Setting the Table with My Self: Food, Choice, and Identity

It was Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening beginning the Jewish New Year. Guests were starting to arrive after services, and my apartment was filling up with the sounds of their laughter and the scent of brisket and challah warming on the stove. As my friend stepped into the kitchen to help me begin moving dishes to the table, she peeked at the contents of the bowl she was holding. “Mmmm, tsimmes,” she said. “My husband will be so happy. He loves traditional Ashkenazi [Eastern European Jewish] cooking.”

I smiled at her nonchalantly, grateful for the compliment. Yet her words struck me with much more force than I’m sure she intended. It was true that I had prepared a traditional Ashkenazi Rosh HaShanah meal. There was kasha varnishkes, along with the tsimmes, challah, and brisket. The foods were rich, fatty, and comforting, straight out of the Old Country. But whose “Old Country”? Not mine, that was certain. My ethnic background was strictly Northern European—even WASPy. My ancestors wouldn’t know a kugel if it hit them in the face.

What I had prepared was a meal that my adopted people—the people whom I joined when I converted to Judaism– would have enjoyed. Or at least, I imagined they would enjoy it, since I’ve never actually been at a meal with kasha varniskhes other than my own. (Though who wouldn’t like onions, oil, and pasta?!) The meal was an attempt to replicate what I subconsciously held as the quintessentially Jewish diet. More than that, it was an attempt to legitimize my own Jewish identity by reproducing foods which themselves were undeniably Jewish.

Food is one of the most powerful markers of identity. The French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” The boundaries of community are drawn by what you do eat (beans and rice, fish on Fridays, matzo on Passover) and what you don’t eat (no pork, no animal products, gluten-free). Through these choices, which are sometimes communal and sometimes personal, one becomes a vegetarian, a Jew, Latino/a.

As we grow up, we make our decisions about food in part based on who we want to become. I became a vegetarian as a teenager, in an attempt to treat the earth, the animals, and myself a bit more kindly; I continued this effort as an adult, when I started subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share. And, of course, when I converted to Judaism, there were a whole new set of food choices to make. Abstaining from non-kosher meat and shellfish was easy, I was already doing that. But was I only going to buy products with a heksher? Would I have two sets of dishes, one for meat, and one for milk? And what on earth was I going to serve for Rosh HaShanah dinner?

Several years ago, in preparation for hosting several friends for the holiday in our tiny New York City apartment, I grilled my husband relentlessly on what he had eaten growing up. He did his best to fill me in, though having not done much of the cooking himself, he couldn’t remember much beyond that it was delicious. I turned to the Internet for help, and with The New York Times recipe section by my side, I somehow recreated a traditional Ashkenazi meal. What was comforting and homey to my guests, however, was to me, brand-new, even exotic–much like my Judaism. The challah and tsimmes were tiny building blocks in the Jewish identity I was newly forming for myself.

I’ve served several Rosh HaShanah meals since converting (and even mastered a few Passover seders), and the foods are slowly becoming my own. I know how long the brisket should sit in the CrockPot and how to keep the noodles from sticking to the pan. As I’ve become more comfortable cooking these foods, I’ve also begun to take risks, changing them up a bit. (This past year, I used currants instead of raisins in the challah–very daring!) My anxiety about creating a “quintessentially Jewish” meal has subsided as my (irrational) fear of being called out as a fake or pretend Jew has also faded away. I am Jewish, WASPy heritage and all. There is no one way that a Jew is supposed to look, or act, or eat. If I serve guacamole with dinner, it’s still Rosh HaShanah, and I’m still Jewish. So who knows? Maybe next year we’ll have high tea.

Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Setting the Table with My Self: Food, Choice, and Identity

  1. I love this–thank you! I, too, am finding that the longer I’m Jewish, the more I’m comfortably and wholly Jewishly myself as I am. And you’re right–the food is a big deal. (Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t like blintzes!)


    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Yaira! I won’t tell anyone you don’t like blintzes. I’ll just eat yours, because I love them 🙂

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