Galus and Gastronomy // There’s a message in your kneidel

Dough preparation for cooking dumplings. Womens hand cutting up dough. Womens hands in a process of dough preparing for cooking.

Well, Shavuos is over and, hopefully, we all renewed our kabbalas haTorah.
And ate blintzes, of course, in the spirit of the Rama’s citation (Orach Chaim 494:3) of the minhag to eat dairy delicacies on the chag.

In the Shafran home, my wife and I collaborated, as usual, to produce scrumptious examples of the species. I make the crêpes and she specializes in the filling.

Blintzes, though, are—as their name indicates—a variation on the theme of blini, which are Russian and Ukrainian fare consisting of crêpes served with sour cream, caviar or fruit.

Which brings me to what, at least in some circles, is a burning issue: the “cultural appropriation” of food. No Russians or Ukrainians, to my knowledge, have ever taken insult at Jewish reimagining of blini. But there are thinner skins out there.

Like the one inhabited by pollster James Zogby, who, after seeing a food show featuring an “Israeli nite” dinner of hummus and babaganoush, erupted in fury at what he termed the program’s “cultural genocide.”

Or cookbook author Reem Kassis, who says that when she sees hummus, “a dish that is inherently Arab,” being marketed as Israeli, she witnesses a part of her “culinary identity being appropriated as Israeli… adding insult to injury and willfully saying that I don’t exist.”

I don’t know if hummus or falafel were invented by Arabs or Jews, but if they predate the aliyos of the past century and a half, so be it. (And fret not, Ms. Kassis, you exist.)

Because many “Jewish foods” are indeed either taken straight from surrounding cultures or are the results of tweaking others’ originals. It’s a tribute of sorts, not a sin.

There are, to be sure, truly Jewish foods, like gefilte fish, which, when served in non-Jewish Polish homes, is called karp po żydowsku, “carp Jewish-style.”
But kneidlach, for instance, were part of European cuisine well before they became must-haves for respectable kosher chicken soups.

And what are kreplach, if not repurposed Ukrainian uszka, Russian pelmeni, Italian ravioli, German Maultaschen, or Chinese wonton?
And our cholopshes are basically Ukrainian holubtsi or Polish gołabki.

Even the wondrous bagel, according to some, was originally a roll with a hole known in Poland as obwarzanek. Others date it to a 17th-century baker trying to impress an equestrian king by baking a bread into the shape of a stirrup, which in German is a beugel.

And the pickled herring in “cream sauce” at the shul Kiddush? It’s essentially the Russian cелёдка под шубой, “herring under a fur coat,” made with mayonnaise. Other pickled herrings are found in the cuisine of the Japanese island of Hokkaido and in Nova Scotia, where, served with onions, it’s called “Solomon Gundy.” (No, I don’t know why; go ask a Haligonian.)

While people with bones to pick or too much time and animus on their hands might see the Jewish embrace of other cuisines as some transgression or part of our plot to take over the world, the unwitting lenders of recipes should be flattered. As the saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

But in this case, in fact, it’s more. Our varied cuisine is testimony to nothing less than our history—of exile, expulsions and peregrinations. Our culinary hodgepodge reflects the reality of galus, our sojourning in so many different lands.

And galus is meant to garner a gain. “Rabbi Elazar said: Hakadosh Baruch Hu exiled Israel among the nations only so that geirim would be added to them” (Pesachim, 87b).

It might seem disrespectful to note that we’ve picked up not only new Jews over the centuries of our exile but new foods too. But food isn’t an insignificant part of life, after all; it sustains us. And while the mann, which had myriad tastes, ended when our ancestors entered Eretz Yisrael, over the years since we were forced to temporarily leave our land, we have come to enjoy many varied tastes indeed. l

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