Keeping Traditions Alive
August 21, 2020
By Ellen Weiss

Steven and I do not watch a lot of TV.  However, we love watching shows about cooking, food, chefs, restaurants, etc. We wait anxiously for the next season of TOP CHEF – a reality cooking competition on Bravo featuring up and coming chefs from around the United States. Padma Lakshmi, one of the hosts of Top Chef, created a show on HULU called “Taste the Nation” which takes audiences on a journey across America, exploring the rich and diverse food cultures of various immigrant groups, seeking out the people who have so heavily shaped what American food is today. We learned about the Mexican influence in the border town of El Paso, how the Persian community deals with misconceptions regarding Iran while still embracing their traditions, and how the Gullah Geechee of South Carolina are fighting to preserve the traditions passed down from their ancestors – West Africans forced into slavery. The show highlights how food helps bridge ethnic heritage in today’s political culture.

I was waiting for the episode about our ancestors coming to Ellis Island, escaping anti-Semitism, and bringing their traditional food to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and other large metropolitan cities.  I envisioned Padma visiting residents telling stories about the corned beef at Katz’s delicatessen, a blintze at Ratner’s, and the knish at Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery.  In my fictional episode of Jewish cuisine, Padma would introduce the diversity of the Jewish culture displayed in the vast diversity of Jewish food. 

Well, since this episode does not exist – let me be your host and share with you the origins of what we think of as traditional Jewish Food…

Ashkenazi Jews are the Jews descended from the medieval Jewish communities of the Rhineland in the west of Germany. Ashkenazim or Ashkenazi Jews are literally referring to “German Jews.” Many Ashkenazi Jews later migrated, largely eastward, forming communities in non German-speaking areas, including Bohemia (Czech Republic), Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, and elsewhere between the 10th and 19th centuries. Many of these countries share similar cuisine. Traditional Jewish food, like cholent or tzimmes, also reflects the poverty that Jews suffered from in ancient times of Eastern Europe.  Stews were popular with vegetables and small quantities of meat. In comparison, cultural influences on Sephardic Jewish food include Persian, Yemenite, Indian and Latin-American as well as the influences on Jewish dishes from Central Asia to Ethiopia. Sephardi cuisine emphasizes salads, stuffed vegetables and vine leaves, olive oil, lentils, fruits, herbs and nuts, and chickpeas. Many meat and rice dishes incorporate dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and raisins. Pine nuts are used as a garnish. Spices such as cumin, cilantro, and mint are added for flavorful dishes. As you can see, the hearty cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews was based on centuries of living in the colder climate of Central and Eastern Europe, whereas the lighter, “sunnier” cuisine of Sephardi Jews was affected by life in the Mediterranean region. Thus, a traditional Shabbat meal for Ashkenazi Jews might include pot roast, or chicken, carrots tzimmes and potatoes. While, a traditional Shabbat meal for Sephardi Jews would focus more on salads, couscous and other Middle Eastern specialties.

Within Judaism, the dietary laws are found in the Torah and laid out in far more detail in the Talmud. These dietary laws governed what and how to eat in ancient times and laid out the types of food-related laws that still apply to particular celebrations, festivals and certain occasions. 

Today, I will be concentrating on the familiar dishes from Ashkenazi Jews such as the following:

Babka – From Eastern Europe, this baked good often has cinnamon, nuts, and chocolate.  This “cake” was made famous during a Seinfeld episode called “The Dinner Party”.

Bagel – From Poland, the popular breakfast item is a boiled and baked roll. There is an ongoing argument in North America as to who has the best bagels, New York or Montreal. There are differences between the two. Authentic Montreal bagels are boiled in water with honey, and as a result, are sweeter than New York bagels. But the bigger difference is that they are cooked in wood-fired ovens, which gives them a crunchier crust and a deeper, richer crust flavor.  These different cooking styles are due to the recipe originating from particular shtetels (villages).

Blintz – From Ukraine, Russia, or Hungary, this a thin pancake filled with farmer’s cheese, fruit pie filling, similar to a crepe.  I always find it interesting when different cultures have similar traditional food specialties. The main difference is that Blintzes are usually baked after being filled and rolled.

Kreplach – A Yiddish word originating from Germany, this is a boiled dumpling filled with meat or mashed potatoes similar to a pierogi, a gyoza (Chinese dumpling), or ravioli.  They are folded into triangles and then dropped into a soup to cook – reminding me of Chinese wanton soup.

Kugel – From Poland, this is sweet baked noodle dish filled with a variety of ingredient such as curd cheese, raisins, eggs, sugar, and cinnamon. There is a large variety of kugel recipes.  Some have a crumb topping over the noodle base.  Others add additional fillings such as applesauce or crushed pineapple.  There are also savory kugels with vegetables such as zucchini, cauliflower or carrot that make a great side dish to your brisket meal. Jamie Geller, a well-known kosher chef circulated a recipe for a Tex-Mex kugel with sweet potatoes, corn, and chili powder as well as a Mac and Cheese kugel, which mimics the kids favorite typically found in a box.  A local ladies card group will only use 1 popular kugel recipe – so if you are invited to a holiday meal and you want to bring a kugel be prepared to follow their recipe! I have come to the conclusion that any noodle dish in a 9 x 13 pain can be called a kugel!

Latke – From Eastern Europe, these are potato pancakes that are fried and served either with sour cream and spring onions or sweet with applesauce.  Virtually every country has a potato dish like Latkes. Simply put they are grated or mashed potatoes mixed with flour, eggs, a little milk, flour or matzo meal and baking powder. Potato pancakes turn up in most European cultures, from Polish placki to Irish boxty.  

Mandel bread  – From Russian or Ukraine, this cookie is hard baked almond bread, which is similar to an Italian Biscotti.  When sliced it is delicious by itself or dipped in coffee!

Jewish food in America is a somewhat richer version of our ancestral dishes.  While you will recognize the influence of traditional meals, Jewish American food can also be deeply influenced by the US geographic location -so you may find things like gefilte fish made with salmon and matzah ball soup served with hot sauces depending if you are from the Northeast or Southwest.

Jewish American home chefs provide a glimpse into their DNA every time they prepare a holiday meal.  We truly represent a melting pot of cultures from our maternal and paternal families. In “Taste the Nations” Padma showed countless examples how food tells the story of our ancestors and through cooking we are keeping these traditions alive.  With the increase in assimilation, these recipes keep our family stories, heritage, and culture present every time we gather around the dining room table.

So…calling all Grandmas, Grandpas, Nannys, Papas Grammys Grandpys, Savtas, Sabas, Emas, Abbas, Bubbies, and Zaydees, Aunts and Uncles- write down your favorite recipes and pass them on to your children so we can keep our traditions alive!  Wouldn’t this make a great shower gift for a new Kallah (Bride)? Hint Hint!

Ellen Weiss is the Chair of the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning as well as a Board Member of National Women’s Philanthropy.

Keeping Traditions Alive - Jewish thought of the week graphic