The Desk Dispatch: Layla Schlack on What Jewish Food Means to Her
"Frustratingly, Talmudically, Jewish food is simply what Jews eat," she writes.
When I came up with the idea for The Desk Dispatch, a monthly contributor essay, I chose “dispatch” because I wanted these to be pieces I could never write. They would be dispatches from places I’ve never been, identities I don’t inhabit, and experiences I couldn’t understand. As short pieces (between 500 and 1500 words), they’re also brief, very focused missives, meant to give a taste of a writer and their perspective.
I’ll readily admit to this first edition being one I assigned to a good friend and collaborator, Layla Schlack, whom many will recognize as the former editorial director of Whetstone. She’s written for me before, when I was an editor at Edible Manhattan; I’ve written for her, when she was at Wine Enthusiast. We established, with Emily Stephenson, a conference called the Food Writers’ Workshop, which took place in Brooklyn in 2018 and 2019, before being disbanded during the pandemic. She’s a writer, editor, and educator, living in Connecticut.
Without further ado, here is the first of ten contributor essays that will be published here in 2024. Every writer is paid for their work, thanks to those who are subscribers.
Jewish Food Is What Jews Eat
By Layla Schlack
I grew up with a specific idea of Jewish food. It was the deli and appetizing food of Ashkenazi Jews who came to the U.S. and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century: pastrami on rye, or smoked meat in my half New York, half Montreal household, bagels, knish, brisket, kugel, gefilte fish, tongue, always pickles.
In the months since October 7, I’ve seen the phrase Jewish food thrown around in a different context, to describe Israeli food. I’ve seen people who support Israel saying that those who love Israeli food, buy Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, and eat at Michael Solomonov’s restaurants owe their support to Israel and their Jewish friends. And I’ve seen others say that we, as a food-consuming public, are more comfortable eating Israeli food than Yemenite or Middle Eastern food, because Israel and Jews have closer proximity to whiteness, and that we must examine the damage that’s caused. Of course, the latter is only true of white Jews. Plenty of Jews are not white, do not benefit from proximity.
Regardless, much of what's called Israeli food is the culmination of hundreds of years of influence from the Arab world and farther afield. It carries the influence of centuries of trade and migration, and it’s almost impossible to determine exactly where an ingredient came from or who invented a dish. It’s not for me to say which parts came from what is currently called Israel. But I know that calling it Jewish is part of a larger plan to conflate Jewish people with Israeli nationalists, and that’s an area where we have to be careful and specific.
Moreover, when we say Jewish food, we have more options than kasha varnishkes with gribenes or salatim and hummus.
Leah Koenig, a writer and cookbook author who focuses on Jewish diasporic food, told me once in an interview that, for the most part, Jews adopted the food of where they lived. We were talking about the special relationship between those Ashkenazim immigrants and Chinese food, which is a piece of Lower East Side history that has its origins on the Silk Roads, as I wrote for Whetstone.
What Koenig and Claudia Roden—another great scholar of Jewish food—point to is that Jews are a people in diaspora. We have wandered the desert for a lot longer than 40 years. We arrived in Persia around 700 BCE, by most accounts, free from the Babylonians. The Jewish Museum of London reports that Jews arrived in Ethiopia sometime after 587 BCE, with most reports saying they arrived around 2,000 years ago. The Jews of Kaifeng arrived in the Henan province of China around 1,000 years ago. In The Book of Jewish Food, Roden writes that one of India’s Jewish communities dates back to at least 1167 CE. For centuries, Jews spread out along the Silk Roads, working as merchants and traders. There have been Jewish communities in Central Asia, South Asia, and North Africa. There were those driven out of Spain and Italy who made their way to North Africa. In more recent history, hundreds of thousands of Jews moved to Argentina following World War II, and yes, some to Israel.
Some of these groups of Jews scattered around the globe have names, shorthands to identify them: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, some may say Mizrahi, although that’s considered a derogatory term by many. They all have their own food, too. These foods may be indistinguishable from the cuisines belonging to the regions where Jews have settled; they may be kosher versions of those cultures’ foods. In the case of Ashkenazim, they may be resourceful uses of scraps loosely influenced by the surrounding cultures.
In her introduction to The Book of Jewish Food, Roden cites a paper she gave at the Oxford Symposium of Food in 1981:
“There is really no such thing as Jewish food…Local regional food becomes Jewish when it travels with Jews to new homelands.”
She also references French historian Fernand Braudel, who said that Jewish civilization is “so individual that it was not always recognized as one.”
I believe all of these statements to be true.
Frustratingly, Talmudically, Jewish food is simply what Jews eat.
It’s Roden’s six versions of haroset from different countries and regions, to adorn seder plates around the world. It’s the fried artichokes in Koenig’s book Portico, about Roman Jewish food. It’s Pesah Birmuelos, a Turkish version of matzoh brei in Gilda Angel’s 1986 Sephardic Holiday Cooking book. And, yes, it’s Chinese food on Christmas.
I’ve stopped using the shorthand “Jewish food” when I mean the food of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—my personal fixation and obsession. The latter is clunkier, I’ll be the first to admit. When I teach, I tell my students to use more words on the parts that are more important. I’m going to make an addendum here: use more words when the ideas are more complicated. The rapid cycling from food of the Levant to Israeli food to Jewish food is a good example of why. If Israel is imposed on the area where the food was being made, does that make it Israeli? Or is it the act of Israelis cooking it, there or in diaspora, as in Solomonov’s and Ottolenghi’s cases, that makes it Israeli? I suppose, by my own definition, that it is Jewish food. But is it more Jewish than Roden’s Judeo-Spanish marzipan, or the fish alberas eaten by the Bene Jews of India? Almost certainly not.
It’s a small thing, really. Jews make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Our food isn’t talked about all that much. But if we are to embrace that Jews are a multifaceted, multiethnic, multinational people—many of whom don’t align with Israel, aren’t part of some global media cabal, have never said “oy vey” or had a nosh—food is as good a place as any to start.
This Friday, paid subscribers will participate in the first discussion thread for The Desk Book Club, where we’ll get into conversation about the first 79 pages of Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen. I’m very excited.
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This week, I found out that there’s a nice big image of No Meat Required in British Vogue’s December 2023 issue, and it’s included in the “V for Vegetables” blurb in their food A to Z. It’s not a secret that I covet a bit of fashion-oriented press, as I grew up reading these magazines.
A Lifestyle Note
It’s not new, but flowers on my desk—azucenas, purchased from the locally famous Don Saúl on the street; I get $5 worth—really brighten up the place.