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Book review: Deconstructing Yiddish food: from knishes to kugel

Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It By Michael Wex
St. Martin’s Press, 297 pages, $38

This just in: The Conservative rabbinate in the US has ruled that it’s OK to eat rice, beans, and corn during the eight days of Passover. And a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel has ruled that marijuana is kosher for Passover and can be eaten or smoked during the holiday. Oy!

All good news for vegetarians and stoners, but a bit too late to be included in Rhapsody in Schmaltz by Toronto Yiddish expert, Michael Wex. Look for these to be added in the next edition for what has a good chance of being another Wex bestseller.

It is a fun-filled, fascinating, and a far-reaching discussion of European, or Ashkenazic-style, Jewish foods, and their links to place and religious practice — a delicious read, no condiments necessary.

Not surprising. We first met Wex some 15 years ago at the KlezKanada retreat in Lanthier, Que., where he delivered an unforgettable lecture on the roots of Yiddish — a tour d’horizon that combined scholarship, love of the language, and an appreciation of tradition and its sources, with serious amounts of mirth.

As a master of ceremonies at KlezKanada and concerts by the masters of the Klezmer revival, he is dryly hilarious, even as he shares his admiration for the culture of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, its transplanted versions on North American soil, and what we have today.

Wex hails from a Yiddish-speaking Chassidic family in Lethbridge, Alta., where the saying, “It’s hard to be a Jew,” surely applies. His parents sent him to study at a yeshiva in New York, where he delved into the intricacies of Talmud, acquired a mastery of Chassidic-style Yiddish, and developed both an appreciation for the ins and outs of religious study and practice, and a need to get away from it.

After completing high school in Toronto, he went on to university and postgraduate work in Medieval Studies, the period when Yiddish and Ashkenazic culture developed its characteristics, including culinary practices based on the dietary restrictions of keeping kosher, as interpreted by rabbinic authorities and as influenced by surrounding cultures.

Wex kicks off with a discussion of matzoh, the unleavened wafers that replace bread during Passover, recalling the biblical story of the Hebrews hurriedly fleeing bondage and not having time to wait for bread to rise.

“While it is difficult to argue over questions of taste,” he begins, “the fact that a small number of Jews, who also observe Passover, claim to like the taste of matzoh could be seen as a kind of culinary Stockholm Syndrome.”

In case the reader doesn’t get it, he quotes a Yiddish proverb: “A worm in horseradish (very bitter) thinks there’s nothing so sweet,” and adds, “Matzoh doesn’t need to stoop to taste, it knows it has you hostage.”

His overview of the Yiddish cuisine known in North America as Jewish food is right on: it was developed by people who often considered themselves lucky to have one real meal a week: the traditional Friday night meal.

Wex jokes that the only thing wrong with Jewish food is that you’re hungry again 72 hours later. “East European Jewish food is heavy because so many people eating it were worrying when they might get to eat it again.” And to hammer in the point, he adds: “Upset stomach, indigestion, heartburn are less painful, less annoying, less shameful than the pangs of hunger.”

“Es, es mayn kind” – eat my child, eat – is theurgy (ritual), not nutrition; preventing weight loss was a charm against contracting TB.” Readers will immediately get the point: subtlety, much like the Yiddish food he describes, is not the tenor of his tone.

You will enjoy his discussion of the three k’s of Yiddish cuisine — kishke, kugel, and knishes — but he really gets to the heart of matters with his look at the Sabbath, the queen of all Jewish holidays and how its celebration, or lack thereof, reveal so much about the state of religious observance among North American Jews.

“If the dietary laws determine the boundaries of the Jewish menu, the Sabbath provides most of its elaborate content,” he writes, adding that without some form of Sabbath observance, with or without religious content, “Judaism withers rather quickly, and Jewish identity along with it.”

This is a prescient observation, and not particularly funny to those who are concerned about a Jewish future outside Israel. “Once you stop keeping shabbes, insurmountable anti-Semitism becomes the only certain barrier to total assimilation,” he opines.

But the food is more than just food to an increasing number of Jews: it has become a comfortable way of asserting adherence to the tribe and its traditions with little of the ritual content. “Dishes once fraught with religious significance became badges of ethnicity, affirmations of an innate condition that doesn’t need to follow any stinkin’ rules,” he asserts.

These observations on the state of Judaic practice in North America laced with scholarly research, including references to major Jewish cookbooks going back over a century, make this a must-read for anyone who wants the whole truth about the origin and evolution of this culinary tradition, so embedded in Montreal.

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