Bagel, Knish & Haroset, Oh My! (On Books About Iconic Jewish Foods)

Of all the books I’ve come across during my research into Jewish Food, there are many wonderful ones (and some that are less great, too, of course). They fall into a wide array of categories, from cookbooks to histories, dry-but-informative academic texts to just entertaining (whether more or less informative). One of the more interesting breakdowns I’ve encountered is how narrowly or broadly these books approach their subject.

A few books look at Jewish Food very broadly, as I hope/plan to do, trying to look at as wide a representation of our cuisine as possible. These are the books you see me referencing most frequently in my posts, my three favorites (and all extremely different from each other) being: Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden and Eat and Be Satisfied by John Cooper.

Other books focus more narrowly on the cuisine of a specific Jewish community. There are broad-strokes community explorations like the Hebrew-language Schmaltz by Shmil Holland (Ashkenazi) or Joyce Goldstein’s Sephardic Flavors. Others in this category focus more narrowly on the cooking of Jews in a specific locality. A few excellent examples would be Spice & Kosher (Cochin, India) by Dr. Essie Sassoon, Bala Menon, Kenny Salem, Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicholas Stavroulakis or the more obscure synagogue-produced Recipes from the Jewish Kitchens of Curaçao.

Perhaps the most interesting books, however, are those that delve deeply into a single, iconic Jewish Food. I recently read three such books in quick succession, and so I figured it would be a good time to discuss them. Admittedly, none of these are brand new books, the newest one being about 1 1/2 years old, so this is not a “book review” in the traditional sense. But I assume that if I am only now reading these, many of you may not have read them either.

The books cover bagels, knishes and haroset, looking at the history, culture and potential precursors of these Jewish Foods. All three of these books were valuable and enjoyable to read, but each had a special character and its own pros and cons.

Haroset

Charoset and Matzoh – Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together?
I’m starting with the newest of the three, Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History, by Susan Weingarten. One of the reasons I’m starting here is that of the three foods, haroset (or as I would normally transliterate it, charoset, though I will stick with one spelling for this post) is the most iconic and the most “Jewish” of the topics. It is the only one of the three directly tied to Jewish ritual (a condiment consumed as part of the Passover Seder), and it is also the oldest by far of the three foods.

But I also start with it because Susan lives here in Jerusalem, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her. She is friendly, helpful and encouraging to other researchers (including those significantly less experienced, such as myself) and has even sent me many articles and let me poke around her vast food-related library. It was therefore only mildly surprising to me to find that Susan’s name came up in both of the other books I will be speaking about.

Generally speaking, Haroset is a historical study of this very Jewish dish. It portrays haroset as a food Jews eat in order to place ourselves personally into a historic setting and context, and Weingarten sees Jews as the first people to use food in this way. Since haroset is nowhere mentioned in the Jewish Bible, and first crops up in the Mishnah, Weingarten first views it in the context of our religion’s shift from Temple-based to book- and ritual-based.

The book proceeds generally chronologically, but in large chunks, so that during the period where Weingarten examines the different customs among Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, there is a significant backtracking historically from the end of one branch to the beginning of the other. Along the way, Weingarten examines all significant aspects of this food: discussions of whether eating it is a commandment or a custom, varied ingredients, religio-philosophical reasons why we eat it and even preparation methods.

Though consumer-focused, the book’s style is still fairly academic, and thus not for everyone. But for me as a researcher, this has the most comprehensive historical focus of the three books. Along the way, there are many interesting tidbits that most readers should enjoy.

For example, one of the traditional aspects of haroset that seems to have almost disappeared today is the inclusion of vinegar among the ingredients. (I did once put balsamic vinegar in mine, though I can’t recall my exact reasoning for trying it). Weingarten also shows how the Ashkenazi rabbis made the greatest departure/innovation from the previously traditional ingredients, but ironically, it is the Ashkenazim today that are most unified in their recipe. And perhaps most surprising to some people is that while the apple-to-haroset connection can be traced to the Talmud, when it is referenced there it in no way suggests apples as an actual ingredient. Rather, it references a metaphor for the Jewish people.

Overall, Haroset presents a comprehensive and interesting, in-depth study of its topic.

Bagel

Maria Balinska took on a Jewish Food that in some ways is even more iconic than haroset. In The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, she tears apart the history of a food that is much better known outside Jewish circles than haroset, and has gone so far as to become the metonymic representation of our people. The book is brief, and a fairly quick read, but that in no way detracts from its scholarly rigor. The book’s economy stems from a shorter time period to be explored, and Balinska’s research is of a different sort than that required of Weingarten in her work, but The Bagel succeeds in presenting a brief but comprehensive history of this Jewish favorite. And again, this book is chock-full of interesting anecdotes and facts.

Starting with a “Family Tree,” Balinska explores the numerous ring-shaped breads from different parts of the world that may or may not be connected to to bagels. She evaluates them based on their shape, size, ingredients, name, geography, history and preparation method. This last is the most significant aspect, as true bagels must first be boiled and then baked. The closest relative to the bagel that Balinska finds is the Polish obwarzanek. Very similar to the bagel, it is a ring formed of twisted dough strands that is also boiled before baking.

Balinska does not specify what differentiates the two beyond the shape (and in my little outside research, I have not been able to find much more), but there is no doubt that even within Poland from centuries past, these were seen as different, but related breads. The two are commonly derived from the German pretzel, but most likely arrived in Poland separately.

An earlier, rejected version of the logo for this website
The book debunks the popular legend that the origin of the word bagel is tied to Polish king Jan Sobieski based on the stirrups of his horse. The term bagel is recorded in writing from before even the birth of Sobieski, so clearly it cannot be the source. But as any good researcher, Balinska doesn’t just drop things there. She suggests a possible source for the myth (among Jewish immigrant bakers in New York) and also explains that the thematic underpinnings of the story lie in the fact that Sobieski was a particularly beloved figure for Polish Jewry.

Interestingly, Balinska points out that an early 20th Century Polish book describes a bagel as a “Jewish obwarzanek.” While in my research, these days I have seen multiple places where obwarzanek are described as “Polish bagels” (such as the video linked to the word obwarzanek above). This alone is a testament to the massive growth in popularity of the Jewish bread. Which is where Balinska turns for the remainder of her book.

Starting with the immigration to America, and the large numbers of still-traditional Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, many of them ate the foods they were familiar with, ensuring kashrut. So we see the rise in popularity of the breads they knew from the Old Country — challah, rye bread and bagels. Bagel bakers unionized and increased in power and wealth during the early 20th century. One of the things that aided this growth was the fact that bagel baking resisted industrialization — the specific ring shape had to be rolled by hand.

Balinska talks about how this attracted the mob to try to edge in on the market, succeeding to varying degrees in different places. But the real thing that led to the union’s (and the early bagel bakers’) failure was their refusal to adapt and their hubris in thinking that things not only would, but could never change. Direct sales to consumers at street level, instead of wholesale to groceries, was another major hit against them.

Finally, Balinska explores the last stage in transforming the bagel from the little Jewish bread of the Lower East Side to one that has transcended its roots to become a genuinely American staple. And for that, she largely explores the history of the Lender’s Bagels company. By harnessing many technological innovations, from (working) rolling machines to freezing to pre-slicing to much more, Lender’s almost single-handedly transformed the bagel into what it is today.

In short, The Bagel effectively balances academic value with entertaining readability.

Knishes

Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver is significantly different than the prior two books. While it too explores various aspects of an iconic Jewish food, it is less educational and more love story. Silver’s personal connection to the knish, and the journey of research that she documents in her book, stem from a deep-seated familial admiration (some might say obsession) for the knish, but is truly sparked by the deaths in close succession of her beloved grandmother and her favorite Brooklyn knish store — Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes.

With that catalyst, Silver embarks on a multi-year odyssey, visiting many countries, engaging in much research (both via internet, archives and especially personal interviews) and even tracking the descendants (both literally and culinarily) of Mrs. Stahl herself. Along the way, via lectures, demonstrations and numerous articles, Silver herself becomes recognized as a knish expert, even leading (in part) to the birth of a contemporary business trying to keep the knish gospel (if that isn’t a religious oxymoron) alive.

Potato Knishes – Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That!
The book appears essentially as a way of organizing, on a subject-basis, the vast file of information Silver collected over the years. There’s a chapter on the New York history of the knish, a search for the origins of the knish, the knish in popular culture and more. Of course, that means that the book reads less like a story of the knish then The Bagel did as a description of its subject. Where Balinska looked at the bagel’s precursors and drew out a plausible and cohesive thread of origin, Silver finds similar short strands but fails to fully weave them together.

And Silver puts on no airs about her lack in this respect. After finding out that the origins of the word knish most likely do not derive from an Aramaic root, she writes, “In Aramaic, knishta is also the word for another agent of gathering, the broom: bristles on a stick urge forgotten bits of things into a central location for pickup, kind of like what I have done with found crumbs of seemingly unrelated information.”

But what she sacrifices in terms of academic rigor, she makes up for in writing style. Of the three books, Knish is the best-written from a literary standpoint and the most engaging. There are moments of laughter and also genuinely moving emotional parts. While the other books explore their subjects, Silver’s celebrates hers. So while it may be somewhat less useful to me as a researcher, it might be more enjoyable as a read for you.

I liked reading, for example, about a different “Knish Queen” from the Lower East Side named Mrs. Schwebel. She was particularly adept at self-promotion, and nearly got Eleanor Roosevelt to sample her knishes. But she let her promotional side get out of control, and the publicity she tried to generate from the event is what eventually prevented it from actually taking place!

Also entertaining were the various pop-culture references, from the Muppets to The Golden Girls and even a self-styled Black Jewish rapper nicknamed SD3 (Sammy Davis the Third). But perhaps the most surprising was the revelation that knish also became Yiddish slang for female genitalia. With numerous references from the 1930s to the present day, I’m most surprised by my surprise — how did I not hear this previously?

Knish presents a small and apparently simple package and fills it with all sorts of surprising goodies — just like the knish itself.

What’s Next?

There are a few other examples of this kind of book out there. I have yet to read (but plan to) The Bialy Eaters by famed food writer Mimi Sheraton, though I do understand that (as the title suggests) it is somewhat less about the food and more about the people. There is also a book I am in the middle of called On the Chocolate Trail, but that is less about a single food as about an ingredient.

I’m curious what other iconic Jewish Foods might lend themselves to treatment as a complete book. And in fact, when I think about the research I’ve done, and the plan I currently have for my book’s outline, I currently have only one chapter that is dedicated to an individual food. The others are more broadly topic based. But my current plan is to dedicate an entire chapter to the Shabbat stew. It is a topic I’ve presented many times as the lecture “Chulent and Hamin: The Stew with 1000 Flavors.”

I wonder, however, if that (expanded) would work better as a stand-alone book. I could certainly reference the core findings within the main book’s chapter on Shabbat foods in general. While I believe that the material could easily lend itself to a book of this nature, I also fear that its market might be somewhat limited; chulent/hamin is even less known outside of Jewish circles than haroset is.

Hmmm… Something to think about. Though I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!

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