Growing up I was never a big fan of Jewish food, to say the least. We ate strictly Red, White, and Blue: steak, chicken, hamburgers, and hotdogs. Sometimes Mom would stretch it with lasagna or ersatz-Chinese pepper steak if the spirit moved her. But that was it.
My dad, who’d grown up in a more old-world home than mom did, would sometimes look at me in the thralls of burger bliss, shake his head and say: “You don’t know what’s good; chopped liver, gefilte fish, kishke…”
I was – usually…okay, sometimes – too polite to tell him he was ruining my appetite, but just the thought of those sepia-toned culinary anachronisms made me uneasy. And on the few occasions he would bring them into the house, from the ‘kosher’ section of the supermarket, or a deli takeout, I’d feel like diving into the closet and desperately rummage for a HAZMAT suit.
Even as I grew older and my taste buds followed my overall swing toward the exotic, I eagerly sampled foods from places I couldn’t pronounce and from sources I – thankfully, probably – couldn’t identify, but ‘Jewish’ food remained beyond the pale.
Then, years later, joining us at our Shabbat table with its homemade gefilte fish, chopped liver, and cholent, if Dad’s mouth wasn’t so busy enjoying the delicacies of his youth, it would have permanently hung open in wonder at how his kid who wouldn’t look at Jewish food, was now not only gobbling it up, but making it from scratch.
I could never figure out how to properly explain it him, but I finally got it.
The reason was because I could only come to understand – and appreciate – Jewish food once I saw it in its ‘natural habitat’.
A zebra in the Serengeti, its stripes blending seamlessly with the waving reeds as it slakes its thirst at a waterhole with a hundred others just like it – is harmony itself and makes perfect sense. But take that same zebra, stick it in your living room, and all you have is an absurd-looking horse that’s breaking everything and dirtying the carpet.
Traditional Jewish food is ‘Shabbat’ food, ‘Yom Tov’ food, part and parcel of a multisensory, spiritual experience, with deep, halachic, mystical, or at least historical reasons behind it.
Latkes are for Chanukah; fried, because the miracle was with oil. Kreplach are for before Yom Kippur, when we hope our aveirot will be just as hidden from heavenly judgment as the filling is from the eye. Gefilte fish, made from ground fish, is for those holy days when one isn’t allowed to remove bones from fish, so now the problem’s solved.
To just trot these foods out on a random weekday without rhyme or ‘reason’ is like trotting a zebra into the den and wondering why the family’s scattered. Maybe for those who grew up with these foods in their ‘natural habitat’, just having them anytime is enough to stir up the warm memories surrounding them. But for those who hadn’t – like me as a kid – it’s just ‘strange’ food.
I’d like to tell you that my youthful aversion to Jewish food was a result of my sensitive Jewish soul rebelling against the indignity of a spiritual cuisine being dragged through the mundane mud.
But the truth is, as my Dad would say, I just didn’t know what’s good.