The journey that led me to work on this book began with my aliyah (immigration to Israel). Living in Jerusalem, and loving food, I was immediately attracted to the smells, tastes, colors and energy of Machane Yehuda Market (“the shuk”).
As a foodie exploring the market, I began to delve into the many different foods there, speaking to vendors and locals to learn more and more. If there was an interesting, new (to me) vegetable, I bought it and cooked it. A food for sale that I didn’t recognize? I asked about its history and origins.
I found dishes in the shuk from over twenty different countries of origin, reflecting the kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles) that makes up Israel today. Over thousands of years, Jews have spread far and wide across the world, but now in wave after wave, we are returning to our ancestral homeland.
And as we do, we bring our foods back with us!
When I began guiding culinary tours in my favorite market, I started using the foods there as a window onto understanding the diverse subcultures of Jews that call Jerusalem home. It got me thinking, if food expresses culture, we should be able to use the food as a mirror to see the culture reflected back at us. And that interplay between the food and the culture led me to present my first talk on the subject to a group of high school students from Chicago one Shavuot afternoon.
I delivered that lecture (entitled “18 Jewish Foods: What Our Iconic Dishes Say About Our People”) a few more times, each time researching more and developing it further. Until finally I realized, “Hey, this would make a really good book!”
And so began many years of research (which goes on as I also work on the writing). I’m loving the process, and all the amazing things I’m learning as I go.
When I say that I am writing a book about Jewish Food, I often feel the need to emphasize that I don’t just mean the Ashkenazi foods that most people think of when they hear the term. In fact, in Israel surprisingly the term “Jewish Food” is used interchangeably with Eastern European fare. On my tours, and in conversation, I use the food to remind people about the amazingly diverse people we are as a nation. My book takes this wide-ranging approach, and looks at foods from Jews all over the world.
There have been a few other books that have taken an equally wide ranging approach. My three favorites that do so are Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden and Eat and Be Satisfied by John Cooper. There are many other books that look in great depth at the specific cuisines of one Jewish community or another.
Collectively, these books do a great job of discussing the “Whats” of Jewish Food (What is a Jewish food? What makes a food “Jewish?”), then “Whens” and “Wheres” of Jewish foods, and of course also the Hows (How do you make it?). I aim to answer the “Whys” of Jewish Food. “Why did X become a Jewish food?” And even more importantly, “Why should we care?”
I look forward to you joining me on this journey!