The People of the Cookbook: Jews, Food and Engagement

by Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal

What is it about Jews and food? Why are we always eating? As I write this, I am aware that Jews worldwide currently inhabit that strange calendrical trough between two peak food-consumption holidays, Purim and Pesach. For many of us, the last crumbs from the leftover hamantaschen were wiped away not long ago, and now the free corners of the kitchen and pantry are steadily being colonized by shopping bags of Pesach food.

Ask Jews to encapsulate the back story of nearly all of our holidays, and those well-versed in Jewish jokes will roll their eyes and intone, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!” Having a preschooler has brought home to me how much our experience of Judaism truly revolves around food. My daughter and her classmates taste apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, they fry latkes for Chanukah, they bake hamantaschen for Purim, and they roll out matzah dough and chop nut-free charoset for Pesach.

We Jews are certainly not the only people to have distinctive food-based folkways that tie into our religious and cultural traditions, but we do have a curiously strong relationship with food. Food communicates our spiritual and emotional states, it mediates our experiences of family and tradition, it becomes a vehicle for the creation of memory and meaning. It’s significant that our religious calendar includes six yearly fast days through which we express our desire for repentance and cleansing and/or our grief over historical tragedies like the destruction of the ancient Temple. Even when we’re not eating, we’re using food (in this case, the deliberate absence of food) to express ourselves.

All of which provides an interesting backdrop for the recent release of a community study by the Jewish Education Project’s Early Childhood and Family Engagement Department (Engaging Today’s Families: Parent Research Findings, January 2013) focusing on first-time mothers of young children. For the study, researchers conducted focus groups with mothers in the New York metro area who had children under the age of two and who did not have formal connections to organized Judaism. Not surprisingly, the study found that most of the mothers interviewed were ambivalent about participating in Jewish life. They yearned for connection and community, but were wary of settings in which their lack of Jewish knowledge might become apparent.

What was significant for me was the researchers’ finding that these women’s “interest in a new Jewish opportunity mainly revolves around connection, community and cooking.” Some of the mothers interviewed longed for communities in which young mothers would pool cooking resources in order to help each other at busy or stressful times, like at the birth of a child. In her eJewish Philanthropy article on the research findings (“Let’s get Serious about Relationship Weaving and Increase the Potential for Communal Change in Family Engagement,” January 28, 2013), the Jewish Education Project’s Shellie Dickstein quoted one Upper West Side mom who quipped, “I have friends that live in Englewood, NJ. When they had their babies, they had a calendar of who is going to cook for [the mom] who just gave birth and all their meals are taken care of for a while. In the city I asked my friends, where is my dinner?”

It doesn’t take much analysis to figure out that what Jews like this young mother are looking for goes much deeper than the stress of figuring out what they are going to serve their families for dinner on a particular Tuesday night. These kinds of statements reveal a longing for connection and community, a desire to have someone help you and take care of you when you’re feeling vulnerable. I think it’s telling, though, that this desire is expressed through the lens of food. It’s not a support group or a carpool that these young mothers want, it’s the kind of nurturing that’s served with a ladle and shared around a table.

Of course, Passover is the quintessential holiday for making connections through food. The theme of hachnassat orchim – welcoming guests – underpins the Pesach seder, as we recite, “Kol dichfin yetei veyeichul” – “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” But Pesach magnifies and complicates the Jewish relationship with food, especially for those who are not sure whether or not they really have a seat at the Jewish table – those who are unaffiliated or loosely affiliated, those who are members of interfaith families, those whose lack of Jewish background or education leaves them feeling lost at seders or services.

On Pesach, food has an amplified ability to invite and to terrify. Many Jews, even those who have little other connection with the Jewish community, look forward to enjoying family favorites on Pesach, the smells and tastes of brisket and matzah ball soup (or baghali polo) evoking feelings of connection and tradition. At the same time, many view Pesach preparations with fear and trembling, trying to keep track of the multitudinous rules and regulations: What foods are okay to eat? What dishes and utensils am I supposed to use? Can I eat rice? What if I can’t have gluten, or eggs, or nuts? Kashrut is complicated enough during the rest of the year, then Pesach comes along and cranks the difficulty dial up to 11.

For all of these reasons, Pesach presents a unique opportunity for Jewish organizations to reach out to Jews at all levels of affiliation (and to use food as a valuable means of connection). Many synagogues and schools host communal seders or invite families to matzah-factory events, but how many organizations truly put into practice the Haggadah’s inclusive call and reach out beyond their mailing lists to involve those Jews in the wider community who are hungry for friendship and for a sense of belonging? How many synagogues really strive to guide the perplexed in making sense of Pesach’s tricky kashrut rules, and how many just announce that the rabbi is willing to sell your chametz for you? How many organizations confuse being “welcoming” with having an overly child-centered educational approach, losing the opportunity to introduce loosely engaged Jews to the richness and depth of Jewish tradition? Inviting families to bake matzah or make charoset is a great place to start, but Jewish organizations shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that adults can go beyond the basic mechanics and facts to engage with the deeper meanings of Pesach food traditions, the ways in which the foods we eat on Pesach challenge us to grapple with the themes of slavery and redemption that run throughout Jewish history and reverberate within our own lives.

Love Pesach food or loathe it, matzah will soon be here to stay for eight long, tiring, glorious days. Let’s make sure that our institutions reach out on this holiday – and on all days – to help Jews nourish each other, body and soul.

Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal is an educator, congregational consultant, and writer focusing on outreach and engagement. As PJ Library Coordinator for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, she works with synagogues to help them increase their potential to include young families in Jewish life and community.