Our Jewish Identities Are Situational

“Jewish” foods vary from place to place as Jews adopt the cuisines of their neighbors.

[The manna] had all sorts of flavor in it, and the Israelites would each taste in it what they desired (Exodus Rabbah 25:3).

If we are what we eat, then our Jewish identities are no more fixed than the flavors of the miraculous manna our ancestors were said to eat in the wilderness. Identity generally, and Jewish identity in particular, is all too often perceived as something fixed, stable, singular and unintentional. And yet many of us express our Jewish identities in food choices that are variable, situational and often temporary.

Indeed, one does not even have to be born Jewish or halakhically made so to eat Jewish. Non-Jewish guests are almost de rigueur at our Passover seders. Nor is keeping kosher the only way to eat Jewishly. Deli foods, dishes from Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook, babka from Breads or Israeli cuisine at Zahav in Philadelphia need not have hekhshered (certified as kosher) ingredients in order to allow people to express their Jewish identity culinarily, not to mention transgressive eating at the restaurant Traif in Brooklyn.  

But most of all, Jewish eating is seasonal. And, just as Allison James suggests that people eat Scottish haggis and neeps on Robert Burns Day to be Scottish for a day, so it’s the predominant practice of Jews and their friends to accentuate their Jewish eating according to the Jewish calendar. Let’s eat matzah and haroset on Passover, challah on Shabbat and tsimmes on Sukkot. But it would be wrong to dismiss the variability and situational aspect of these Jewish food choices as superficial, as “mere” gastronomic Judaism.

I think there is nothing “mere” about this kind of gastronomic Judaism. It is a deep expression of the realities of 21st century Jewish experience. Food in particular allows those of us with competing, intersecting and fluid identities to realize and express who we are in our complex diversity. Moreover, gastronomic Jewish identity is not really new. Michael Twitty, the Jewish food blogger aptly labels this “identity cooking,” in a post titled “‘Kosher/Soul’ Shabbat.”

In Jewish cooking you have foods dictated by text, food that the Torah talks about. Then you have foods that speak to the land of Israel and what grows there. Then you have foods that come from the places we have been, from our diaspora. And then there is identity cooking. The foods that are tied up with your sense of self and the place you are in, where you are and how you are connected to that place[fn]Michael Twitty, “ ‘Kosher Soul’ Shabbat” and “Afroculinaria.” Afroculinaria. Accessed Nov. 11, 2017. https://afroculinaria.com/about/[/fn].

Yes, “we are what we eat,” but “[p]aradoxically … food provides a flexible symbolic vehicle” for Jewish identities, “precisely through the invocation of sets of ‘inflexible cultural stereotypes’” associating foods with particular Jewish texts, times and places.[fn]Allison James, “Identity and the Global Stew” in The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer. (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2005) p. 375.[/fn]

So, if Jewish food choices and preferences are situational performances of Jewish identity, it is because today’s Jewish identity is itself fundamentally situational. It’s a blessing to vary and to be varied.

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