The Food-Centric Celebrations of Jewish Holidays, explained
Jewish holidays, like Hanukkah, always involve copious amounts of food
My dad always says that Jewish holidays typically revolve around one major idea: “We almost died, but we survived. Let’s eat!”
He’s misquoting a famous joke about the Jewish people, which goes like this: “They tried to kill us, we won, now let’s eat,” but I like his version too. “We survived” is sometimes more accurate than “we won.”
There’s no better way to describe it: food is intricately woven into Jewish holidays and traditions. Eating is the main part of the celebration. Always. It can come in the form of absence, like during Passover when leavened bread is replaced with matzah, and it can arrive in the form of a simple holiday dish with a historical back story, like with latkes for the Festival of Lights.
Part of the Jewish legal framework contains an understanding that various rituals are accompanied by a seudat mitzvah, or a celebratory meal. This can include weddings, baby naming ceremonies, and coming-of-age bat/bar mitzvahs.
And as my dad says, there’s always that added aspect that, historically, the Jewish people are almost always on the brink of calamity. But we survive. And that’s something worth celebrating.
In order to celebrate life, the Jewish people celebrate food.
The meal acts as the force behind each dinner and event, bringing people together as part of a greater experience. A scene from the recently released season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel comes to mind when I think about food and Jewish holidays.
After meticulously picking out only the best duck livers for the break fast dinner following Yom Kippur, Rose Weissman asks to see a leg of lamb, to which the titular Midge Maisel says, “Lamb? I’m making brisket and Moishe doesn’t like lamb. We should get a chicken.”
So, are we all counting? Duck livers, brisket, lamb and possibly chicken. That’s four possible meat entrees that are going to be served to break fast. That’s not to mention side dishes, vegetables, bread, and, of course, dessert.
Rose then replies that the lamb is not for Moishe, it is for Rabbi Krinsky, who Rose has convinced to stop by as the family gathers to break fast. Having lamb at the dinner is essential to the meal, as Rose explains that “the Rabbi cannot resist a good leg of lamb.”
Yes, food is bringing people together during the Jewish holidays, as it is also subtly conning Rabbi Krinsky into staying over for dinner, rather than just a stop-by. The meat that is picked must be the best of the best to heighten the flavors of the meal. Each part of each dish is planned to the utmost perfection.
The food is the focus. Nothing else matters.
“We got the rabbi!” The two shout as they exit Lutzi’s meat and poultry market.
Now, my own Jewish grandmother was not a great cook, nor did she ever set out to specifically create traditional Jewish dishes during the holidays. She could, however, make a mean challah bread and an absolutely melt-in-your-mouth rugelach whenever she took to baking.
These two Jewish delicacies made her somewhat famous amongst her peers and friends of my parents, as she whipped out her rolling pin and dusted down the counter with flour. A big dinner with lots of guests was planned (including Christmas dinner) meant an abundance of bread and sweet treats. Her soft, fluffy challah and chocolate chip rugelach were always the highlight of the meal.
For Hanukkah, the connection to food comes from the history of the holiday itself. After the temple in Jeruselum was ransacked by idol worshippers and finally recaptured by a Jewish family, the Maccabees, only one day’s worth of sacramental oil for the Eternal Light was found. The Maccabees and their followers found that this small amount of oil miraculously lasted an entire eight days, just the right amount of time needed to prepare more.
Thus, food is made in copious amounts of oil to celebrate this miracle of light in a time of deep, deep darkness. Latkes, bimuelos, and sufganiot are all fried in oil and served to those anyone enjoying the festivities.
The food is not only a part of tradition; it is born from the history of Jewish hardships. The food honors that history. It smiles down on that history and says, “we almost died, but we survived.”
Even Christmas is celebrated by American Jews with food — the Chinese Christmas dinner is a full fledged Jewish ritual. While it probably started due to a lack of open restaurants on Christmas Day, the Chinese food Christmas dinner became the perfect meal for the Jewish people, as Chinese cuisine typically omits dairy. In keeping kosher, Jews can’t eat dairy with meat. It is now a ritual that transcends Jewish-American culture to include anyone who craves a delicious Chinese meal on Christmas, while still remaining distinctly Jewish-American.
The relationship between food and Judaism is simple — food holds a special place in Jewish culture, and the Jewish people love to eat. But food is also an important part of cultural identity, and so Jews have made it extremely central to their personage. Jewish dishes evoke memories of the past, hard times, good days and bad days. It reminds us that we survived, and now, it’s time to eat.