July 16, 2009

Many years ago, in the days when I supported my part-time writing with full-time catering, I cooked Christmas dinner at the home of a Hollywood star. It was a sprawling Craftsman mansion on the best street in the Pacific Palisades. Its vast dining room was decked out with green pine boughs and red velvet, and set, just for this occasion, with Villeroy & Boch Christmas-pattern china. Me and my partner cooked ham, yams, puddings—a meal pretty much out of Charles Dickens or Martha Stewart.

But with one exception.

Along with the catering contract, the actress handed us her mother’s recipe for stewed brisket: full of onions, garlic, dried apricots and prunes, a dish I was pretty sure is nowhere described in A Christmas Carol.

I looked over the ingredients then looked back up at her. “Brisket?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” she said, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”

The star had tenuous affiliations with her heritage—I didn’t even know she was Jewish, and my Jewdar even then was highly refined.  But her mother was Jewish, and even if the she was unwilling to celebrate a holiday, even Christmas, without that taste of home.

And here’s what shames me now: I looked down on her.

For a long time I actually looked down on all Jews whose only evident connection to 4,000 years of a remarkable heritage was a proclivity toward lox and bagels, brisket and kasha. The kind of Jews who called themselves Deli Jews, Lox and bagel Jews, as if after it all— slavery, Exodus, Sinai, Torah, the Temples, Spain, the Holocaust— they were content to reduce it all to a sandwich. It wasn’t Judaism they were passing on to their children, I sneered, but brunch.  I came up with a word for it: Foodaism, a kind of ignorant, happy-faced Jewish lite.

Little did they know—I sneered—that the treasures of Judaism are not found on a deli menu: the pursuit of justice, the world of learning, prayer and mitzvah, the ritualized ideal of a universal Oneness. When Thomas Cahill wrote “The Gift of the Jews,” it shouldn’t come as a shock that he left Langer’s pastrami and rye off the list.

Besides, the fact that we are a People obsessed over our food doesn’t make us Jews—it makes us human. Anthropologists study food ways as a primary vehicle for cultural transmission: anyone who has spent time in a Chinese, Italian, Arab or Indian home knows that we’re not the only tribe for whom food rises to the level of devotion.  The WASPs who surrounded us all seem to be the exception to the rule: most cultures like a little nosh with their alcohol.

But somehow between that evening in the star’s kitchen and today, I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t turn my nose up at the idea of Foodaism anymore. In fact, I believe I was wrong.

A lot of things conspired to change my mind.  Mostly, life. Growing up,  becoming aware of the things that moved me, excited me, centered me. And dammit if to be dead honest with myself, those things didn’t somehow revolve around food.  It wasn’t that I replaced God or religion with food.  It was that I found God and religion in food. I’d found a new definition of Foodaism.  It’s not Judaism lite. It’s close to a religion unto itself.  And for me, it’s a pretty good one.

This blog will cover all aspects of my new favorite religion—one I’d been a true believer in long before I recognized it, or admitted it.  I’ll write about my journey, I’ll write about the food world here in LA, in Israel and elsewhere, I’ll write about how the foods I touch touch me.  If you’re a believer, I hope my words, photos and recipes resonate with you.  If you’re not, maybe I’ll convert you.  You might come to understand, that love and ritual, truth and justice, even God Herself, can come to us in a slice of brisket, that foodaism is a religion for the rest of us.


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