicited help from our family and friends, asking for their Jewish recipes and cooking methods. I began to discover that the term “Jewish cuisine” is very broad, covering a spectrum of international foods that are united by the ancient kosher laws. What started out as a hobby for me, trying to re-create the flavors from my fiancé’s childhood, soon became a full-fledged obsession. I started writing a kosher cooking blog called The Shiksa in the Kitchen. I also began working on a cookbook of Jewish family recipes from all over the world. The deeper I explored, the more layers I discovered. I realized that Jewish food is a reflection of the Jewish people — their struggles, their triumphs, their traditions and their unwavering faith in the face of extreme adversity. As I immersed myself in traditional kosher cooking, learning to make dishes that are centuries old (and in some cases even older), I began to feel I had found the place that made my spirit happy.

Food and Judaism are inextricably entwined. Almost all Jews today, no matter which movement they belong to, have fond memories of their family’s food traditions. Shabbat is a weekly celebration of food, family and faith. Every Jewish holiday has a food component — whether it’s the restriction of food (Yom Kippur), food as a blessing (Passover, Rosh Hashanah), giving gifts of food and drink (Purim) or celebrating the bounty of the harvest (Sukkot). Throughout the Torah, there are references to food — laws for what to eat and when, blessings for different meals and instructions on how to prepare certain foods. Remove the food from Judaism and you have a different religion entirely.

I find this link extraordinary. It can’t be an accident that the Torah repeatedly references food. Hunger is something we are all familiar with, no matter who we are or where we come from, and a good meal has the power to bring people together. Just imagining the taste of a new recipe can create kinship between total strangers; I see this happen on my blog every day. The mere mention of a beloved Jewish dish will bring dozens of comments in the span of an hour. I have Jewish, Christian and Muslim readers … people from all walks of life united by an interest in Jewish cuisine. It’s a powerful positive force, one I don’t take lightly.

I became a Jew on Feb. 25, 2010. Surrounded by family and under the guidance of my rabbi, I embraced the Jewish faith. There are many different Jewish threads in America today — Orthodox, Chasidic, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, ethnic, kabbalistic. I suppose if I had to put a label on my Judaism, I’d say I belong to the Foodaism movement (thank you to The Jewish Journal’s Rob Eshman for coining this phrase). By taking a journey into the heart of Jewish cuisine, I uncovered something hidden deep inside of me. I now understand that I’ve always had a Jewish spirit. I am drawn to many of the traditional aspects of Judaism — the holidays, the observance of Shabbat, the empowerment of prayer. It’s extremely comforting to know that I’ve joined a larger family and community. By becoming Jewish, I’ve acknowledged my responsibility to others, and I’ve dedicated myself to learning and growing within the faith. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of Judaism for me — being encouraged to ask questions, to discuss, to interpret, to constantly evolve. I see my conversion as the first step in a lifetime of spiritual exploration and growth. Entering the Jewish faith was a remarkable experience … it felt like coming home. A simple skillet of shakshuka helped me connect with my soul’s truth.

Many female converts to Judaism have described the feeling of not being able to shed a lingering gentile stigma, saying they are continually made to feel like outsiders. And yet, the ancient rabbis insisted that converts should be treated as if they had always been Jewish. We could argue that the convert who makes a deliberate choice to be Jewish is often more informed and devout than the Jew whose religion is the happenstance of birth. I believe that enlightened education and the open sharing of traditions will help keep the Jewish spirit strong. Shouldn’t we welcome men and women who are drawn to the faith, no matter what their initial motivation might be? While it’s true that some converts first embrace Judaism after being encouraged by their partner, in the end conversion is always a covenant between one person and God. Indeed, in this day and age, shouldn’t that be cause for celebration?

It is in good-humored defiance of the lingering doubts surrounding intermarriage and conversion that I still call myself “The Shiksa in the Kitchen.” The word shiksa has a primarily derogatory connotation — meant to convey that the “shiksa” is somehow “less than” somebody born into Judaism. Rather than shy away from the word, I choose to let my background empower me. I have no shame that I was born a shiksa; I am exploring Judaism through the eyes of somebody newly reborn and thrilled to be part of the Tribe. To those who would deny my Judaism because of my genetics, I can only offer my own humble perspective — and a sweet, creamy slice of my Shiksa Noodle Kugel. If that doesn’t open their hearts, I don’t know what will.