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Eating Jewish: What is "Jewish food?"

What exactly is Jewish food? This is the question that most people will invariably ask me after I tell them that I research Jewish food. Most people ask this question with interest, while others are incredulous that there could be Jewish food. Yet, whenever I am confronted with this question I realize that one simple answer cannot work to define this term that eludes any strict definition.

As mentioned in my previous post, Jewish food spans the entire world and developed in many different countries. Foodstuffs and cooking styles were borrowed from the communities in which Jews were living, and was coupled with the need to ensure that the food being prepared met with the dietary laws in order to create a Jewish cuisine. Some people see this act of borrowing as something that renders the idea of a Jewish cuisine invalid because it denies the purity of this concept. Yet, speaking of any cuisine as a pure entity that has not been influenced or in turn influenced other cuisines throughout its development is impossible. Things are constantly developing and we must try not to overlook this important fact. Throughout time, Jews have worked with the food that was available to them as well as the dietary laws in order to sustain themselves, and in doing so began developing what we know as Jewish cuisine. Therefore, it is these various influences that has ultimately shaped the cooking of the Jewish community and created the wide variety of foods that are consumed by Jews the world over.

Furthermore, due to this variety, I think it would be difficult to name dishes that would be found in Jewish communities around the world. Rather, there are foods or dishes cooked in similar fashions or for similar purposes that are typically Jewish, such as cholent, hamin or dafina, which are slow cooked and traditionally eaten for Shabbat lunch.

When thinking about Jewish food, I believe that we need to appreciate the diversity that it offers rather than trying to name foods or dishes eaten within every Jewish community. One of the most interesting things about Jewish food is the range of foodstuffs that we can find under this umbrella. I do not believe that this diversity, which comes from the influences of many places and people, takes away from the category of Jewish food, but rather I think it adds to it. There is so much to learn, to cook and to eat, that the world of Jewish food is a rich area of culinary knowledge that holds much to be explored.

Katherine Romanow is currently a graduate student pursuing her MA in Judaic Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Katherine will be sharing her knowledge, perspective, and recipes with us in a new segment called Eating Jewish at Jewesses with Attitude.

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2 Comments

I do have a simple answer to the question, "What is Jewish food?" Jewish food is a combination of the dietary laws, traditions and geographic locations of the mothers preparing them with love, humor, and defiance since Mother Sara.

As a NY Jewess, I was astonished to learn that folks in MA do not call my (former) Sunday morning breakfast fare "appetizing," but consider a deli that lists pork on its menu, Jewish.

Nu? Go figure!

Food has become a very important way for me to interact with Judaism. As a Jew by choice, I sometimes feel very culturally adrift, not sharing many of the childhood experiences that give so many others of my age that common, communal point of reference, but that's almost been an advantage when it comes to exploring the rich culinary traditions of various Jewish communities, since I can sample freely from a diverse range of regional Jewish cuisine, without being too wrapped up in any preconceived ideas of what my Jewish food "ought" to be.

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How to cite this page

Romanow, Katherine. "Eating Jewish: What is "Jewish food?"." 24 June 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/what-is-jewish-food>.

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