Challah, matzah balls, kugel, and latkes made up the dinner table at least a few times each year in our little ranch house in the woods or at Granny and Papa’s apartment that sat adjacent to Temple. Charoset, hamentashen, and apples and honey peeped out for their respective holidays. And let’s not forget the meats: brisket, corned beef on rye, and chopped liver had their moments under the candles on the table. Food alone can represent a culture that has been slowly slipping away from me over the years. Each food represents a time of year, or a blessing, or a celebration, or a moment of bereavement. Food nestled itself into memories of my grandparents, of Friday nights, of holidays, of visits to Florida.
Religion, with a capital “R”, has always been a topic that I’ve pushed away with a strong fist. There is too much hate associated with Religion that has made me (somewhat shamefully) avoid the conversation or at least keep the conversation within my own walls. Religious culture, however, has flowed in and out of my life. Just as I went through “identity phases,” as my mom called them, such as the hippy phase, angry phase, activist phase, trendy phase, earthy phase, my religious culture has shifted in haphazard directions. I felt so connected with my culture in second grade that I angrily insisted on celebrating Hanukkah in class alongside Christmas (nowadays this is a political statement; as a second grader, I just wanted people to eat my latkes). In fifth grade I did make it political and wrote a passionate letter to my principal demanding that a nondenominational candle replace the Christmas tree in the gym. But, for my Bat Mitzvah, I dreaded practicing my Torah portion and only became excited about the party that followed the service. In high school, I attended the High Holy Day services through force (often bringing a novel to hide in my prayer book). In college, I revisited my culture as I found “progressive” Jewish services in Amherst. I suddenly found myself shopping for Israeli jewelry and pulled out the pieces that once belonged to my Jewish grandmother—a Star of David necklace and her handmade Russian compass necklace. I drove four hours home to attend services with my family, and I truly believed that first and foremost my identity was a Jewish identity. But then, life started as an adult and I again immersed myself into new cultures of cities, jobs, and friends.
Throughout my early and mid twenties, I didn’t do anything “Jewish.” I never attended services, never honored the holidays (in fact, my best friend who is a Christian always had to remind me of them), and frankly just found religious culture to be a negative influence on my mind.
But, a few months ago my dad shared with me a tape from my grandmother that she recorded before she passed away. In the tape, my grandmother speaks to her three children and tells them her family history, beginning with the persecution of our ancestors in a small village in Russia through death and disease in China and ending with her life in America. As I sat in my wooden stool in my little Vermont apartment with the family tree spread out over the kitchen counter and dad’s 1980 tape player illuminating Granny’s voice, I teared up. I cried not only because I was hearing her voice for the first time in 15 years, but also I cried because I felt so selfish and unappreciative of a culture that has been fighting to survive and a culture that has only survived because of those who constitute it. She used phrases like “we people” and “our people,” phrases that have been so removed from my reality of religion and life in general. And I could go on and on about how privileged I grew up and how privileged I’ll probably remain, and I could resent the life I’ve led thus far now knowing the true suffering my ancestors had to experience, and I could angrily and politically discuss what my American culture has impeded on my being. But, as always, it comes back to food.
Since listening to Granny’s tape, I’ve replenished my interest in Jewish culture—not because I feel like I should or feel guilty that I left it behind, but because there is something very comforting in the fact that “our people” share food. Food that represents a life grander than my reality, and grander than the reality I’ll probably ever know.
I write this “unlike me” post today because I attended the “HardLox Festival” in Asheville this afternoon with my new friend Andrea (who I have to say, seems to have a much more meaningful grasp on “our people” than I do).
The festival was mainly a food festival, containing booths with blintzes, hamenstashen, kugel, kosher hot dogs, matzah ball soup, latkes, corned beef, pickles, bagels, lox, knishes. People ate, some danced Israeli dances (which was cute, inspiring, and weird all at the same time), and others merely admired the Jewish artists displaying their pottery and jewelry.
Although my vegetarianism and lactose intolerance limited my food choices, I still managed to eat plenty of latkes and hamentashen, and I of course brought home a loaf of challah.
So I guess the place I’m in now is a place of appreciation. I appreciate the pleasant and insightful memories these foods bring back to me. I appreciate the community that “our people,” and our food, maintain. And I appreciate the history that food brings with it, one bite at a time. (Ending with a cliché is usually not my style, but a pun and a cliché? Yes, please).