I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.
On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.
The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.
Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.
The hardest thing about breaking up with the Jewish guy I dated six years ago was breaking up with his parents. I loved his parents. His parents loved me. I knew that the guy and I would never be happy together, but I also knew that I would never find another set of parents who I connected with as much as his.
That fact hit me even harder the first time I met my future in-laws. Self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool Catholics,” they told me that they had never met a single Jew until their son(my now husband) went to college in the Northeast. They’re from Nebraska. A tiny little town called Broken Bow. It’s smack in the middle of the country, about three hours from the closest synagogue.
When I first realized that Ben was the man I was going to marry, I found myself mourning the loss of the in-laws I had always wanted. His parents didn’t effortlessly understand me. They didn’t appreciate that I could speak Hebrew and a few words of Yiddish. That I had gone to a yeshiva for elementary school and to Israel on my semester abroad. They had always fantasized about a Midwestern Catholic daughter-in-law. And I got it. I wanted my in-laws to be kvetching Upper West Siders.
But now, on the other side of the wedding, I find myself on the phone with Ben’s mom, lying on the quilt she handmade for us, happy to hear her laugh. Sometimes we make small talk (what we did that week, the joke she forwarded me, the weather), but just as often we’ll confide in each other about our bad days or trade family gossip. Like my connection to Ben, what we have in common goes beyond background.
It’s funny how people influence you in ways you don’t even realize. When we go shopping, Ben’s mom looks at the label of any item of clothing she likes to make sure it’s made out of natural fiber. This means no polyester, rayon or acrylic. I do this now, compulsively. Ben’s dad often starts sentences with the word “yes.” Like, “Yes, I told him I’d be happy to help him out.” And yes, it seems I picked that one up too.
I’d like to think I’ve also rubbed off on them. Ben’s mom often ends emails with “xo,” which Ben says she picked up from me, and during meals they order “for the table,” which is something my family always does but never thought was funny until Ben’s parents laughed at the expression and started using it themselves.
Falling in love is the easiest way to make the world smaller. Nebraska used to be a meaningless square on the map, as foreign to me as a village in Africa. But I’ve been there a number of times now and think of myself as someone with Nebraskan roots. I’ve also learned about the quilting process, how to make an alcoholic beverage called Gilligan’s Island, and how to be trusting without being naive. These weren’t the in-laws I had visualized, but I can’t imagine a more wonderful pair of machatanim.
Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on Inside the Jewish Bakery, the host asked me, “What is a Jewish bakery?” I have to confess, I was stunned: no one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is – a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.
But here’s where it gets complicated. What exactly are “Jewish baked goods?” The ones that come first to mind – bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah – appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.
Take bagels, for instance. In America, we think of them as a Jewish food that made good, rising to the pinnacle of the American mainstream and assimilating away their “Jewishness.” But boiled/baked ring breads made of double-helix dough strands, called obwarzanki, are the signature street food of Kraków, Poland, and have been for centuries. And lest anyone argue that “Jewish” bagels don’t feature that ropelike twist, I would point out that a 1936 photo in the collection of the New York Public Library shows a Jewish New York City bagel peddler selling what clearly are twisted obwarzanki. At the same time, a 1938 photo in the YIVO collection shows a bagel seller in Lithuania selling the untwisted bagels we’re all familiar with. Go figure.
So how about challah? Nothing more Jewish than that, right? Well, although the term “challah” is derived from the Torah, the bread itself was a loan from 14th and 15th century German Christians, who honored their Sabbath with braided loaves, according to Jewish foodways historian John Cooper. On top of that (and on top of the loaves), the custom of decorating breads with symbols of faith such as birds, hands, keys and ladders – also often thought of as uniquely Jewish – also can be traced back to the Christians of Central Europe. Even the term “koyletch,” an alternative name for challah throughout Yiddish Europe, is of Slavic origin. And to bring things full circle, a braided, egg-glazed sweet bread called chałka is a staple offering in the bakeries of today’s Poland.
The same is true of knishes, babkas, rolls (bulkes), rye breads – you name it and the gentile host cultures had it before the Jews. Even most modern favorites come from someplace else, most obviously rainbow cookies, whose horizontal layers of red, yellow and green reprise the Italian flag and trumpet their origin.
So if everything in the Jewish bakery came from someplace else, what, after all is a “Jewish bakery?”
In my view, nothing less than the history of a people’s wanderings from place to place – from Eretz Yisrael to the Roman Empire, from Rome northward into the Rhine Valley, then west into France and England and east into Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. At every stop, the Jews found the foods of their gentile neighbors and adapted them to the laws of Kashrut. And when it came time to move again, they took those foods with them and added to their repertoire the foods of their next home, again adapted to Kashrut.
And so the Jewish bakery is really a time capsule, a distillation of a thousand years of Diaspora, come to rest in a row of glass-fronted display cases and shelves full of bread and rolls behind the counter. Every bread and roll, every pastry, cake and cookie, reflects a specific time and place in our communal history and connects us tangibly (and edibly) to our shared experience. And you thought it was only a bakery!
Today, the world’s food culture is rapidly homogenizing. You can find U.S. fast-food franchises in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow; Japanese ramen-chain outlets in New York, Los Angeles and London. And bagels are everywhere. TV food porn, as my daughter likes to call it, has universalized once-obscure ingredients and globalized technique and plating to the point where cooking has morphed from the deepest, most visceral (pun intended) expression of a culture rooted in time and place to a media-driven vehicle for individual creativity.
And while I do appreciate the pure sensual pleasures of sculpturally composed, artfully conceived and executed coups de table, I’m also very much aware that even the best of them lack the authentic Yiddish tam of my grandmother’s kroyt borscht, a long-simmered soup – a stew, really – made from beef flanken and an abundance of winter vegetables – cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the mass-market processed food industry is wreaking its own Holocaust on family-run, made-from-scratch restaurants and bakeries, and in the process, severing the connection between people and their personal and communal histories. And sadly, as those restaurants and bakeries die, so too, dies a piece of our cultural history that most of us barely recognize, let alone miss, until it’s gone.